NACE Journal, May 2018
Approximately a year and a half ago, we presented a workshop on gender norms; since then, we have continued to look at how to challenge deeply held notions of gender.1 Our goal is to open career services and recruiting professionals alike to innovative thinking around gender inclusion for women and trans people. In this article, we share insights and lessons from that workshop and subsequent trainings, as well as ideas that we hope will spark creative thinking around how we can all contribute to the disruption of gender norms.
Overview of Concepts
When working to disrupt norms that we have learned from infancy, it is important to first be able to recognize and name the concepts and social forces that shape those norms. Therefore, we begin by clarifying and (re)defining terms that are important to this discussion.
First, our framework uses a distinction between “sex” and “gender” to best understand how these concepts impact the lives of all people. At their most basic, “sex” refers to physical characteristics, while “gender” refers to social characteristics—the roles that we inhabit as women, men, or other genders. These concepts are not wholly separate and often are indistinguishable in everyday life or rely on each other in research and analysis. Linguists Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet describe this by stating that “gender is the social elaboration of biological sex.”2 That is to say, differences in sex exist in measurable ways (such as average height and reproductive capability), and those differences are made meaningful through our social categories of gender and the roles we inhabit as people of one gender or another. A notable example of this is vocal pitch—while there are slight measurable differences in the vocal ranges of females and males, the differences that we perceive are exaggerated because of unconscious social norms that cause women and men to speak at higher or lower extremes of their vocal ranges. Linguists have observed these differences in prepubescent children who have not yet had hormonal changes to their vocal chords and have also observed that the actual difference in average pitch of women and men can vary across languages. Neither of these would occur if the difference were solely a matter of sex and not also of gender. Recognizing that gender differences are social constructs can be a big adjustment.
To illustrate this in our interactive trainings, we have used a gender spectrum activity, which we adapted from peer education materials from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Gender and Sexuality Center. This activity consistently demonstrates ways that individuals’ notions of gender have been embedded in how they perceive others, even in ways they do not necessarily recognize. This is because gender is profoundly rooted in the way individuals are raised and in their character traits, personalities, behaviors, communication, and institutions or organizations.3
In this activity, participants are given 40+ images of celebrities and tasked with ranking these images in order from feminine to masculine. In observing participants, we have found that when individuals know a little bit about someone, the ranking is not based solely on appearance. One example is Hillary Clinton; participants typically place her in a moderately feminine spot on the spectrum due to her leadership roles and/or due to how she speaks in a more “masculine” manner than other women, i.e., with a less variable pitch. However, when participants are not familiar with the celebrity, they make several snap assumptions based solely on the person’s appearance. For example, participants unfamiliar with RuPaul placed his image farther toward the feminine end of the spectrum than those who know that RuPaul is a drag queen who identifies as a gay man. This activity has demonstrated how quickly we put people into boxes based on gender and based on our beliefs about gender identity and gender expression. Sara Ahmed notes that “gender becomes a matter of consequence. The same actions have different consequences for boys and girls.”4
This activity demonstrates that appearances also have different consequences and impact. In the world of work, these differences can show up in extremes when investigating issues such as the wage gap, the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, and unpaid labor.
Gender shows up in work in a number of ways. In another activity in our workshop, we asked attendees to “cross the line” when we read an experience that they had personally encountered at work. (See Figure 1.) Many participants, nearly all of them women, identified with experiences such as being the staff person who purchases greeting cards for colleagues’ birthdays or who cleans up the staff kitchen. What these experiences have in common is that they reflect office labor that disproportionately falls to women (and, often, trans people of other genders) and, perhaps because of that, is rarely discussed as “labor.” Thus, this activity demonstrated that gender impacts our day-to-day experiences in ways that individuals are often unaware of.
Figure 1: Cross the Line Activity
Instructions: Participants line up on one side, facing the same direction. The moderator calls out the item, and those who identify with the item step forward, if willing and able, and face the original line. In between each item, they return back to the original line. This continues until all items have been read. At the end, the moderator uses the debrief questions to lead the group in a discussion.
Moderator: Cross the line if...
