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A Conversation on Gender Identity and Leadership

By Spencer Stuart's LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group
August 2022

In celebration of Pride Month, Spencer Stuart had the privilege of hosting a panel discussion with three distinguished leaders from the trans community who shared their journeys and insights on how organizations can be more inclusive. Here is a summary of what was discussed during the event and the key takeaways for organizations to consider. Panelists included:

  • Maeve DuVally is a managing director of corporate communications at Goldman Sachs.
  • Imara Jones is the creator of TransLash Media, which aims to shift the culture of hostility toward transgender people in the United States.
  • Dylan Orr is the deputy director of environmental health services for Seattle and King County Public Health.

This event was moderated by James Baatz, a member of Spencer Stuart’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, and an associate in the firm’s leadership advisory services.

The panelists spoke of overcoming the fear of rejection and healing from the vicious bite of bias, to claim and celebrate their identities personally and professionally. They have continuously seized opportunities to represent their community in forums to help enhance public understanding, but more so, to inspire vital self-acceptance in others. The discussion highlighted the importance of intersectionality and the need for companies to think expansively about diversity, equity and inclusion, illustrating that when measures are taken towards the inclusion of one group, everyone benefits.

The panelists described the initial internal struggle they had to wade through to live life as their true selves. Orr and Jones recognized that they had gender identities that differed from their sex assigned at birth as children but didn’t have role models or the word (transgender) for how they felt.

“When I looked out into the world, I didnt find acceptance. I had to figure out ways to scab over, to coat, to obfuscate who I was,” Jones said. “It was a journey of excavating myself and continuing to peel back layers of accumulated trauma and misinformation to become myself.

“What’s fascinating is that my essential gender identity never changed from the time that I was seven and understood what gender was. What changed was my ability to express who I was. Most people, their gender identity has endured throughout their life. So has mine.”

Despite being assigned female at birth (and given the name Lily), Orr was always aware that he was male. As soon as he learned there was a name for it during his college experience, he identified himself as transgender and started to be open about his identity. In his first job out of college that he also decided to be open in the workplace about who he was. “I was going to be out of the office having a chest surgery. I sent an email to all staff entitled. ‘I just need to get this off my chest.’ I told them that I was trans and tried to explain what that was,” said Orr.

He credits a professor named Paul Steven Miller, a Little Person who also faced adversity, for having an indelible impact on his professional life. He created a path for Orr to assume a role working for President Barack Obama’s department of labors office of disability employment policy, as the first trans person appointed to serve a presidential administration. “I wouldnt be where I am in life without the people around me supporting who I am, without people in organizations taking a risk, creating opportunities for me,” said Orr.

DuVally’s journey was quite different. For most of her life, she had no conscious knowledge that she was transgender. She had struggled with other elements of identity but didn’t have the epiphany that she was trans until well into adulthood. “This was something that shocked me. I challenged it for a week or two. Every time I challenged it, it just kept coming back stronger. Finally, I surrendered and accepted it. Ive never looked back,” said DuVally.

All the panelists have faced discrimination, exclusion and negativity at times since coming out. Their experiences led them to strive to support and protect others in their community. Despite society’s growing acceptance, there remains a persistent hostility and danger leveled towards transgendered people.

“Two families disowned their daughters for being in relationship with me, I was physically pulled out of a public restroom, and pulled over by police. I also experienced having a prominent professor mock me in front of a classroom for being trans. I tell you this, because my experience pales in comparison to most of our community, especially trans people of color and people who are multi-marginalized. Im white and able bodied. Ive had incredible privilege. I dont have to live in fear of someone taking my life today,” said Orr.

DuVally shared, “I feel a responsibility to be visible because some of my some of my trans brothers and sisters cant, because it would be dangerous for them to do that.” Increasing their concern and caution are the more than 300 anti-trans pieces of legislation at various levels of passing in US state legislatures.

“Every time I speak, do an interview, transgender people in various stages of coming out, or transgender students who want to work in corporate America, but are afraid theyre not going to get that acceptance, reach out to me. I can really be of service.”

Jones strives to create dialogues with those who express resistance towards the transgender community. To build bridges, she begins with a line of inquiry to understand the basis of their discomfort, then builds out a conversation from that.

“What I find is it usually comes down to control and the idea that gender is essential to an ordered world — that if [people] shift on that, then anythings possible and anything can happen. That’s whats fascinating to me. I want to live in a world where anythings possible,” said Jones.

Beyond the call for supporting human rights, the panelists also emphasized the need to think from a business perspective and the long-term benefits of increasing inclusivity.

“Building an inclusive environment is not an option. Its a necessity. If youre beginning to hire Gen Z people into your workforce, a great many of them already know, or are in some way connected to, people who are trans, non-binary or gender nonconforming. It is a part of [their] expectation, that this will be a space where they, their friends, their family would feel comfortable,” said Jones.

“Every year moving forward for the foreseeable future, that’s going to become more of a reality. If you want to attract the best talent, hold onto the talent, and continue to be relevant in meeting the growing needs of your customers, that inclusivity is an essential business and recruitment strategy. It has nothing to do with being nice or charitable or doing the right thing.”

A commitment to support trans rights needs to be clear and come from the top of an organization and expand throughout. DuVally gave this example of inclusive action from leadership at her firm: “In March, theres transgender day of visibility. We had members of our LGBTQ+ affinity network, allies and our CEO gathered for a group picture. We posted that on social media. That sent a powerful message to people internally and externally that our CEO thinks transgender rights are important and he will spend his time on it,” she said.

The panelists urged leaders to think expansively about the opportunities to include people who have historically been underrepresented and underserved; such efforts can have unanticipated benefits. Orr explained, “When we make changes that are inclusive for one group, that helps all of us. One example is curb cuts. Those were originally built to provide access for people with disabilities. And they’re used by all of us, including people who are carrying luggage. Now I have a stroller and I’m looking for those curb cuts. We need to create environments, literal and figurative ones, from an intersectional perspective.”

They also encouraged leaders to promote dialogue, including hosting events that share stories of trans individuals. By providing a platform for learning and discussion, leaders can help demystify the abstract concept of transgender. More so, they said, it will assist the broader community “to engage in our humanity” to find communality. Bottom line, representation and inclusion are key, in society and up through the ranks of organizations.