Deconstructing the Gender Binary at Work: An Expert Explains
Expressing your gender identity authentically in the workplace is a crucial part of bringing your whole self to work, of being fully present and engaged. Increasingly, people are publicly identifying as gender nonconforming, intersex, trans, and nonbinary.
While many managers are well-intentioned and want to be LGBTQ+ allies, few have had training in the complexities of gender, and many may feel confused by coworkers who don’t identify as exclusively male or female. Meanwhile, people who feel binary gender categories don’t accurately describe them may feel unsafe and on their guard in the workplace. That can be a source of suffering for them and a huge waste of potential for their employers.
“There’s a sense that this is a fringe issue, and that is just frankly not true. Gender impacts absolutely everybody,” says EJ McGaughy, who identifies as queer and was an ordained minister focused on LGBTQ+ issues before becoming a facilitator/trainer. McGaughy helped develop Catalyst’s new workshop on gender which they note is pioneering.
“When you think about the diversity and inclusion and equity training right now at the corporate level, it is often focused on how to make things better for women—which generally means cis women,” McGaughy says. “Even training focused on LGBTQ+ realities often default to gay and lesbian and bisexual.”
In an interview, McGaughy explains why understanding the complexities of gender is so essential for managers today—and how teaching it became their mission.
Catalyst: What drew you to this kind of work?
EJ McGaughy: I didn’t come out as queer until my 20s. When I got into college, my best friend at the time transitioned, and it was a shocking, disorienting, world-shattering event in my life. I did not respond well. I wish I could go back in time and use myself as a playbook of What Not To Do When a Loved One Transitions. I had a lot of regret about that.
Like many people, I think I experienced having sexuality and gender conflated because that’s how society operated for a long time. It started to hit me that these realms of sexual orientation and gender/sex identity were actually different, and these realities of gender are much more complex than I had ever considered.
How do gender issues most often surface in the workplace?
McGaughy: There are people who come to work every single day who don’t feel comfortable going into a male or female bathroom. There are company forms that may not have a third gender option in terms of how people can identify themselves. There are benefits that don’t cover fertility treatments they might need if they’re non-binary.
They’re afraid of the jokes they might hear at the water cooler; they don’t want to talk about their lived experience with their colleagues because they’re afraid of retaliation or not being able to move up the ladder. It’s not a safe space for them.
How do you see this new Catalyst workshop on gender helping? What is the primary goal?
McGaughy: It has two main objectives. The first is to deconstruct the notion of a gender binary and reconstruct people’s understanding of gender as something much more [fluid]. The second is to equip people in the workplace for a future where trans, gender non-conforming, intersex, and nonbinary people are thriving.
We’ve all been conditioned to think about gender in this binary perspective, and our goal with this workshop is to create a safe space where people can learn and unlearn and gain the skills and tools they need. We want people to understand that it’s their job to take this reality seriously and to be proactive in their own learning moving forward. We hope that they will become champions and leaders in the workplace, which means they will change the cultural norms that reinforce the binary.
Interested in attending Catalyst’s new workshop on gender? Want to bring that workshop to your organization? Please email Xochitl Ledesma ([email protected]).