Including & Recruiting Trans Talent: Q&A with Drew Dennis

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The co-founder of TransFocus offers advice on practicing gender-inclusive talent acquisition and providing a supportive workplace for transgender employees.

Drew Dennis, principal partner at TransFocus Consulting

Drew Dennis (Courtesy: TransFocus Consulting)

Drew Dennis has served LGBT communities as an accomplished executive leader for more than 20 years. They are a co-founder and principal partner at TransFocus Consulting, a firm that provides transgender resources to employers and leaders across diverse sectors. We got on the phone to discuss gender identity in the workplace and what steps employers can take to attract, recruit, and retain trans talent.

“The idea that gender might not be as rigid as we considered can be surprising and revealing.”

What is gender identity?

As soon as somebody in our life becomes pregnant, what’s one of the first questions we ask? Is it a boy or a girl?

Most of us have grown up with the idea that there are boys and girls, men and women. At birth, the doctor assigns a sex based on anatomy, and traditionally, your gender is your sex. So, gender and sex have been conflated. But gender identity is what your felt gender is: what you feel inside – what you experience. We all have a gender identity. For most people, your felt gender is going to align with your sex assigned at birth. For some people, though, there is an incongruence: how I feel my gender does not align with the sex assigned to me at birth. That’s really what we’re talking about in this broader spectrum of trans experience.

And it is a very broad spectrum. The prevailing media narrative about trans people has often been, you’re assigned a girl at birth, and at some point, you recognize no, you feel like a man. Or, vice versa. For myself, at a very early age – which is often the case – I started saying things like, “no, I’m a boy,” or “no, I’m a girl.” For me, it was recognizing that I didn’t identify as a woman, and I also didn’t identify as a man, but that I can hold space in between. Often what that experience is referred to is non-binary, so I would say I am a non-binary trans person.

What are some of the related concepts and terms employers need to know?

There are a lot of different terms that people will use to self-describe our experiences around gender. Facebook now offers more than 50 options you can select for gender. I don’t know that it’s always helpful to become mired in all of the definitions and terminology. Employers don’t need to be experts.

A safe go-to that’s respectful and inclusive is the umbrella term: transgender, or trans. But follow the lead of the individual. So, if you have an employee who self-describes as a transsexual woman, you’re going to take her at face value. That’s her experience, and you’ll mirror the language that she uses.

Can you paint a picture of the trans workforce?

This question gets asked a lot; “how many people are we talking about?” Typically, when we ask people to identify their gender or sex on a census, or in health surveys, or in employment surveys, we usually only provide “M” and “F” boxes – we’re not capturing trans experience.

That said, some data is available:

A 2016 analysis of federal and state data by the Williams Institute estimated that 1.4 million adults in the United States, or more than one in 200, experience some form of incongruence between their gender and sex.

The largest study to date was “The National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2011. It found that, because of persistent and pervasive discrimination, trans individuals experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population, and trans people of color experience unemployment at up to four times the rate of the general population. By contrast, the study also found that 27 percent of the trans population has attained a college degree, above the national average of 18 percent, and 20 percent of the trans population has attained a graduate degree, more than double the national average of 9 percent.

Transgender population college degree attainment, graduate degree attainment, and unemployment rate compared to U.S. general population

Finally, a 2016 study conducted by the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that 43 percent of Millennials and 56 percent of teenage Gen Zs said they knew someone who went by a gender-neutral pronoun such as “they,” “them,” or “ze.”

What this data tells us is that there is an existing talent pool of well-educated people who have skills and abilities to share, and yet, because of discrimination and maybe misunderstanding, that talent pool is prevented from fully contributing to the workforce. When you think about your own organization, if you have 500 employees, or 1,000 employees, or 10,000 employees, there’s a good chance, statistically, that your team includes trans people – whether or not that is visible to you or has ever been disclosed. And the ever-increasing numbers of Millennial and Generation Z workers entering the workforce bring an understanding of gender that will shift workplace norms.

How can talent acquisition communicate inclusiveness to potential trans candidates?

We encourage organizations to be as comprehensive as possible when looking at inclusion. The danger is, if recruitment isn’t working on this in concert with other departments, the effort could fall flat. You might recruit a trans employee but not be ready to support that person in other areas of the organization.

But from a recruitment perspective, I think the first thing to do is review any diversity and inclusion statement or anti-harassment statement on your organizational website. Does it include gender identity? It also has to be more than just words in a document, right? How are you actually living those values in your practices?

How are you representing gender diversity in the language you use when recruiting? If you are saying something like, “men and women at our company,” consider shifting the wording to something more inclusive, such as, “our employees,” “our team,” or “our people.” Visual representation also communicates inclusion. It’s not so much that you need a photo of a trans person on your website – because what does a trans person look like? But is gender represented in ways that are less rigid than the ways stock photography typically represents men and women? Photographing your own people can be much more impactful.

Do you collect gender data from candidates on the forms they fill out? If you do, ask yourself why; does it serve a purpose? Are you only including “M” and “F” options? Are you asking them to identify an honorific, such as “Mr.” or “Ms.”? You might also consider what information you can collect to help you communicate with people in a way that is inclusive and respectful. For example, providing space to include “preferred pronoun” and “preferred name” on your application.

These are things a trans applicant will look for; they’re looking for cues or signals that this is a company where they will be supported. But there isn’t a cookie-cutter solution. How you approach inclusion needs to be tailored to your organization and culture.

“Sometimes it’s simple little things that create a significant shift.”

If everyone has a gender identity, does talking about it in the workplace affect or benefit employees who don’t identify as trans?

It’s so entrenched that there’s an either/or, woman/man, boy/girl. The idea that gender might not be as rigid as we considered can be surprising and revealing.

I don’t think it’s just the trans individual who is confined to these gender norms and expectations. We all are, in various ways. When we work with organizations, often what happens is we uncover and unlock operational challenges in ways that everybody benefits from – things done a certain way only because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

It’s incredibly rewarding when there are these aha! moments that can really transform an organization’s practices, operations, and culture. Sometimes it’s simple little things that create a significant shift. It’s not always a big overhaul.

What advice would you offer to talent leaders about starting a conversation on gender in the workplace?

As a recruitment leader, begin having this conversation within your team or unit. Ask: “Where is gender present?” and start scanning your practices and workplace. You might find it in places that are less obvious than you expect.

And find opportunities to engage with the people you are trying to serve. Because the people who have lived those experiences need to be involved in the work you’re doing. It might be that you privately reach out to an openly-trans employee. You might connect with your local trans communities, or bring in a resource such as TransFocus. Remember, you don’t have the be the expert at everything.

“If people are curious to learn more about transgender inclusion and the support TransFocus provides to employers, we’re happy to have an introductory conversation,” says Drew. To connect with them, visit TransFocus.ca.


Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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