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Is an Unnamed Unconscious Bias Undermining Your Workplace Culture?

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

A transgender engineer, who still worked in her male persona, told me she once submitted a resumé under her professional male name. Several weeks later, she received a rejection letter stating she was “over qualified for the position.” Curious, she re-submitted the exact same resumé, but put her female name at the top. Soon, another letter came back. It said she did not have the required qualifications, but the company had an administrative assistant position open, and would she like to apply for that?

This illustrates an unconscious gender bias we have named in the workplace. But how often have you heard about the unconscious bias that impacts transgender people themselves?

What is the Unnamed Unconscious Bias?

The unnamed gender bias that impacts transgender people appears every time a pregnant person gets asked, “Are you having a boy or a girl?” This question reveals a deeply held cultural assumption about gender: that there are only two genders, and that gender is determined by external anatomy. These deeply held assumptions create bias in favor of those whose gender identity (that is, their internal knowing of themselves) matches their external anatomy. They also fuel prejudice against trans and non-binary people, since these people’s gender identities do not match their anatomy.

And because non-binary individuals identify as neither male nor female, or as some combination of both, the cultural assumption that there are only two genders further fuels unconscious bias against non-binary people.

Alarmingly, this unconscious gender bias that impacts trans and non-binary people is so new to our cultural awareness, many organizations are not even aware that is it undermining their cultures.

How to Recognize the Presence of this Unconscious Bias

Fortunately, there are easy ways to recognize this unconscious bias that favors persons who fit neatly into the male/female gender binary. This gender bias is present if…

  • all your restrooms have signs indicating they are only for men or for women.

  • your job applications ask for name, but do not ask for chosen name and pronouns.

  • disrespectful comments and jokes about trans people are heard around the water cooler.

  • the terms gender identity and gender expression do not appear in your non-discrimination policies

  • leaders in HR and DE&I speak the word transgender with hesitancy, and unknowingly use it as a noun or an adverb, instead of how it is most respectfully used – as an adjective.

4 Ways to Diffuse the Undermining Effects of this Unconscious Bias

So how can you effectively address this unnamed bias that undermines recruitment and retention? How do you create the fully inclusive cultures that are research-proven to increase innovation and improve the bottom line? We offer 4 suggestions.

  1. Get Help – Brilliant HR and D&I leaders, who are doing outstanding work, frequently confess to us, “I don’t know anything about transgender people.” This is not surprising, seeing as a 2017 poll revealed that only 35% of American voters personally knew a transgender person. Also, trans people have only gained consistent cultural visibility within the last 10-20 years. Consequently, many people are unfamiliar with trans-related terms and definitions, and these terms are changing and evolving rapidly. This is why these outstanding HR and D&I leaders are talking to us… they know this is an area of inclusion they need help with; they recognize the need to bring in outside expertise.

  2. Educate Everyone – Our experience shows that once employees learn about trans people, become aware of unconscious blind spots, and receive training on how to interact respectfully with trans co-workers and customers, things change. One client shared that, prior to the training we did with their organization, 75 employees marched in their city’s Pride Parade. After the training, 150 people turned out. Many shared that the training helped them develop an empathetic connection to gender diverse people that inspired them to show up and show support.

  3. Develop and Update Policies – Because societal bias continues to exist, and federal policies continue to fluctuate, it is imperative that organizations determine their own commitment to supporting trans people, and anchor these commitments in company policy. Having trans inclusive policies in place, and making them highly visible, are also key factors in attracting and retaining the 12% of Millennials who currently identify as trans or gender nonconforming and their many friends and family members who also want to work in trans inclusive spaces.

  4. Consider Facilities – Unconscious bias regarding gender diverse people shows up the most around the experience of sharing restrooms and locker rooms. That’s why it is critical that trans inclusive organizations create facilities that feel comfortable for everyone and that discriminate against no one. Sometimes this involves further education and exploration of unconscious biases. Or changing signage or installing privacy panels. It may require making your organization’s policy regarding facilities usage known to all employees. Often, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so you must consider your company’s specific constraints, needs and resources. With my 30+ years in the construction industry, pre-transition, my firm is uniquely qualified to advise organizations on the best, most cost effective ways to create facilities that work for everyone.

Centuries of unconscious bias towards trans people cannot be overcome in a day. But with consistent, committed strategic initiatives, organizations can address their unnamed unconscious bias, and transform their environments into the fully inclusive cultures that drive innovation and positively impact the bottom line.


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