A lot of us want to become better allies for LGBTQ+ community. But how do we achieve that, especially in the workplace? Today’s guest is Heidi Duss, Founder/Gender Equity, LGBTQ+ Inclusion & Belonging Advisor at Culturescape Consulting, helping leaders get diversity, equity, and inclusion right and foster more inclusive workplaces. Heidi joins Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen to break down where organizations lack in empowering their diverse workforce and what they can do to fix that gap. Listen in to an insightful discussion on intersectionality, inclusive leadership, and how to build and better your allyship to diverse communities!
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Becoming A Better Ally For Gender Equity And LGBTQ+ Inclusion With Heidi Duss
I’m looking forward to this episode with our guest Heidi because we’re going to touch upon a subject matter that I’m still learning a lot about as a cisgender straight woman who did not grow up having a deeper awareness about inclusion, gender equity and all of these things that have been coming up now and helping me recognize a lot of my ignorance. I was fortunate to grow up with a family and friends that were very inclusive-minded but it didn’t occur to me how little I knew.
One thing that I’m excited to start off with Heidi is pronouns. This is something that I’m trying to be more mindful of but honestly, I feel a little unsure about what exactly it means. We asked you before what your pronouns were and you told us but you also have this listed on your website as she/they. The they/them pronouns I find a bit confusing. I would love to start off with clarity on that because I imagine I’m not the only one that feels confused by it if you identify as binary. Is they/them considered non-binary? Is that right?
My name is Heidi. I use she/they pronouns. I’m based in Madison, Wisconsin. Thank you so much for having me. I focus on gender equity and LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace and help individuals become better allies. In terms of pronouns, we use the binary terms she/he on a daily basis. When it comes to they/them, we think we don’t use them but we do. If we think that maybe you’re starting a new job, you don’t know who was hired and, “Jay hired a new accountant. What’s their name?” We don’t know whether how they identify. Maybe they are non-binary, male or female but when we think about gender, we typically think in binary terms.
The reason I use she/they pronouns are both from a gender fluidity standpoint. Sometimes I may feel more feminine and sometimes I don’t want to identify how I feel in the moment. Also, standing in solidarity and making sure that individuals feel seen and heard. By me sharing my pronouns, it helps other individuals to be able to open up and share their pronouns and also know that, “It’s okay. I see you. I hear you. I want to empower you as well to share your pronouns in this situation.”
I was at a large chamber event. I had kept seeing, “We need to put pronouns on event name tags because these are things that people don’t think about.” You go to an event. You have your name and company printed on your name tag but you don’t think about pronouns. Either person can opt-in and put a sticker on there. Typically, if no sticker is offered, I will write in my pronouns so that it becomes visible to people that, “This is a need and want. Regardless if you’re within the LGBTQ+ community or not, it’s important to bring visibility to pronouns,” even if you think about it from a gender-neutral name.
I have friends that might work in banking. When their name comes across as Alex, it could go either way. It’s not to make assumptions and we make a lot of assumptions in life. It takes practice. People will say, “I’m uncomfortable using those pronouns or I’m not sure.” Honestly, we’re not here to make you uncomfortable. We’re here to make us comfortable and individuals that use they/them pronouns.
She, he and they are not the only pronouns and I’m still learning about all of the different pronouns. Even from a Latinx perspective, elle and ella, all of these different pronouns and I’m still learning. The whole diversity, equity and inclusion justice is an evolution of learning. You’re constantly revisiting this state of awareness and this desire to learn. Once you get pronouns down, there’s something else to learn and you’re constantly learning about different communities, which is what an inclusive leader is.Words are a bridge to be more inclusive. Click To Tweet
Thank you so much for articulating it that way because it makes a lot of sense. It feels exciting to me and it’s very new at the same time. I think of it a bit like allyship, I suppose but I’m not quite sure because it feels awkward to me being a cisgender and never feeling like I needed to think about it. I assumed people knew that I was she/her.
I remember the first time I started clarifying that on social media. Somebody asked me kindly and openly like, “Why are you putting that? Why do you need to feel the need to say that?” I remember thinking, “That’s part of my way of being an ally and supporting people who want to lead with that and don’t feel like people perceive them in the way that they want to be perceived.”
