Allyship Is a Verb: What I Learned from Trans Employees

Learn how to be an effective ally through education, listening, learning, and acting!

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As you may have seen on our social media, I just published an article in Harvard Business Review magazine. The article focuses on trans inclusivity in the workplace. It is the result of many years of researching and studying topics related to LGBT equality at work. I hope to continue to work on research in this area because it means a lot to me to demonstrate allyship this community.

But, I have learned a lot in the process of researching within a community that I’m an ally in but not a part of myself. I think that these learnings are really important for people who want to increase their allyship across industries. So, I’m writing about them here. These learnings are more about how to get outside of your comfort zone and to try to use your voice to improve the lives of others. So, they are relevant to allyship beyond trans employees as well! I’ll talk about my lessons learned below.

Allyship Starts with Education

I originally became interested in centering my research on LGBT employee experiences through my research on work-family conflict. I noticed that the articles all assumed that families looked the same way and faced the same challenges. So, I decided to focus my dissertation on work-family issues in same-sex couples. We’ve talked about this research on our podcast before. In other words, my formal allyship started with wanting to understand and spread the word about groups that were being silenced in our research and practice.

However, since I’m not a member of the LGBQ community, I first spent a lot of time taking relevant coursework. Specifically, I took a graduate class about how people with stigmatized identities have to shift the way they present themselves, according to how welcoming the context is. It was also helpful to read articles that led me to better understand the broader challenges that this population was facing. Additionally, I went to the campus LGBT center at Penn State and asked for comprehensive resources on the topic. I attended trainings and got involved in activist groups on campus. By educating myself before and during the process, I was able to approach my allyship in a more informed and respectful manner.

Throughout my career, I have taken that same approach. When I wanted to study trans employees’ experiences, I read everything I could get my hands on. During that time, I tried to approach all of my learnings with complete open-mindedness and acceptance. I wanted to be able to best use my voice to represent the challenges and opportunities I learned about. But, I couldn’t do that if I kept letting my own experiences interrupt the way I was viewing the work I was doing!

Allyship doesn’t just happen. You need to show the love by taking the time to educate yourself!

Allyship Requires Listening

Once I feel I have educated myself enough to dive in, I next focus on listening and learning from individuals in that population. It’s important to educate yourself enough so that you know how to respectfully engage with a population that you’re not a part of, before you immerse yourself in it. But, once you have read and understood enough, you can start trying to learn from individuals in the population. This may mean attending employee resource group meetings for specific populations or joining diversity and inclusion committees in your workplace.

In this case, I decided to start attending the Philadelphia Trans Wellness conference. It’s a free, annual conference that brings together thousands of trans individuals. The focus of the conference is on promoting wellness of trans people in many life domains. Through that conference, I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing trans employees, to ask questions, and to learn from their stories. I was also able to schedule some interviews with folks, to hear more details about their specific experiences.

You Need to Approach Allyship with a Learning Mentality

The fewer people you know from a population, the more likely you are to hold stereotypes about them. Do you hold negative or stereotypical views about trans people? How many trans people do you know well? Your views may be stemming from the fact that you’ve never met anyone who would make you question your stereotypes. It’s the same with any other group who you haven’t had contact with. So, ask yourself these same questions about other groups as well.

I have definitely seen this happen with students or other folks who I talk to about trans allyship. They think they know what trans people are going to be like. But, their assumptions are based on what they have heard or stereotypes they have been exposed to. Things change when they start to interact with trans people though. It doesn’t take long to realize the power of shared humanity when you are truly trying to listen and learn from someone who is different from you.

Allyship requires listening and learning from others. You can’t be as effective if you just use your own perspective to inform your actions.

Action Is Needed to be a True Ally

After you educate yourself, listen, and learn, it’s time to actually act. As a person who doesn’t have to bear the burden of trans discrimination, I feel that I have a responsibility to help other people like me see the need for equity. Our work shows that discrimination has a strong negative impact on those who experience it at work. But, we also show that positive reactions from others make all the difference in predicting well-being for trans employees at work. At this stage, you can start using what you have learned to challenge inequitable norms that exist around you at work. Once you realize that something is inequitable, allyship requires that you find ways to drive more positive change.

There are a few ways that we recommend employers drive trans inclusivity at work, within our HBR article. For example, we recommend ensuring individuals can use the bathroom of their choice. We also recommend that dress codes are gender neutral. However, the main underlying feature of our recommendations is that employers should work with trans employees to come up with equitable solutions.


When it comes to allyship, you may not always know the answers. But, you can ask the right questions. If you remain respectful and well-intentioned, you are much more likely to arrive at an inclusive solution. Doing nothing is not an option. Being inactive only preserves the status quo. Taking appropriate action, which is rooted in what you’ve learned is most inclusive, is necessary for allyship.

I hope that our HBR article helps others to feel more comfortable getting started on this journey. There are so many people who are unnecessarily devalued at work. We all can be part of the solution. But, we can’t do it if we just approach things from our own vantage point. Allyship moves society forward in a positive direction. But, it can only effectively happen by working with, instead of on behalf of, stigmatized groups.

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