When the question of gender turns the professional world upside down

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Les « preferred pronouns » (pronoms que l'on choisit, en français) permettent d'exprimer le genre auquel chacun s'identifie (she/her, he/him, they/them, etc.). Certains salariés n'hésitent pas à le mettre sur leur page LinkedIn ou en signature de mail.

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Posted on Sep 17, 2021, 5:51 PMUpdated Oct 8, 2021, 4:32 PM

Light brown hair, discreet makeup, glasses, red nails. In teleworking, Julie * is herself. When she has to set foot in the office, she adorns herself as Julien, a senior executive in a large group, married with children. “A very classic status, which means that no one really suspects something, she confides. I learned to conceal, to control, to master. “

She lives the week in London for her work. In the evening, she is Julie, a transgender woman in her fifties, who shops like everyone else and drinks glasses with her friends. Today, she can no longer lead this double life. It’s time for her to come out of the closet.

She wants to associate her company with her approach. It claims to be inclusive and has signed charters of commitment to LGBT + people. Julie feels that she is in a favorable environment. And more and more. “I’m pretty confident. I was in another large group a few years ago and it was not even possible ”, she continues.

The company, a reflection of society

On this subject of the genre and the different recognitions, the company and the society look at each other. Driven by social networks and movements for inclusion, the professional world is increasingly taking the subject head on. In particular large groups. They are more than a hundred to have signed the charter of l’Autre Cercle, an association which refers to the inclusion of LGBT + audiences in the world of work.

To permeate the company, it is often the management that must set the tone. On this aspect, Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, CEO of BNP-Paribas, is one of the first bosses to be publicly committed. And BNP-Paribas, the leading English bank. “He received several thousand emails from very unhappy customers. He had to show courage ”, confides Sophie Delannoy, director of Refuge, an association that supports young LBGT +. The company has set up a diversity and inclusion team made up of around 40 people around the world and, for example, promotes many inclusive internal networks (LGBT +, trans-generational, etc.).

But on this subject, IBM is the pioneer. In London, thanks to the influence of the American head office, the company has been developing a diversity and inclusion policy since 1984. And one on gender identity since 2002. It offers, for example, training courses, which are compulsory for managers. And all employees sign the diversity charter. Every year. “Like that, nobody can say that he did not know”, smiles Jean-Louis Carvès, diversity and inclusion director for thirteen years at IBM London.

Dramatize, explain

The company supports a dozen transitions per year worldwide. The process is now well established. The idea: play down, explain what transidentity is (the fact that a person does not identify with the gender assigned at birth), deconstruct apprehensions and preserve the people concerned. “If after X time, the colleagues still use the old first name of the person, it will be considered as harassment”, decides the director, who also encourages each employee in transition to take ten days of “exceptional” leave (that is to say outside of paid leave).

People “out” at work often do so at the last moment. “This comes after a long journey, when it is no longer possible to do otherwise, that it becomes an emergency”, specifies Jean-Louis Carvès. Behind them, we have to act quickly: change the names on the badges, the directory, the signatures, the business card… The role of the company is essential. Just like support from managers.

At Archetype, a communication agency, it is Yana Rogers, one of the three women at the head of the London entity, who created the DE & I team (diversity, equity and inclusion). For the past year, a group of around ten people has been organizing internal conferences for the 200 employees in the Europe zone. On the menu: define a theme around LGBT +, racial, parental news …

The arrival of “preferred pronouns”

And recently, the email signatures of Archetype consultants include the reference to “preferred pronouns” (pronouns that we choose, in English) She / her, He / him, They / Them (for non-binary) … It is the means of expressing the genre with which each one identifies. For the agency, it is also a way of teaching clients.

A few months ago, Nadine Yahchouchi, London director of the M365 suite at Microsoft, also added her pronouns (she / her) to her name on Teams, a collaborative work platform. “A lot of people were approached and asked me questions, which provoked many conversations around diversity and inclusion”, testifies the young leader.

“It is about understanding how we can position ourselves as an ‘ally’ of minorities to allow them to develop professionally like everyone else and precisely no longer make a difference”, says Ronette Lawrence, director of the Customer Success entity at Microsoft London. His company has launched an initiative called Gleam (Global LGBT + Employees and Allies at Microsoft) to work for the inclusion of LGBT + people in the company. In London, since January 2021, the ten members of the Gleam team have been supporting employees, for example, on issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, and providing support to communities.