Whereas for me, no one has ever called me he/him. I’ve always been called she/her. Maybe they/them, to your point, Heidi, which I love that explanation of how we will naturally use those terms. I find myself doing that all the time and that has helped me better understand this. Also, this conversation, especially with you talking about fluidity, helped me make more sense of this to think that some people don’t always identify with one way or another.
Jason, that made me question if you fully feel like he/him because we’ve never talked about this together. Jason has frequently spoken about how people perceive his gender and sexuality. I’m curious, Jason, have you felt like he/him are the right pronouns for you? Would you feel more comfortable being they/them sometimes so that you could feel more fluid or not?
I do feel aligned with he/him. I have that on my Instagram and LinkedIn profiles. The one thing, to your point, though, the terminology I landed on was I feel energetically androgynous. I don’t feel physically androgynous in a sense. I feel like I’m physically embodied in a masculine body in my own perception of that but energetically, I do feel very fluid.
My partner, Laura, has this comment she makes pretty often. She is like, “A large percentage of you is feminine and that’s why I think this works.” My girlfriend is bisexual. When we first started dating, she was like, “You have so many wonderful feminine qualities about you.” I said, “I feel energetically androgynous. I feel like I continue to identify and cultivate.” This is an interesting thing that I’m about to say. I don’t necessarily align with what I’m about to say.
I feel like there are these prototypical masculine traits that we’ve put in a bucket like being demonstrative in decision-making and being aggressive and going for what you want. That’s the masculine bucket. The female bucket is nurturing, caring and loving. To me, I don’t feel like those buckets necessarily need to even exist and I’m not sure how relevant they are anymore.
If we talk about this binary, it’s like, “You have these traits so you’re masculine. You have these traits so your feminine.” For me, I feel like if there is a middle, I’m in this nebulous like, “I have all of those traits.” I feel very androgynous in that way. The long answer is I identify with he/him but energetically, I feel like I embody all of the traits. I’m not sure that I even have a word for that. Maybe energetic androgyny will also evolve but that’s the terminology I use now. I don’t know if anyone else uses that term.
I love that, Jason. Thank you for sharing everything about yourself and your partner and for using the term partner because our words matter, evolve and change. I’m cisgender and present as female and probably present more feminine. I love that energy portion of it is, “I’m not your stereotypical feminine woman. I don’t get my nails done. It takes me five minutes to get ready. Eyeliner is my staple and T-shirt and jeans. I don’t wear dresses and get dressed up.” I love that androgynous energy that you were referring to.
I’m always on the evolution of words and language changing. If you follow me on LinkedIn, I’m doing a lot of education around what words matter, like how language evolves and changes and how we have to be mindful of the words that we’re using in the workplace. Whatever we do in the workplace carries over into our family, communities and vice-versa. It’s this huge bridge of, “How can we be more inclusive in life?”
That’s why gender is binary because when you were a little girl or assigned female, you were given Barbies and dolls. Girls are taught from a young age to compete with one another, “Who has the best this? You have the prettier hair. I want to look like this and looking at media and all of this,” even in the ’80s when I was born. Boys are taught, “Get up. It’s okay. Don’t cry. Don’t be weak.” It’s all of these “what’s meant to be feminine.”
I remember when my son was younger and he was unloading the dishwasher. My daughter comes over and wants to help. He was like, “No, this is a man’s job.” He pushed her away. I was like, “Yes, it is.” The examples that we are putting out in our home are there are no gender roles in our home and that we are a family. This is our house, home and family. We do things that take care of each other regardless of who you are, what your role is or how you identify.
I also encourage if you’re reading this episode, to watch the YouTube version. I love your background, Heidi, which is diverse, inclusive, accepting, welcoming and a safe space for everyone. Those words are very comforting to me because I am such a big believer in inclusivity. I’ve had the privilege in a lot of ways of being straight and cisgender and not even having to think about it. I’ve always felt included in some specific ways that now I’m recognizing that not everybody feels included.
