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CEOs: What’s Your Gender Story?

Every Business Leader Has A Gender Story — Including You

As millennials and Gen Z embrace a more fluid and expansive understanding of gender, companies are starting to understand the need to rethink their own policies, products and practices in order to stay competitive and retain top talent. Key word: starting. Some business leaders wonder if maybe it’s just a fad, or see this as an issue of compliance. Others know they need to do something but aren’t sure where to begin. Even those taking significant action — creating more gender-inclusive organizations as well as products and solutions for customers that expand staid gender norms — often face challenges in navigating this quickly evolving world.

If your company is still figuring things out, you’re not alone; addressing evolving understandings of gender is crucial, complex work.

It’s work that will benefit from the buy-in of the leadership team to understand that this isn’t a passing fad or a fringe issue. Getting there requires a shift in thinking: while many business leaders see gender as something that affects a certain group of employees, the truth is that gender affects all of us. In different ways and to different degrees, we are all affected by narrow understandings of gender.

Once business leaders can shift to this way of thinking, they can cultivate the empathy and understanding needed to meaningfully address gender at the company. But how to get there? It begins by understanding your gender story. We all have one, and it is the lens through which we see gender in our personal and professional lives. I witnessed a skeptical CEO get his “a-ha” moment on gender after realizing how as a young boy gender norms held him back from pursuing his passion for cooking, potentially altering the course of his career.

Here are guiding questions to help you understand your gender story. Consider writing down your answers or talking to a trusted friend or family member. You may be surprised by what you uncover.

  • What’s your first memory of gender defining or impacting your life?
  • Growing up, did you think of yourself as a boy, a girl, both, neither or in some other way? How did you come to that recognition? When?
  • What messages did you receive from those around you about gender? Did those messages make sense to you?
  • How were kids who did not fit into expectations about gender treated by others (teachers, family, faith community, etc.)? By you?
  • How have your race, ethnicity, faith, class and community influenced your gender?
  • How has your understanding of gender influenced your personal life? Your professional life?

Once you have a better understanding of how gender has shaped your professional and personal life, you can begin to see the possibilities of truly reimagining gender across your business. What would it mean to not only create an inclusive space for non-binary employees, but to free all of your employees from limited understandings of gender? It would likely mean unlocking new ideas and innovation, and creating a space where all employees feel empowered to show up as their full, authentic selves.

What would it mean to create products, marketing campaigns and experiences for customers that empower them to be their true authentic selves, rather than ascribing to stereotypical notions of who they should be? Well, for one thing, it would likely mean more sales. A friend recently left an online shoe store without making a purchase because the shoe color they were drawn to “wasn’t available in men’s size.” 

Gender is complex, but it’s also personal, and empathizing through your own experiences is one of the most effective ways to understand this changing world we live in. Your gender story can help you understand — really understand — that gender in the workplace isn’t solely about women’s equality or the experiences of transgender or non-binary employees; instead, its depth and breadth touches every person and aspect of the company. Executives who understand this will be poised to lead as perceptions of gender continue to change rapidly.