Being Genderqueer and Invisible in Tech
When I received a job offer to work as a designer at a woman-led company in New York, I was ecstatic. I had never worked at an office that had a female CEO and a majority female staff. I remembered overhearing two of my female co-workers having a loud discussion about the difference between “transsexuals” and “transgenders,” and then laughing when they ultimately realized they had no idea what they were talking about. I never told them that I was genderqueer.
Another time, a woman who was a senior leader went on a rant about how we needed to help “the poor children in Africa,” instead of focusing our efforts on Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. When a Puerto Rican coworker who was from the Bronx mentioned that poor New Yorkers also experienced water issues, she snapped that they could just go outside and drink from water fountains. The longer I worked there, the more I realized just how harmful and exclusionary some of these women were.
I quickly became disillusioned with the idea that working in an all-women work environment would guarantee my safety and acceptance. The presence of women in senior leadership positions did not necessarily create a healthy and positive company culture, and the company performed poorly when it came to diversity within race and gender/sex orientations. Turns out, womanhood alone is not a radicalizing force for these changes.
For us to make the tech and creative industry a less exclusionary and oppressive space, we need to focus on creating and implementing inclusive values and practices, instead of only focusing on diversity as a numbers game. The ultimate goal of diversity and inclusivity (D+I) initiatives should be two-fold: 1) creating a safer workplace that empowers people to thrive as who they are, and 2) creating access for those who face barriers and oppression because of their identity. These initiatives are nearly impossible if they don’t come from a joint effort pushed by people in positions of power and those who are not being heard. The burden of transformation can’t lie solely on the shoulders of people who need it the most. Focusing on pure diversity as a quota fails to accomplish this and only masks the disparity experienced by those who are less privileged and less represented.
Many tech companies only focus on the diversity aspect, rather than D+I as a holistic initiative. I’ve experienced several women-only spaces and programs that were hailed as progressive and feminist, but were often cis-sexist and exclusive to trans and gender non-conforming people. Genderqueer people are often considered as an afterthought — or frankly, not thought of at all — in mainstream discussions and initiatives surrounding diversity and feminism. In order to strive for true equality, we need real and meaningful gender diversity. Trans and gender non-conforming people, people who may look feminine but don’t identify as women and vice versa, and anyone living in the grey space of the gender spectrum, need to be included, embraced, and welcomed.
As someone who looks very feminine, I’ve often felt uncomfortable in women-only spaces. They don’t usually make active efforts to include non-cis women like me — even if it’s unintentional — and assume that having a vagina equals womanhood, as if we all have the same experiences with menstruation and birth control. There’s a particular kind of pain in looking like a woman, being treated like a woman, yet being excluded and forgotten by other women. For me, being genderfluid is a careful, precarious balance of knowing when I can trust others by expressing who I really am, and knowing when I have to hide myself to survive.
With women of color, I can at least relate to them with our shared experiences and the pain and joy of being a person of color, but swimming among cis white women has always felt confusing and dangerous to me. Rich white women, racist white women, and transphobic white women always remind me that not all women are feminists, and that not all women care about or even support each other. Although I recognize that cis white women also face their own barriers, I think they have a larger responsibility to step outside their womanhood and evaluate how their other privileges may be an oppressing force. This is why intersectional feminism is so integral in deconstructing power dynamics. Instead of thinking about oppression and identity as a hierarchical ladder, it’s important to think about it as a web, where everyone’s different identities and facets impact each other.
The problem with hiring for the goal of diversity alone is that it doesn’t necessarily impact company culture and attitudes in the workplace. The everyday work experience is crucial in measuring the success of these D+I initiatives. Making sure that people’s pronouns are respected and followed, and that your office has at least one gender neutral bathroom are a couple ways that your office can start making space for genderqueer people.
Harm reduction and meeting people at their knowledge level are also crucial in transforming company culture. Learning how to call in vs. call out when someone makes an off-color joke or comment can set the tone for what is accepted in the office. If you can sense that the person’s intention and tone are not meant to harm, but merely stem from ignorance, you can call them in by taking them aside and having a private conversation about why their actions might not have been appropriate. On the other hand, if the person is acting in malice or cruelty, it can be powerful to call them out in a group setting to signal to others that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated in your workplace. If you’re afraid to start an argument or put yourself in an uncomfortable position, my favorite neutral-sounding phrase to say is, “We don’t do that here.” It disrupts the conversation without implying a moral judgment upon the person or their character and sets a precedent for what is and isn’t accepted. Acting with empathy and understanding, no matter which route you go, can help educate the person, instead of pushing them away.
At the end of the day, it is not the sole job of oppressed peoples to change a space, but a collective and sustained effort by everyone to transform it. Simply inserting women into positions of leadership and power is not a 100% guaranteed method to creating a safer and more inclusive work environment. It’s also a colossal pressure to impose upon women that their presence alone will transform a space or a company’s culture. Thinking about D+I as a numbers and bodies game is ineffective; rather, it’s a commitment and pursuit of deconstruction and relearning. In order to tackle this heady goal, we must implement impactful policies and changes to company culture that value harm reduction, inclusivity, and education.
If you made it this far, I love you. I truly do, thank you for letting me express my thoughts on a topic that is near and dear to my sweet, sweet genderfluid heart. Whether or not you enjoyed reading this piece, I hope you learned at least one new thing.
I know that was a lot to take in, but learning is never over! Here are a few things to think about as you continue on with your daily life (extra important if you’re a cis woman):
1. How do body-focused, especially genitalia-focused, discussions affect women who may not have vaginas? Or people who have vaginas but aren’t women? What are some ways that people with all different kinds of body parts can be included in these discussions?
2. How can gendered spaces like sexual wellness clinics and reproductive rights campaigns include people who have different kinds of bodies? How can we include women who may have penises, men who may have vaginas, and everyone in between?
3. Consider feminist language that relies on the gender binary (men vs. women). Do you think there’s a more nuanced way to have these discussions? Is there a way to include women who may look and present as being masculine? What about people who identify with masculinity, but don’t consider themselves to be men?
Isabel K. Lee is a Product Designer at Plated in New York, NY. They can be found on Twitter @isabel_klee, Medium @isabelklee, and their website.
Art used in this issue: "Self Portrait in Venetian Mirror" by Anne Redpath