I also grew up very liberal, open-minded, curious, loving and assumed other people were that way too. One thing that I find continuously fascinating but also heartbreaking is that to put up a poster like that in your background, to me, it’s like, “Everyone is included, accepted, welcome and this is safe but just that being there shows that it’s not the case everywhere you go.”There are no gender roles in our home. Click To Tweet
This is part of the reason too I feel like the pronouns are so important. You’re indicating that you’re an ally. You wanted everyone to feel like they are not only safe and included but being seen for their full selves and real selves. They don’t have to force themselves into a role, to your point, that they don’t feel like they fit into. Without having that perspective personally, I’m trying to listen more about the experiences that other people are having. I also wanted to point out your shirt, Heidi. What does it say?
It says, “Visibility is life.”
What does that mean?
It was from a conference talk that I did on being queer in the workplace. It was a parent and family LGBTQ+ conference and a friend of mine. I talked about coming out in the workplace and in life. Families are made up of all different kinds of people and structures. What might be normal to you is not normal to me or vice versa. We all get to define what our normal is in life. We’re taught from a young age that, “You grow up. You find an opposite-gender spouse. You go to college. You get a job and a white picket fence and two and a half kids and a dog.” That is the way it works and that is not how it works for many people. That is okay. I can say if I ever had a billboard, it would read, “Life is not linear,” and rainbows and glitter everywhere.
Whitney, to your point of showing up authentically, I would encourage readers to think like, when you’re at work and you’re displaying photos of your family, do you ever think about that someone looking at your photos? If your cisgender, straight family, what society tells us is normal, think about, “Do you ever get questioned? Is that your brother? Those must be your nieces and nephews and your brother.” Nobody says to you, “When did you discover that you were straight?”
If you start flipping the script a little bit and start questioning, “Can I show up?” When people ask you, “What did you do this weekend?” and if you can say, “My husband and I went out with the kids.” If I show up and say, “My two partners and my two children, who we all live under one house,” people would be taken back, not know what to do and then start asking layer upon layer of questions. It immediately goes to this spot of questioning someone within the LGBTQ+ community that you would never ask those same questions of straight people.
It’s things that when we have a sense of privilege whether it be that we’re cis, White or we come from an affluent background, we all have some level of privilege and a sphere of influence. It’s how we take that and elevate voices and empower individuals that may have had their voice turned off or lessened. How can we amplify that even more to be a stronger ally to all different kinds of people and individuals? We’re not one identity. We’re layer upon layer upon layer.
When we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and belonging, we need to realize the intersectional lens that we need to be able to recognize all of the different things that both you can see on an individual but things that you can’t see. When I talk to clients and do my coaching and co-learning opportunities, I use the example of like, “Take parental status, for example. It’s one little box. You can’t see unless somebody tells you what their parental status is.”
You have single parents, double-parent households, multi-generational households, foster parents, adoptive parents, parents who have lost a child, grandparents raising their children, same-sex partner and poly-households. Whatever the case is, there are so many different layers. You don’t know the backgrounds, stories and experiences that someone is bringing into your community organization, workplace, nonprofit or wherever you are. Those experiences are shaping everything that they’re bringing to that workplace or whatever environment you’re in.
One thing and that takes me back when you think about like, “What is an inclusive leader? How can you be an inclusive leader, ally or person?” People think, “Leader equals manager.” You can be a leader in whatever you do in life. You do not need to be in a corporate setting C-Suite corner office but it’s that continuous learning, evolving and having the conversation to be that inclusive leader. The three things are empathy, self-reflection and self-awareness. Those are crucial characteristics to being an inclusive leader in whatever environment and situation you’re in.
There’s a follow-up question Jason is eager to ask too. I’m going to pass it back to you, Jason, with something that came up while listening to that part and also going back to the word, assumptions, Heidi. When you brought that up, I thought about how many times people have assumed that Jason was gay. It has come up so much in your life, Jason, where it’s almost the opposite of what you’re saying, Heidi because that can happen on both sides.
It’s either you assume someone is straight or you assume based on some characteristic of them that they’re gay or any of these other things that we have based on whatever mold or box we want to put someone in based on the things that we’ve learned and our ignorances and all of that. It’s so fascinating because it also comes back to those labels and this desire or conditioning more so that we have of like, “We have to put someone in a box. If they seem this way, they must be that way. If they’re not that way, we’re confused and perplexed by it.”
