Inclusion vs. Invisibility: Workplace Wisdom from Transgender Trailblazer Andrea Jenkins
"I don't care who you are, as long as you can do the work."
This phrase, or variations of it — think "I don't see color" — is often used by managers with the best of intentions. They may be signaling that they're not biased against any gender, race, religion or ethnicity. They may believe that they're being inclusive.
The minute you tell someone that you don't care who they are, you render them less relevant, perhaps even invisible. It's actually better to show that you care about and recognize a person's unique background and experience. That's part of what makes a workplace feel inclusive; true inclusiveness means valuing differences even as you seek common ground. And a Catalyst study shows that when an employee feels included in a workplace, it can bolster performance.1
Just ask long-time public servant Andrea Jenkins.
"People who are able to show up as their full, authentic selves are much more present for the work," she says. "They are less concerned about hiding the realities of their lives. Consequently, I think it makes you a better team member, a better employee, a better producer."
In November, Jenkins, 52, won her race for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council, a victory that advocacy groups said was a first for an openly transgender black woman running for public office in a major city. Shortly thereafter, Phillipe Cunningham, a transgender man, scored his own election victory in his race for the Minneapolis council, joining Jenkins in making history. A handful of other transgender candidates in the US won elections in November, including Virginia's Danica Roem.
Jenkins, who curates oral histories from transgender individuals for the University of Minnesota, has been open about her transgender identity for more than two decades. But she still remembers what life was like when she felt that she had to hide part of herself from her colleagues in county government, where she worked as a vocational counselor. Jenkins came out as transgender in her workplace in the fall of 1992.
"For a long time, I felt like an impostor in the workplace. I had a sense that being a transgender person was not acceptable in our culture and society," she says. But the consequences of not being true to one's self at work extend beyond internal struggles; such behavior may actually hurt a company's business. A survey by Deloitte found that employees who engaged in "covering " — downplaying their identities in an attempt to fit in — "diminished their commitment to their organizations."1
Once Jenkins did come out, the reception from her co-workers was largely positive.
"It felt incredibly affirming," she says. "It felt like I could bring my full self to work and not be preoccupied with worrying if people were going to find out or rushing home to be myself."
Of course, in any workplace — or any setting, really — acceptance and recognition may not happen overnight. It's important to have both formal training and informal, honest discussions about what it means to be inclusive, to value differences and treat others with respect and dignity. Jenkins said she asked a consultant to come into her office and explain to her colleagues and managers what it means to be transgender and answer their questions.
In the best-case scenarios, workplaces that foster a welcoming, respectful environment for all employees attract and retain a more diverse workforce. That's important not just because embracing diversity is the right thing to do, but because, as a McKinsey study shows, that companies with diverse workforces boast better financial performance.2
This, too, comes as no surprise to Jenkins, who cites her background as an asset to the places she's worked.
"My experience as a transgender person, as an African American person, as a person who grew up in Chicago, who went to certain schools...I think those lived experiences have helped me to be more compassionate. It has given me insights into the human experience," she says. "When you have a much broader perspective, you see challenges and opportunities in different ways. I think those are important skills to have in the workplace."
State Street’s Phyllis Swanson Welton says, “As a transgender woman, it means the world to me that I can come to work at State Street every day, without worrying about who I am. It means that I can put my best foot forward in every interaction that I have with the members of my team, and it means that I am able to deliver excellent results for State Street and its clients.
Further, it means the world to me that I have an opportunity to do today what was unthinkable even just a few years ago. Though having out transgender people in the workplace is a new phenomenon for most, I am honored to have the opportunity to do what every other State Street employee desires to do, and that is to succeed in enhancing the business of the firm, while creating new opportunities for growth.”
With help from role models like Phyllis and Andrea Jenkins, we hope more transgender people and anyone from marginalized or underrepresented communities will feel empowered to bring their authentic selves to work. And when they do, their employers should greet them with open minds and open arms.
Good human beings care about people. Smart companies should, too.
1. Prime, Jeanine and Elizabeth R. Salib. Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries. New York: Catalyst, 2014.
2. Yoshino, Kenji and Christie Smith. Uncovering talent: A new model of inclusion. Deloitte, Dec. 6, 2013.
3. Hunt, Vivian, Dennis Layton and Sara Price. "Why diversity matters." McKinsey. January, 2015. Retrieved Dec. 22, 2017: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters
Paul is the Chief Diversity Officer and Head of Workforce Development Programs at State Street Corporation. He leads the implementation of State Street’s global diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. Recently, Paul was appointed by Massachusetts Governor, Charlie Baker, to serve on the Black Advisory Board Commission.