1. You are excited this activity is featured in the NACE Journal!
2. You have a tattoo.
3. A majority of your professional peers are a different gender than you.
4. You have ever worn clothes “meant” for the “opposite” gender.
5. You typically wear makeup to work.
6. You typically wear cologne or perfume to work.
7. You have ever felt “not strong enough.”
8. You have wanted to cry but didn’t because you were afraid of what others would think.
9. You have been told to “act like a lady” or “act like a man.”
10. You feel safe walking alone at night.
11. You have ever felt that you were not “thin enough” or “pretty enough.”
12. You shave your face.
13. You shave your legs or underarms.
14. You have ever been repeatedly interrupted at work.
15. You have experienced not being “good enough”/“imposter phenomenon.”
16. You have ever had credit for your ideas given to someone else.
17. You find that you are one to typically clean up the office space after parties or in the kitchen.
18. You have wondered if you are paid differently than your colleagues of another gender.
19. You have confronted someone for making a sexist joke.
20. You have confronted someone for making a joke about trans people or about one’s gender expression.
21. You have stood up for, reached out to, mentored, or otherwise supported your female or trans colleagues.
What comments or reactions do you have about this activity?
Were there surprises about the people next to you as each statement was read?
Was there anything that surprised you about yourself?
What can we learn from this activity?
Adapted from the Peer Education Program, Gender and Sexuality Center, University of Colorado Boulder.
Labor of this kind has been labeled “office housework.”5 This concept reflects additional unpaid labors that typically fall to women, including the “second shift” and “peripheral labor.”6, 7 As professionals working in career services and human resources, it is essential that we be aware of these labors and their effects on our students. Perhaps even more so, we must become aware of the effects on ourselves and our colleagues and work to create the equitable workplaces we encourage for others, for ourselves.
Connecting Gender Disruption to Our Work
In our workshop, we provided participants with a foundation to see gender’s intersection with our work in a new way. Similarly, here we would like to offer ways that gender is explicitly connected to our work as career services and recruiting professionals. We frame these examples as intentions or shifts in perspective that we invite you to make, rather than as a checklist of best practices. Our position is that “moving beyond best practices means recognizing we always have more work we can (and...should) be doing to promote gender equity and trans* inclusion.”8 We believe that sharing intentions or shifts can provide professionals with the tools to propel their equity work even farther, innovating new ways to approach concerns around gender.
Perception of audience
One of these shifts is to rethink the perceptions we hold about our students and clients, particularly those who stand to benefit from programming about or focused on gender. For example, many career centers offer salary negotiation training for women. Because of the prominence and tangibility of the gender wage gap, this is an easy way for career services offices to create programming that focuses on gender.
The wage gap is also present among trans people, who overall earn lower incomes than the general U.S. population.9 One 2007 study also found that trans men (assigned female at birth) earned less than trans women (assigned male at birth) at 62 cents per dollar, though trans men were also more likely to be employed at all than trans women.10 While this certainly needs to be explored further by researchers, similar factors as the wage gap faced by women could be at play in the wage gap faced by trans people, such as occupational difference. For example, a 2018 NPR survey of trans-identified teachers found that, out of the teachers surveyed, the majority identified as male or another gender besides woman, which is significantly different than in the general population where the majority of teachers are women.11
We would wager that while many salary negotiation workshops for women acknowledge the wage gap, it is likely that few include information on how this affects trans people. With a shift in perspective to ask about what problems we can help solve, rather than who we can target with our programming, we can shift our efforts to address root causes in ways that stand to benefit anyone impacted by an issue. For example, when we ask “How does the wage gap affect anyone marginalized by sexism?” rather than “What programming can we offer for women?,” we can expand targeted negotiation programming to include trans men, nonbinary people, and others who are marginalized by their gender and are impacted by this issue.
Programming itself also can be impacted by perceptions about why a student population may need focused information. For example, salary negotiation programming may inadvertently reinforce the perception that women are unable to negotiate their salary and require “extra help” in learning how to do so. This potentially reinforces a deficit framework that focuses on the need for a focused training through the lens of a lack of individual knowledge, rather than using a lens that recognizes a systemic disadvantage that can cause disparity regardless of an individual’s knowledge or competency. An approach that career services professionals can take is to use negotiation workshops and lessons as an opportunity to educate students about why these problems exist. It is not that women cannot negotiate, it is that systemic socialization has resulted in conflicting messages, and, for many women and trans people, it is tough to reconcile the pressure to be assertive as a professional with the pressure to be accommodating as a woman or other gender minority.