I’ve noticed that so much, Jason. I’m curious how that has impacted you. I know that you feel very comfortable educating people like, “I’m a straight man.” You’ve talked about your sexuality in past episodes where you mainly feel attracted to women and you’ve experimented with men as well. How do you feel about those assumptions that come up for you? Do they truly not bother you? Is there a level of frustration or discomfort there that you’re used to having that you feel like it doesn’t bother you?
It’s a nuanced answer. It’s nuanced because human beings neurologically and through thousands of years of evolution, people want to feel safe. If they have the ability to quickly identify, categorize and put things in a box then they have a context to engage safely with you. “He listens to Queen and show tunes and he has a house full of cats. He must be gay. He paints his nails sometimes. He must be homosexual.” I understand that what people are attempting to do without them even realizing they’re doing it is, “Here’s a box and a container to put you in. It’s safe to engage with you now. I understand what’s happening.”
To your point, Whitney, if that box or assumption gets shattered then they’re like, “Where’s the context?” What do I call you?” It freaks people out. For me, I’ve never been bothered by people assuming that I’m gay. I’ve never had an issue with people assuming I’m queer and that I’m 100% White because a large portion of my genetic heritage is Latinx.
I’m Puerto Rican and Spanish. I understand I’m White-presenting. They’re like, “Jason Wrobel is a White guy.” I’m like, “Yes, partially but not fully.” Sometimes those assumptions bother me in the sense that people are so quick to shove you in this corner and be like, “That’s what you are.” If you were to ask me with curiosity, I would tell you that that’s only part of the picture. That’s a very slim part of who I am as a being.We all get to define what our normal is in life. Click To Tweet
In 2020, before I crashed my motorcycle, a friend of a friend made a comment to me. We were talking about music and I was talking about punk rock, heavy metal and riding motorcycles. They said something like, “I never pegged you for that, dude.” I was like, “You never pegged me for that. What does that mean?”
They were like, “We thought you were gay because you have cats and this and that.” They gave me all these reasons but you listen to metal and punk rock and you drive a motorcycle. I could see them being like, “This does not compute. What do we say?” I’m like, “Good. Don’t put me in a box. You don’t have terminology for me. That’s great.”
Whitney, thank you for asking this. I want to loop back to Heidi. This is a question for all of us. Do people have this tendency to want to box things binary, this or that? Because of cultural and familial conditioning for God knows how many thousands of years. Is there a deeper, potentially more insidious reason for this in the sense of, “If it’s easy to shove people in boxes and this or that, maybe it’s easier to control people and have society be in neat little packages. This is what we say you are and you’ve accepted that you would never question it?”
I wonder how many people are out there and I’m sure there are a lot of people breaking through these categories, barriers and titles and going, “I don’t identify with that anymore.” Maybe I don’t even know what I am because maybe there’s not a terminology, to your point, Heidi, about the evolution of language like, “Maybe I don’t have a label for it.” That’s how I feel sometimes. Sometimes I look at the language that’s available and I’m like, “That’s close but not exactly correct.” Maybe people feel threatened.
I’m curious about your work, Heidi, when you talk to your clients and companies, do you get a sense that people are freaked out or threatened by this evolution of humanity because it’s easier to understand, control and marginalize people if we put them in these tiny boxes? “If we eradicate the boxes, what are we going to do now?” Do you find people get freaked out by this conversation on a corporate level?
A lot of individuals, especially at the C-Suite, White, cisgender, male and female-identifying, don’t know what to say, when to say or how to say it. They end up not saying anything at all and that’s not acceptable any longer. You will start to see this evolution within the generations of what workplaces need to evolve to and what employees want. It’s no longer about ping pong tables, free snacks and gym. It’s about social impact, autonomy, remote working, flexibility, family, work-life balance and holding leaders accountable for doing what they say they’re going to do. If they’re not even saying it, they’re going to get called out.
