How To Be An Ally To Trans & Gender Non-Conforming Coworkers

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.
Steve Jobs is often quoted for his insightful innovation credo: “Think different.” As we all work to build inclusive, innovative and just companies, we also need to understand that many, if most people who think different are different.
When we think of the current conversation around inclusion and diversity in America for transgender and gender non-conforming people, things quickly turn to federal or state bills and the latest political debate. But what about day-to-day life? Trans or cis, we all have to get up every morning and manage our work and family lives. But the truth is, the daily grind that many of us take for granted is much more difficult for members of the trans and gender non-conforming communities — and this prevents them from working as full partners alongside us.
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About 63% of trans people and 43% of LGBTQ people, have reported experiencing acts of discrimination in the workplace: From being passed up for a job or promotion due to bias, to being fired because of their gender identity/expression, being denied medical services and the list goes on. That means that talent is being drained from the workforce. When entire groups of people are being blocked from economic and emotional security, workplaces suffer in terms of diversity of perspective and worldview. When we don’t bring that into the current conversation — when we don’t take advantage of the power in our presence and in our wallets — we perpetuate the issue.
The good news? Whether you are a CEO, manager, or team member you can and must be part of creating change. Every conversation you initiate at home and at work regarding issues of inclusion makes an impact. Every conscious swipe of your credit card as a consumer gives more power to the organizations and brands working for good, and challenges those neglecting to do so. Every person can be an ally to all communities if they decide to, and take actions that open doors — and then keep them open.
What can you do in your daily grind to be an ally? As part of our joint Trans 102 series with Refinery29, M·A·C Cosmetics asked a group of trans people from different walks of life to help us understand the hot button issues facing the community. Here’s what we learned about creating and maintaining safe spaces at work:
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Advocate Where You Can: You don’t have to come into the office with a bullhorn or a clever sign — just be ready and willing to take a stand where you’re able. Ask your employer about your company’s stance on recruiting and hiring trans employees, and about its health care policy for trans staffers. It might start with an unbiased hiring policy, but if a trans person lands a job somewhere that doesn’t provide the resources they need to live a healthy life, what good does that do for them? Come at it with the same questions you’d have if you were on the job hunt yourself: Is the pay fair? Can I fit in with the team? Do the “benefits” benefit me? The truth is, your boss and colleagues are more likely to take note when cisgender voices speak up as well.
Spend a Few Minutes at the Water Cooler: A safe and open workplace starts long before an altercation or incident of discrimination — it’s your responsibility to make it safe. Build common ground with your more vulnerable colleagues by creating actual relationships. Listen to them. Take a real interest and become friendly like you would with any other co-worker (well, some of the others). A “safe space” isn’t just a buzzword; it takes work. And regardless of political party-leanings or otherwise, we should be able to — and need to — treat each other as human beings worthy of care and friendship, not like “the other.”
Recognize the Power of Your Language: Pronouns matter. Just remember: There’s a wide range of language, with different terms preferred by different people. Distinctions that may seem small to you are actually a big deal; after all, it’s someone’s identity! The single biggest guideline: if you aren’t sure, ask. Just do it kindly — and discreetly. Make sure to pass along the info to other co-workers as well. If it’s hard for you to say “they” in singular form, remind yourself that it’s probably harder for the person whose identity you may be confusing. When you say that, it’s likely to go over surprisingly smoothly, and it makes a big difference. You learned how to talk about this from someone — so did I — and now it’s our responsibility to teach others how to talk about it.
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While a few of these tips are trans-specific, a simple openness to learning and a readiness to act, to listen to, and include diverse experiences and points of view makes an impact across the board for all communities. At M·A·C, we’ve made a decades-long commitment to support all ages, all races and all genders — from the makeup counter, to the boardroom, to the billboards you see on the street. For us, it’s not just about saying we want inclusion in our office, it’s about recognizing that we each have a responsibility inside and outside our office, and then following through on that responsibility with real actions.
If you work with, for or manage a colleague from a marginalized community and want to be an ally, simply be there for them. Build a relationship, say something to leadership if you sense something's not right, and be ready to have uncomfortable conversations with colleagues who might be just a little less woke than you on the issues. Doing so will help people from all walks of life accomplish exactly what all of us want: to live freely. And to get stuff done at work — often in more innovative ways!
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Nancy Mahon is the Senior Vice President of Global Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability for The Estée Lauder Companies, and also the Senior Vice President of M·A·C Cosmetics.
For more on issues facing the trans and gender nonconforming communities check out Trans 102 here on Refinery29. And be sure to catch More than T — a film of six stories of resilience and hope from the trans community on Showtime.
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