In 2017, Wynne Nowland had to do something few CEOs have ever had to do: come out as transgender and let her staff know she’d be living and working as a woman from now on. But when she tells the story today, Nowland, who spent roughly 30 years at Bradley & Parker before taking the helm, finds people are almost disappointed to hear how not disastrous it was.
“Once the initial shock passed—and you have to allow for that—the support I had from the team here was really pretty much universal,” she says. “People never want to hear that because, it’s a more interesting story if it was horrible.” Other than a few employees visiting human resources to voice concern about the bathrooms, “I had very little resistance.”
Not that she wasn’t plenty worried beforehand; the insurance industry is famously conservative and she knew there was a chance both clients and employees would have a problem with it. She recalls being concerned about a few employees in particular who, she jokes, were “just slightly to the right of Attila the Hun” in their political views. Before she transitioned, when debate over the North Carolina so-called “bathroom bill” had reached a fever pitch, she recalled hearing them express support for the bill. “And these people are important team members, so I’m thinking, this is not going to be easy.”
But when Nowland revealed the truth about herself, she was pleasantly surprised. “They were among the most supportive and loving people of almost anybody.”
That’s generally how it works with coming out, Nowland says: people may have preconceived ideas about the LGBTQ population, but when they realize somebody they like and respect is in that group, “they have to come to some kind of resolution,” she says. “[These employees] had known me all this time, and he had to come to a resolution that, she didn’t go through all of this and put herself and her career at risk and everything else so she could put on a dress and go to the ladies room. So now their opinion is totally changed. And the more we talk about it and normalize it, the less stigmatized it becomes and the less inflamed.”
That’s why Nowland made a decision last year to start talking about it more openly outside the company and to use her platform as CEO to make a difference for others. We spoke with her during Pride Month about her experience and how CEOs could make their company cultures more welcoming and accepting for LGBTQ people.
How far along do you think corporate America is in terms of making space for transgender employees?
It really is all over the map and it’s dependent upon so many different things, including the size of the company. The larger companies are much more sensitive to this, and candidly sometimes I wonder whether they’re sensitive to it for the right reasons or because the larger you are, the more careful you have to be on what you do, the political correctness thing.
But then secondly, a lot has to do with what area of the country you’re in. The left and right coastal areas are pretty progressive when it comes to this kind of thing, but if you’re down in Mobile, Alabama, it’s probably not quite the same experience. So I think it really, really varies.
And specifically about the transgender community, acceptance has not risen to the same level as gay or bisexual individuals. One thing that’s really hurting the situation right now is that for some reason that I’ve not been able to discern, transgender people and what they do and where they go to the bathroom and what schools they go to and what sports they play have become part of the big discussion of the day, along with the border crisis and everything else in really making a dividing line between these two seemingly polarized viewpoints we have over our country right now. It just doesn’t seem like anybody is out there talking about the middle ground. It seems as though everybody has ceded the middle ground to these extreme positions. That’s really, really harmful.
How can CEOs level the playing field inside their companies specifically for transgender employees? What can they do to make lasting change as opposed to just sending out an email once a year during Pride Month?
It’s a combination of a few things—communication, education and examples. And those three things have to be kind of in constant motion and constantly intertwined. Execution and accountability are also critical. That is where I think a lot of plans go awry because they’re not executed or sometimes they’re executed or attempted to be executed but there’s no consequences if the execution isn’t completed. If you don’t have consequences, people tend to repeat the same behavior. So I think sometimes there are tough decisions.
Let’s say you have a company—and this is totally not the case here, so it’s easy for me to make this up without getting myself in any trouble with anybody—where you have a director of sales who’s just hitting it out of the park and is making all his numbers and his teams are doing well, but you also know that he has an inherent prejudice against a group, whether it’s trans people or anyone else. If you look the other way because of his excellent performance, that’s not good. That is still happening. It’s on the decrease as a certain age group gets out of positions of control. That’s not just in this, though—it’s also women executives being able to progress through the workforce and into the C-level. They’re still way behind the men. But, you know, a lot of the men that make those promotion decisions are kind of on the back nine. As they move on to the next phase of their lives, they get replaced by people that are coming from a more modern perspective.