We see this Great Resignation, which I was part of it. I was part of voluntarily leaving a six-figure job because I was burnt out and I was sick of banging my head up against the wall. I wanted to make a bigger change and work with individuals who want to do the hard work. I say, “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing. If you want to work with me, you’re going to get uncomfortable.”Life is not linear. Click To Tweet
To your point, Jason, I always say like, “Within the queer community, we’re constantly having to come out.” People might know me as this cis-female, straight-presenting individual with a husband and two children. What they don’t know is I have a girlfriend, a four-year partner. We have broken that mold of what a family looks like. Should I have to tell everyone that I work with to prove my queer card that, “Here’s my whole coming out story.” I shouldn’t have to do that to prove that I have a level of diversity or that I can teach you something or who I am as an individual.
It’s constant. It goes back to putting pictures on the desk, introducing yourself with your pronouns and belonging and leading a DEI program and an LGBTQ+ ERG. I do think that there is a level of people being uncomfortable. It’s also a level sometimes of optics. Especially after the murder of George Floyd, a lot of companies made statements. What I encourage people to do is go back to those statements that they made in June of 2020 and let’s start measuring where your actions are.
They talked about data and metrics and, “How do we measure whether this is going to be successful or not?” A lot of companies talk about like, “I don’t know the return on investment because we can’t tangibly see the money coming in from DEI efforts.” It’s like, “You can if you think about retention of your staff and how happy they are and the morale. That’s your return on investment, not having to hire and train all of these individuals again and maybe being a socially responsible company.”
To circle back, the generations are going to hold employers more accountable, especially with Gen Z now in the workforce. We have Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, four-plus generations in the workplace all have something to offer but based on historical events and how we were brought up, it’s very different thinking in some, not all. Gen Z isn’t going to understand as deeply with the Boomers and vice-versa because of historical events and systems that were built upon within our lives.
I want to talk about the distinction, Heidi, between the definitions in your opinion of allyship versus performative action. I say this because I got a holiday catalog from Amazon. I never got a piece of mail from Amazon in my life. I was like, “What’s this? I didn’t even realize it was an Amazon catalog until I started leafing through it.
It was interesting to observe my internal reaction to this catalog, which is related to my question about allyship versus performative action because as I’m leafing through, I’m like, “There are a lot of different cultural representations here. There are differently-abled people and people of different body types.” I went through and thought, “This was a very intentional decision on Amazon’s part to represent many different types of people. There were same-sex couples in there.”
I sat with it in my body for a second and I thought to myself, “I wonder what their actual internal discussions were around this.” Was this genuine heartfelt, “We need to make sure we are representing humanity and the diversity of humanity?” Was it, “This is going to be good for our bottom line and stock return?” How do we hold corporations accountable for their stated goals of activism and inclusivity but discern what’s real heartfelt allyship versus, “We got to do this because the public is demanding it?” I’m curious where that line is and how you view that.
It’s interesting because we can go out and google any organization and find out the good, bad and ugly. I’m not an expert on Amazon’s workplace culture but there has been enough in the news in how workers are talking about their pay levels and billionaires going to space. My curiosity with that is, “Who is sitting around the table when they’re making those decisions? Is it a bunch of White individuals or do you have representation from those communities speaking about what our next toy should look like when it comes to X community?”
I’ve been in situations where we’re talking about, “How do we market Hispanic Heritage Month?” I had to call it out on the call to say, “I don’t know if anybody else noticed this but we have eight White cis-people on this call. Where is our representation because we are not the experts in this area?” You talk about how to empower your employees and staff and get them more engaged. That’s a way to get them more engaged.
Who cares what their role is? This is their identity and life. This is who they are. These are your customers. Just because somebody works for you doesn’t mean they don’t buy from you or bank with you. How are you marketing to some of these individuals? Is it authentic? Patagonia is a great company for its mission in giving back but I believe they pulled funding from a non-inclusive. It was a very Right-wing conservative organization. I believe it’s with a ski company. It’s, “We’re doing business with this company. They don’t align with who we are as a company, our mission, vision and values.”
When companies stand up and say, “I’m sorry but we’re not going to do business with you. We’re going to put our people over profit,” that’s allyship. Also, when people are speaking about individuals that are not in the room, that is a huge allyship move. You hear terms like mentoring and sponsoring. You are mentoring somebody directly, talking with them and helping them through their career or whatever in life.
