COVID-19 has forced many changes to the way we do business. While the crisis will pass, some things might change for good — and hopefully for the better. As the world faces a common enemy, we at The Slowdown would like to explore how this extraordinary moment can be an opportunity to embrace our shared humanity and build a more compassionate world. In that spirit, we’ve asked Lindsey Danis to talk about their own experience as a gender non-conforming job seeker, and offer some guidance for how we can do better.
As a kid, my peers seemed comfortable in sweater sets, knee-length skirts, and khakis, but I hated dressing up. I could get away with wearing a skirt with fishnets and a t-shirt to school, but as I got older, I suspected my quirky style would prevent me from getting a professional job.
So I bought skirt suits and heels, ignoring the dread and discomfort I felt when dressed “professionally.” It did work though — I was hired as a legal assistant at a midtown Manhattan law firm. But after I put on a tie and a button-down shirt, I was sidelined from client-facing tasks. That led me to trade office work for culinary arts. In a chef uniform, I was outside of gendered dress codes. That safety came with a cost: living paycheck-to-paycheck and juggling multiple jobs to pay the bills.
Well-meaning companies may check the diversity and inclusion box by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to their non-discrimination policy, but this isn’t actually inclusive of all LGBTQ+ workers. So how can employers move beyond gestures to real inclusivity?
Before getting into that, let’s first take a moment to clarify our terms:
Gender nonconforming is an umbrella label for anyone who does not follow gender norms, whether in appearance or behavior. Gender nonconforming folks can have any sexual orientation, including heterosexual.
Transgender (“trans”) people have a gender identity that’s different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Many trans people take steps to affirm their gender, from hormones and surgery to changing their name, voice, and/or clothing. Note that trans women are women and trans men are men. Trans individuals who dress in gender-affirming clothes are not gender non-conforming, though others may perceive them as such if they don’t “pass” as cisgender.
Nonbinary people have a gender identity that falls outside the male/female binary. They may identify as between genders, or outside gender (agender).
Income and employment: an uphill battle for LGBTQs
Across the board, LGBTQ+ Americans encounter more financial insecurity than their cisgendered, straight peers. But the most financially vulnerable tend to be those who are both gender non-conforming and also queer, trans, or nonbinary.
· The Williams Institute found that 20.5 percent of gay men, 22.7 percent of lesbians, and over 25 percent of bisexuals live in poverty, compared to 15.3 percent of heterosexual men and 21.1 percent of heterosexual women.
· Transgender individuals are unemployed at three times the national average, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 survey. NCTE’s survey also found that 29 percent of transgender individuals live in poverty.
· In 29 states, queer and trans workers are without legal protection and at risk of losing their job for being themselves.
Economic pressures make many LGBTQ job seekers decide between getting the job they need to survive or being their authentic selves.
Job hunting while gender nonconforming
Gender nonconforming workers can experience further challenges throughout the hiring process, starting with the paperwork. Application forms often have binary tick boxes with two options for gender. References are also fraught for nonbinary and trans individuals. Some change official documentation and let their references know about their new status. Others choose not to disclose, and then must explain that their references knew them by a different name or pronoun. This goes beyond a mere hassle: For some, an incorrect pronoun or use of their “deadname” can trigger dysphoria, or a feeling of dread associated with gender conflict.
Then there’s the interview itself. Many gender nonconforming job seekers feel they need to conform to traditional roles when they’re dressing for interviews. Alex Costin, a queer trans man, says he’d rather wear florals but dresses “really masculine” for interviews to avoid any possibility of being misgendered. When Kenny Screven — a black, gay man who enjoys wearing makeup — went to a restaurant job interview in his rural Pennsylvania college town, he decided it would be “easier” to present as masculine.
When he got the job and showed up to work wearing earrings or makeup, “I was told I was not allowed to wear those things because I’m a boy and that’s what girls do.” Screven was written up for his earrings but a coworker who called him a gay slur was not. Screven’s current job, a healthcare position at an LGBT center, allows him to dress as himself and teach makeup classes. “It’s the best feeling ever going to work with people that accept me for me,” he says.
Chris Antonoff, who is bisexual and a marketing manager, has found that businesses often use dress codes to enforce gender norms. One of his employers told men to shave and wear their hair short. “During my brief stay at that company, I was told to correct my behavior because my manners were seen as effeminate,” says Antonoff.
Anna Doronina is a queer trans women and brand ambassador for the trans- and nonbinary-inclusive dating app Fiori. In her previous job-hunting experience, Doronina found “it was necessary to be able to pass as a woman.” But she is hopeful that as people become more accepting, it will eventually be the case that “looking cis is not necessary to be socially accepted.”
Beyond “culture fit”: achieving true inclusion
While “culture fit” hiring is touted as a pro-diversity strategy, critics including Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management professor Lauren Rivera sees it as a new way to keep the workplace homogenous. “Culture fit” proponents say they hire by merit while avoiding bias, but Rivera suggests it’s likely they select for privilege; “value” in this case functions more like social class or status, where a privileged few with pedigreed degrees are recruited in favor of those who see the world through a different lens.
Unconscious bias training can help employers avoid making gendered assumptions (such as that a man with earrings is less professional) and is most successful when intended to replace specific, biased processes with unbiased processes, with buy-in from employees, suggests Joelle Emerson in Harvard Business Review. When interviewees are asked the same questions in the same order, there’s less chance of an interviewer developing a biased assumption about professionalism or qualifications based on gender markers. Candidates can be scored against one another, rather than against a perceived “ideal” candidate that reinforces biased cultural norms — such as the faulty belief that men make better leaders because they’re logical.
Providing gender neutral options in processes and facilities reduces company liability and increases the comfort of gender nonconforming employees. That includes designating a gender neutral restroom, making dress codes unisex, and removing binary gender identification from applications. And if a candidate provides a name or pronoun that’s different from what’s on the application, or tells you that their references will know them by a different name, simply note it and move on. “Just treat me like any other employee and be respectful,” encourages Costin.
Ultimately, job seekers should remember that “fit” is important on both sides. If someone’s going to judge you for wearing earrings, you won’t be happy there. Nonbinary attorney Ruth Carter says, “Your best chance of presenting your best self is when you’re comfortable, so always dress and act to that.”