Inclusion, a driving force among the younger generations

Proof of this is that the question of pronouns penetrates the professional world with LinkedIn, which since the pride march last June, allows all registrants to specify their gender. Until then, the trend had taken on more personal social networks, like Twitter or Instagram.

There remains a gap: the subject is progressing especially in the big cities, even Parisian circles will advance some, and there persists a general ignorance of the population. According to a recent survey by the data platform Dynata, only a third of English employees work in a company with an inclusion and diversity program.

Note, too, a generational gap in meaning. For the youngest, especially graduates, “Being sensitive to the question of gender is more and more obvious”, considers Françoise Bouyer, consultant in diversity, inclusion and gender identity, herself non-binary and member of the global board for diversity and inclusion of L’Oréal. This subject is now an employer brand issue for the business world.

“We must stop thinking that the company is a place where we only work”

“A business where you feel good is a business where you can talk about your personal problems”, estimates Hugo Dufour, young consultant at Archetype. The boundaries between professional and personal life are narrowing. “To claim that these questions relate to private life is to say that with your colleagues, you no longer talk about your family, your children, your weekend spent as a couple. I believe that time is over. We must stop thinking that the company is a place where we only work ”, sweeps Sophie Delannoy from the Refuge.

However, according to a recent study by the BCG firm, only 67% of English employees say they are free to be authentic and themselves at work, against 85% in the Nordic countries. And to point out, in 2021, that less than half of LGBT + were “out” at work. Finally, according to an Ifop study for the Other Circle, a quarter of them claim to be victims of discrimination in the workplace.

Political correctness

Of course, if the companies have taken the measure of the stake, some fall into the side effects. In the same vein as the commitments on gender equality. “We will not be able to avoid this phenomenon but it proves that the subject settles down little by little, even if it is not authentic”, Françoise Bouyer analysis. And to add: “This affects the employees but also the customers. They no longer buy products just for fun but because the company seems in tune with their values ​​and convictions. “

To meet these new expectations, companies are asking for more inclusive content and formulas. “Large groups or start-ups see that this is becoming necessary for their image and that they must be able to be open to difference”, indicates Aurélien Marion, freelance copywriter, specialist in inclusive writing, who defines himself as non-binary, fluid (navigating from one genre to another) and queer (who does not recognize himself in the standards of the society).

Better performance

However, the advantages of diversity within companies are no longer to be proven. “This is what allows us, beyond values, to make our company more efficient. The more you design a product with different sensitivities and cultures, the more you integrate the biases, the more it will be relevant in the market and suitable for everyone ”, recalls Nadine Yahchouchi of Microsoft.

The various testimonies and studies on the subject concur in saying that employees from diverse backgrounds have experienced upheavals in their lives, and are often more resilient, with better stress management. Also according to BCG, employees in inclusive companies are 1.5 times happier at work and have a better life balance. In other words, are more efficient.

“It’s time to think about me”

“When, on September 3, 2018, I returned to my business wearing a skirt, it was incredible. I felt liberated, more resilient and calm about worrying situations. A better version of myself ”, testifies Sophie Delannoy, of the Refuge, also transgender.

Julie, she still leads a double life and dreads a little the first days. “When I will be in front of an assembly of 300 people to present strategic actions, I know it will not be easy, especially the first time. Likewise, in the canteen, when all pairs of eyes are on me ”, she confides.

Her strategy is ready: this month, notify the inclusion manager, inform her superiors but also the employees she manages. And define a communication plan for others. “I hide to protect others, which makes my life hell. It’s time to think about me. “ The email she plans to send has been in her drafts for a while. It only remains to press the button.

* The first name has been changed

What is the genre?

According to the UN, “by ‘gender’ we mean the socio-cultural construction of male and female roles and relationships between men and women. While ‘sex’ refers to biological characteristics, being born male or female, gender describes culturally assimilated and instilled social functions. Gender is thus the result of the power relations present in a society and its conception is then dynamic and differs according to the evolution of time, the environment, the particular circumstances and the cultural differences. “


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