Communication and language use
Upon reviewing best practices that we have seen proposed for inclusion of women and LGBTQ students, we found that there was a common thread among many suggestions: communication and language use. Communication takes place both through the visual environment of the office as well as through language, and language in particular can make a huge difference for women and trans people. In fact, language can also play a huge role in attracting more applications from women, as found by companies like Buffer, which adjusted the language in its job descriptions to diversify its applicant pool.12
In language, there are many phrases that may show up in our work that either assume a gender binary or mark the masculine as neutral.
One major area in which career centers communicate about gender both visually and through language is in programming and education about professional attire. Until recently, many students received information about attire in the form of images or lists describing “appropriate” clothing for men and for women, with little overlap between the two. Moving toward gender equitable resources, many career centers have begun to design posters and marketing imagery that involves professional attire to include just the attire, e.g., a suit on a clothes hanger. However, many flyers and infographics rely on the gender binary, despite removing the people from these images. Including one typically “male” outfit (pleated slacks, a button-down shirt, and a tie) and one typically “female” outfit (a skirt, blouse, and necklace) implies that the information is only for gender-conforming, binary people. (Other problematic implications occur when such imagery only depicts thin people, or disembodied attire that is shaped like thin people.) A socially just approach could be to use imagery that acknowledges that individuals may mix and match attire intended for different genders, or may take approaches that synthesize gendered elements together in new ways such as that described by researcher Ben Barry’s work on “refashioning masculinity.”13 Additionally, displaying professional attire that fits differently on people of different body sizes and shapes, and even positioning the outline of a person (whether the imagery includes the person or not) differently—perhaps standing, sitting, or in a wheelchair—promotes an equitable approach. Overall, when a student views materials about professionalism, it is important that all students, not just those who fit into gender and other norms, can see themselves reflected in the possibilities of professionalism. Designing materials with just the clothes is one step toward inclusion.
In language, there are many phrases that may show up in our work that either assume a gender binary or mark the masculine as neutral—“men and women,” “ladies and gentlemen,” “hi, guys,” and so forth. Disrupting gender means disrupting these phrases and others that rely on assumptions that reify gender disparity. Assumptions can be as ingrained as assuming how to refer to others with third-person pronouns such as “he” and “she.” A common practice for trans inclusion among many student affairs professionals is to include one’s pronouns in introductions and e-mail signatures. This is especially impactful for cisgender professionals to do as a way of normalizing the sharing of one’s pronouns; if it becomes commonplace for anyone to say, “My name is Kelly, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers,” then it is easier for a trans or gender nonconforming student to say, “My name is Alex, and my pronouns are xe, xem, xirs.” By normalizing the idea that pronouns cannot always be assumed, a safer environment is created for those who use pronouns other than “he” or “she,” or for those who use pronouns that may not “match” their perceived gender, trans-identified or not.
It is important for professionals to be ready when clients or colleagues introduce themselves with pronouns that may be unexpected. However, it is wise to proceed with caution. When used as a group activity, sharing pronouns can lead to increased scrutiny of visibly trans people, and when done in a group that may be unfamiliar with the practice and the purpose of sharing pronouns, this can feel especially threatening. This increased scrutiny “overemphasizes their trans*ness and, as a result, increases their sense of threat and potential for violence, physically and/or otherwise.”14 As such, using pronoun-sharing as part of introductions or elsewhere in one’s professional practice “require[s] intentionality to avoid unintentional threats of subtle or coercive forms of violence.”15 This intentionality can be developed by engaging in ongoing learning about trans and gender-nonconforming people and the intersection of trans identity with career development and the workplace.
Unfortunately, all programming and communication can be done in ways that unintentionally create exclusion when aiming for inclusion. By shifting our perspectives about gender, especially assumptions about our audiences and our communication with students, we can move toward more equitable, sensitive ways to include a focus on gender in our work. Above, we cited professional attire materials as an example. Even something as subtle as the shape and position of the body silhouettes created by the clothing communicate who is included and, by extension, who is not. These subtle messages are examples of microaggressions, which describe small acts of bias, often unintentional, that can add up to cause great harm to the marginalized person or group on the receiving end.16 Even the subtlest of shifts, such as designing materials that feature gender nonconforming people, has an enormous impact by minimizing assumptions and the microaggressions that can result when one’s communication is shaped by those assumptions.
