When I was in boarding school, the headmaster contacted my family with a concern: I dressed like a tomboy. He held an in-person conference to try to correct my behavior. I love my prep school and haven’t dwelled on the experience, but the cover story in this issue highlighting changing demographics of the Duke workforce got me thinking about how our understanding of identity - personally and as a community - continues to evolve.
Growing up, I had Madonna, George Michael and Boy George as examples of courageous expression outside gender norms, but I didn’t have policies that included “gender expression” as a protected class.
Last year, Duke added “gender expression” to the Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action policy. Past policy additions included sexual orientation, gender identity, and genetic information.
What does “gender expression” mean? You may be a woman who wears Marlene Dietrich-style suits to work because that style of dress is more authentic to your identity. Or, you may be undergoing gender transition, and as part of that process, you begin to dress in a way that more closely aligns with how you feel internally about your gender.
With Duke’s policy, whether you are a student or employee, you may not be discriminated against because of how you express your gender identity.
To learn more about how the policy makes a difference at Duke, I talked with Sara-Jane Raines, Duke’s assistant police chief and co-chair of Duke’s LGBT Task Force, which recommended the change.
Raines explained that the policy is essential for competing for the brightest students and employees.
“It’s the right thing to do in terms of treating everybody with dignity and respect,” Raines said. “Some of the best students and employees are gender non-conforming and have gender expressions that are different from the way they were born or the way the rest of society thinks they ought to express themselves. If we want those people here, and we want them to also feel comfortable and safe, so that they can do their best work, we’ve got to have this language in there.”
While Duke added gender expression as a protected class, we don’t have data to help share stories about this part of our community. So, if you recognize yourself in this group, I’d love to hear from you for a future Working@Duke story. Please write me or call (919) 681-4533.