This month, brands and retailers are unveiling rainbow logos and Pride collections. What can’t be lost amid these efforts, though, is the work all companies still need to do behind the scenes to ensure they are also creating a supportive environment for employees and candidates of all gender identities and expressions.
For transgender professionals in particular — “trans” here being an umbrella term that covers all those whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth, including nonbinary folks — discrimination and stigmization in the workplace are common experiences.
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According to a 2015 surveyof nearly 28,000 trans people in the U.S., 30% of respondents who were employed in the previous year reported experiencing some form of mistreatment at work related to their gender identity or expression, including being fired or denied a promotion. A full 77% also took steps to avoid workplace discrimination, including hiding their gender identity, holding back from asking their employer to use their correct pronouns (such as she/her or they/them) or delaying aspects of their transition.
While the issues trans people face at work are complex, the first steps employers can take could be simple, said NiK Kacy, a shoe designer and entrepreneur who founded their eponymous gender-free accessories brand in 2013.
“Companies that can provide restrooms that are non-gendered, it’s such a small thing when you think about it, but it makes a huge impact for people every day,” said Kacy. Inclusive language, too, goes a long way. “When you talk to your employees, ‘ladies and gents’ is not really the phrase to use.”
Instead, LGBTQ+ workplace equality organization Out & Equal recommendgender-neutral terms such as “friends, folks, y’all, you all and everyone.” Similarly, they advise replacing “his or her” with “their” and — for those in charge of company policy-making and recordkeeping — updating onboarding documents and other paperwork to eliminate gendered language, such as forms that offer only “male” and “female” as options.
Dress codes, too, can be problematic if they prescribe two sets of standards for employee attire. Under New York City’s Human Rights Law, for instance, it is prohibited for employers to impose different dress codes or grooming requirements based on gender. Even where legal, these policies leave room for subjective — and potentially discriminatory — judgment on the part of individual managers, and can be harmful even for cisgender employees.
“It just makes an employer’s life easier to have a simplified professional dress code and to also be thoughtful about making sure that it is inclusive overall,” says AC Dumlao, program manager at the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), referencing the ongoing legal fight against discriminatory policies that prohibit Black employees from wearing their hair in styles such as braids or locs.
Employers can also be proactive about inclusivity by inviting employees to share their pronouns in their email signatures or when meeting new team members, normalizing the practice and creating a safe environment for those who choose to share.
Centering trans voices and experiences is essential to any conversation about inclusion, so Dumlao and Kacy both encourage companies to hire and partner with trans-led organizations who specialize in doing this work every day. This may be TLDEF, which has an ongoing relationship with PVH Corp., among others; Trans Can Work, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit specializing in workplace inclusion, of which Kacy is on the board of directors; Trans Equity Consulting, which offers services including workshops, training, and conflict mediation; or another local or national group.
These organizations can help review company policies and practices to ensure that, for example, gender identity and expression are adequately covered under an anti-harassment policy, HR leaders are recruiting and nurturing trans talent, and trans employees are able to access the healthcare they need through an employer-sponsored plan.
“Ideally for any brand that’s putting out a campaign during Pride month that is showing themselves to be trans-inclusive, I want to know what your internal policies are for gender-affirming health care,” said Dumlao. “I want you to know what the health insurance you provide to your employees is and does and what you’re doing about it. I want to know about HR policies for [providing] leave for gender-affirming surgery because people need time off to recover.”
Nordstrom, which says it offers a trans-inclusive employee health care plan that includes coverage for transition-related treatment, is also focusing its 2021 Pride campaign on trans health needs. The retailer is providing a grant to the Trans Lifeline x FOLX Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) Care Fund, which underwrites the costs of hormone therapy for those struggling to access it.
A company’s values also extend to those who aren’t on the full-time payroll: fashion brands and retailers rely heavily on freelance talent such as designers, models, and stylists, and their experiences also reflect how inclusive the industry really is.
Too often, said Dan Owens, a brand strategist, “Companies make a small amount of effort, spend a small amount of money, and end up putting trans individuals in situations that make us very uncomfortable — or worse, completely unsafe.” He recalls instances of trans models being misgendered on photo shoot sets with no other trans professionals, and social media teams misgendering the same models in Instagram captions.
If brands want to center trans people in their marketing efforts, he said, they need to include trans people in the high-level decision-making, production and promotion stages as well. This isn’t just the right thing to do, he added — it’s also good business.
“Ultimately, when a campaign has trans influencers but was built by a team of people who are not trans, we [as trans people] can tell,” said Owens.
Likewise, said Kacy, major brands could better empower the trans community by building ongoing partnerships with trans-owned small businesses, rather than debuting one-off collections aimed at trans consumers.
It’s an especially vital time for companies to take action given the onslaught of anti-trans legislation across the US. In 2021, state legislatures have introduced more than 100 bills aiming to restrict trans rights, including several seeking to block trans youth from receiving gender-affirming care, as well as state bans on trans women and girls participating in women’s and girls sports. On June 1, Florida — a state where many major fashion and footwear retailers are currently expanding their store footprints — became the ninth state to sign such a bill into law.
Some fashion companies have come out against the bills. In a statement posted on LinkedIn, Coach CEO and brand president Todd Kahn wrote, in part, “An attack on part of our Coach family is felt by all of us. To our transgender and nonbinary coworkers, as well as to all those who have transgender and nonbinary people who are dear to you, we stand with you, we value you and we support you.”
More than 130 corporations, including Nike, Target and Macy’s, also signed on to a Human Rights Campaign letteropposing the legislation. “These bills would harm our team members and their families, stripping them of opportunities and making them feel unwelcome and at risk in their own communities… Legislation promoting discrimination directly affects our businesses, whether or not it occurs in the workplace,” the letter states.
Still, many members of the trans community feel the support could be louder and more forceful, as it was in the fight for marriage equality or the backlash against North Carolina’s anti-trans “bathroom bill” in 2016, which saw musicians, sports leagues, and companies cancel planned events and expansions worth billions of dollars.
“These corporations hold a lot of power… so there’s a place for them to say, ‘This is where we stand,’” said Dumlao. “And in my observation, there could be and should be more awareness and visibility for trans issues right now.”
Throughout Pride Month, FN is spotlighting LGBTQIA+ executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business. Be sure to check back for updates.