The younger up-and-coming cohort do seem to care less.
So true. They’re just less influenced by the noise out there and they carve their own way. That to me is what’s really hopeful about the future, because I do think that the vast majority of people that are now ‘coming of age’ at companies and starting to take leadership roles—and also mid-management roles and supervisory roles—they are huge in this discussion. They are going to make the difference.
Why are you being more vocal about telling your story now?
Not to get super philosophical, but if you look at human history, people in general have difficulties with things that they’re not exposed to and that are new to them. When I first transitioned, I had a very easy time of it, both with our team here at the company and also with our clients and vendors and our business partners. So for the first year and a half, I was just like, I’m happy now in my whole life. I love this business, I love the team here and I just want to be myself and do my thing.
But then I started to think that maybe if I became a little bit more public and sought to tell this story, I could help to normalize this because that I think is what starts to really change public opinion is when it becomes more normalized. The other thing is that we’re living in a time now where if you’re a right-leaning person, when you go home and want to get the news, you’re probably turn on Fox. And if you’re a left leaning person and you go home, you probably turn on either MSNBC or CNN. And the problem with that is that you’re constantly drinking your own Kool-Aid, you’re never really exposed to any other ideas because there’s nobody really out there that’s giving an unbiased position. Everything is totally slanted. So what happens is people end up getting opinions that are informed not by fact or by their own experiences, but they’re informed by all this bombastic rhetoric that keeps coming at them. But the more we normalize talking about it, the less stigmatized it becomes.
Have you heard from a lot of people since speaking more openly? What can you tell CEOs about how their still-closeted transgender employees might be feeling?
I’ve had a good amount of transgender people reach out to me for some kind of support, guidance, which I’m always happy to give. And so [in addition to my experience] I can now share the experiences that those people have told me about, and it basically all boils down to fear. The reason people don’t come out is because of fear. So they’ve been hiding this for a long time and they’re in a traditional heterosexual marriage, and they love their partner, and there’s fear that their partner’s not going to understand. Younger people are afraid of parental abandonment—and that happens all the time. And then more specifically to the work issue, people are afraid of being fired. They’re afraid of the cessation of further upward opportunities. They’re afraid of being made fun of. So it really is all fear-based.
The only way I can think of to combat that, for those companies that want to do it, is to come up with a communication and education program that puts out to your team and into your population that you are a welcoming environment and that people are encouraged to live and work as their authentic selves. You can start an education program and say, ‘We’re very welcoming, and we understand that some people have fears about coming out at work and if that’s an issue you have, please talk to HR.’
The extra step we’ve taken is that we have a psychologist on retainer. Not just for this, but with Covid and people bugging out about working from home, we’ve had her seeing team members to try to get them over that hump. There are all sorts of things you can do. But the problem has been that most [companies] put out some high browed statement once or twice a year when there’s some kind of an event going on and the next day it’s back to business as usual, and they’re not doing any of these kinds of things we’re talking about.
Do you have thoughts about what metrics should be tracked regarding transgender inclusion?
You know, I think sometimes we tend to over-complicate things. I don’t know what the number is right now, but the percentage of the population that identifies as transgender now, although it’s certainly more today than it was five or 10 years ago, is still a very small segment of the public. So my opinion is you need to have a diversity plan that covers everything, and that way you catch everybody in the same bucket. You make sure that everybody knows that you’re diverse with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Because if you focus too much on one of the smaller buckets, you leave everybody else out, and you may be addressing all this attention to a situation that doesn’t even exist for your company. It should be part of an overall diversity plan that brings everybody into the tent. Because if you want to do something stupid as a company, start to exclude people from your tent and start [shrinking] your talent pool. As time goes on, the population is only going to get more diverse.