Sponsoring is when you’re talking about that individual and their work and giving them credit when they are not in the room to elevate their voice and work so that you can help them move up and forward. When I’m speaking about like, “We’re a bunch of White people. In the room, what are we doing? Why don’t we talk to X, Y and Z? Why don’t we pull in our multicultural ERG and let’s talk to the specific person who leads it?” That’s allyship, that’s sponsoring and giving opportunities to people that are not in the room and elevating their voice on behalf of them.
I always encourage like, “Look at your small businesses. Look at who is supporting your local community and organization. Those are the people that they have a small business but they’re showing up. Who is giving money to your local schools and organizations? That’s who we should be supporting.” There are good inclusive brands out there. It’s a matter of doing your due diligence and looking into like, “Is it convenient?” No doubt, I’m certainly not perfect in this area and I don’t think anyone is but doing your research and finding out, “Do I want to do business with this company if they are so far misaligned from who I am, what I stand for my personal values and what I want to teach my children and family?”
I’m glad that you brought this up. I have a specific situation that I’m curious about, Heidi because as you were sharing this, I was reflecting on how I was working on a project. I do a lot of independent contract work consulting. This specific project was all about featuring experts in the health world. From the very beginning, I encouraged the team that I was consulting for to have some inclusivity.No one asks, 'when did you discover that you were straight?' Click To Tweet
One thing Jason and I discovered, especially through this show is how there’s a lack of diversity in wellness and health. It’s so frequently middle-aged White people, cisgender and straight. That’s the norm and high percentage, at least of people that got exposure. I don’t even remember what the light-bulb moment was for us. Perhaps it was George Floyd in 2020 because, certainly, I dove into a lot more awareness and I had to take a look at my own actions in a new way. I’m doing this now with gender equality and a better understanding of things like pronouns. It’s an unfolding like, “How can I be a better ally?”
What I struggled with in this specific instance I’m bringing up is I shared how important that was. I was trying to be proactive and encouraging. I went and researched all different types of people so we could have some non-White people and some differences in age. I was trying to think of every category. I presented it to them and it was completely ignored. They went on and brought in most men. All of them were White and about the same age. There might have been one woman but off the top of my head now, I’m not even sure.
It’s making me wonder like, “What could I have done differently? What can I do moving forward?” Maybe sometimes I feel uncomfortable because I’m like, “I fall into those categories. I’m a straight, cisgender White woman in that same age range. Who am I to speak up for it?” Maybe that’s where I get stuck. I shrink down and I’m like, “It’s not my place. They’re not going to listen to me because it sounds like I’m being a hypocrite or something.” What would you advise in those situations, Heidi? How do we push for something like this when it feels like no one is listening to us? I don’t know if it’s gaslighting but it’s like, suddenly, you second-guessed yourself like, “Maybe I’m not the right person to talk about this.”
It’s both gaslighting and imposter syndrome. As women, we have that. I did a post like, “Stop calling your women in the office dear, honey, sweetheart or gorgeous.” Stop doing that because it’s diminishing our credibility and experience. We wouldn’t go into the office and call men boys. We wouldn’t do that. We don’t say, “The office dad, bring in snacks.” It’s constantly put into these gender roles. It’s being a disrupter and going against the grain. This is hundreds of thousands of years of how systems were built to benefit White individuals, especially White men at the top. There are a lot of people that see it and there are some people that don’t. You’re not ever going to reach everyone. It’s not possible.
Within my consulting in conversations, depending on the situation, I will pull in reinforcements or another consultant that maybe I don’t have the expertise in that area. I will partner with another individual because I do feel that when companies look at this from a DEI lens, there’s not a one-size-fits-all to consultants or hiring a chief diversity officer. This is a collective, collaborative effort. How I identify is not how somebody else identifies. I wouldn’t walk into an organization trying to teach something that I don’t know about myself.
A lot of times, we, as women and speaking from experience, will back down, “Is that the right answer? Should I say that? They’re my boss. They hired me.” Going in is when you want to make sure that your values align with this company, which is why I went into business for myself. I want to do business with people that align and want to do the work. Even if you start dropping little knowledge bombs and questions like, “Who is our customer base? Who are we looking to attract? Have you thought about this?” I guarantee that at least 1 or 2 people, that’s going to resonate.