Shifting Perspectives: Action Steps
While we have shared a few opportunities on where to shift our perspectives regarding gender, there are many more ways that gender appears in our work and multiple ways we can shift our perspectives to better ensure equity. Some potential conversations to have with your career center or recruiting team could include the following:
- If you have fashion shows or “Dress for Success” events, how are you perpetuating gender norms? How could this event become more inclusive?
- How are you coaching trans students to advocate for inclusive healthcare? How are you advocating for equitable health insurance in your workplace?
- As a recruiting or career services professional, how can you invest in diversity and equity in your hiring and recruiting practices?
- How does your career center or organization enact institutional values of inclusion, diversity, and justice with regard to gender?
- When you are writing reference letters for students, how might you be using gendered language, which could have an impact on how that student is perceived by a potential employer? As a recruiter, how might you be using gendered language in your job postings, and how might a prospective applicant perceive the role and your company?
Beyond shifting perspective, there are additional ways that we can all speak up, including:
- Encourage your professional associations to shift their enactments of gender, such as changing to all-gender restrooms at their conferences.
- Propose a workshop or event, or try a new way to run an existing event, based on your shifts in perspective.
- Talk with HR, employer partners, and recruiting managers about being inclusive in recruiting, hiring, and onboarding processes.
It’s Your Turn
Transforming the work we do to better ensure equity and access for all students requires that we disrupt our preconceived notions of gender in radical ways. While many career centers and companies are beginning to do this work, there are multiple places where we can shift perspectives, engage in further dialogue, and speak up. Our job is to work to eliminate long-held biases and dismantle the structures in place that do not accommodate all of our students and staff.
We concluded our initial workshop by inviting participants to reflect and share anonymously what they had learned, felt, and would take with them. Among other things, attendees noted that they learned about how to engage in inclusive conversations with students; experienced camaraderie through shared gender experiences; and walked away with intentionality, community, and a desire to be more conscious of their own gender biases.
We ask you, the reader, to also reflect on our invitation to you to disrupt gender in our profession. What have you learned? What have you felt? What will you take with you into your work?
1 Dries and Inselman presented “Disrupting Our Ideas of Gender Norms” in December 2016 at the annual conference of the Mountain Pacific Association of Colleges and Employers.
2 Eckert, P., & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2013). Language and gender (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 2.
3 Risman, B. (2004). “Gender as a social structure: Theory wrestling with activism.” Gender and Society, 18(4), 429-450. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4149444.
4 Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a feminist life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 68.
5 Williams, J.C. & Dempsey, R. (2014). What works for women at work: Four patterns working women need to know. New York, NY: NYU Press, p. 110.
6 Hochschild, A., & Machung, A. (2012). The second shift: Working families and the Revolution at home. New York, NY: Penguin.
7 Wichroski, M. (1994). The secretary: Invisible labor in the workworld of women. Human Organization, 53(1), 33-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44126557
8 Nicolazzo, Z. (2017). Trans* in college. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, p. 142.
9 James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Ana, M. (2016). The report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, p. 56.
10 Rosser, B. R. S., Oakes, J. M., Bockting, W. O., & Miner, M. (2007). Capturing the social demographics of hidden sexual minorities: An internet study of the transgender population in the United States. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 4(2), p. 60.
11 Kamenetz, A. (2018, March 8). More than half of transgender teachers surveyed tell NPR they are harassed at work. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/03/08/575723226/more-than-half-of-transgender-teachers-face-workplace-harassment
12 Seiter, C. (2015, March 13). Why we removed the word ‘hacker’ from Buffer job descriptions [Blog post]. Buffer Open. Retrieved from https://open.buffer.com/job-descriptions-diversity/
13 Barry, B. (2017, August 31). What happens when men don’t conform to masculine clothing norms at work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/08/what-happens-when-men-dont-conform-to-masculine-clothing-norms-at-work
14 Catalano, D. C. J. (2017). Resisting coherence: trans men’s experiences and the use of grounded theory methods. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 30(3), p. 241. doi:10.1080/09518398.2016.1254301
15 Catalano, p. 242.
16 Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.