If any way that you can find an ally that’s at the table, walking into this consulting meeting that you’re talking to all different and you know that sitting across from you are two people that totally agree with you, you need to hook up with those two people so that they can reinforce your message. That’s why we need male allies at the table for us women because, a lot of times, women’s voices are shut down. We’re looked at as, “Can you take the notes? Can you bring the snacks? Can you clean up after the meeting?” “No, I can’t,” and not looked at for our experience. It’s finding those internal allies for you as well.
That is super helpful. It’s also helping me realize how important this is for me moving forward. To your point, it might support me in vetting who I’m partnering with to make sure they’re in alignment with me too, which sometimes we can get into this scarcity mentality or shrink down and think like, “It doesn’t matter.” It does matter to me because I’m at a point where I don’t want to be associated with anything that doesn’t feel inclusive because that reflects not just on them but on me because I’m involved.
I don’t want people thinking that I’m not advocating for inclusivity. How would they know that if all they’re seeing is what’s presented to them versus what’s happening behind the scenes? They’re not seeing my emails and our conversations about these things. It doesn’t make sense for me moving forward to be involved with that. I also don’t think it supports me in being the best ally possible if I’m continuing to be involved with people who aren’t prioritizing it.
Another follow-up question to that is, why do you think that is? When Jason brings up this Amazon situation, there’s the side of people that are maybe coming across as performative but you’re also thinking, “It might be performative but it’s still great.” When I see anything like that, as you described in that catalog, Jason, I’m like, “This is awesome.” I can see why you think, “It’s coming from Amazon so maybe they don’t have the best intentions.”
Heidi, I’m curious how you feel about that too. It’s like, “It could be performative but I still think it’s helping.” The other side to that question though is, why aren’t some people doing anything about it and they’re going around without the inclusivity? How is it that people are still comfortable with not being inclusive? What do you think is stopping them?
I want to touch on that and then I want to go back to your consulting with people. One, there’s fear of making a mistake, which people need to get over it. They need to know that everyone is going to make mistakes. I do this for a living and I make mistakes. No one is perfect in life. It’s what we do with that knowledge that’s being called in to learn something more. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
I taught and spoke at the Out & Equal Workplace Summit on this like, “What is queer enough?” One of my good friends is a Black queer female. We used to work together and I walked into her office. We were meeting for the second time, talking about DEI. I thought, “I know it. I’m walking in. We’re going to talk about people of color. What can we do for the BIPOC community?”
Once I started talking, she was like, “Hold up. That term doesn’t work for me.” I was like, “Can you elaborate a little bit more? I know full well it’s not your job to educate me.” She said, “I am a Black woman. If we’re talking about communities of color, Latinx, Asian and all different kinds of communities then okay. We’re talking about communities of color but you’re talking about a Black woman.” I was like, “All right.”
Honestly, it strengthened our relationship because our friendship is so much deeper now that we are able to have those conversations. There wasn’t a combativeness to it. It came from a place of genuine learning and it was a teachable moment. That’s something that I have continued to teach other people now that I know better.We're not one identity. We're layer upon layer upon layer. Click To Tweet
Another example I had was helping a client with a job description. We put it out and said, “BIPOC, LGBTQ+ individuals, etc., are encouraged to apply.” One of my friends, who is a disability consultant, reached out to me and said, “Within the differently-abled community, a lot of times we get lumped into the word etc.” It’s so helpful to be able to call it out and bring awareness to it. I was like, “Awesome.” I’ve been using that ever since.
It’s those little moments that it’s how our language shifts. It’s inclusion and how we help people to be further seen and heard. Having that visibility in a catalog for a child looking at a magazine that shows a Barbie in a wheelchair, a Black baby doll or two moms with a family, representation absolutely matters. My dentist is Black. He and I had a conversation while I’m lying in the chair and getting my teeth clean. He was like, “Parents will bring their children to me because they’ve never seen a Black dentist before.” They want to make sure that the children know this is something that they can aspire to be. You can be anything you want to be.
The difference is when you’re being vocal about what’s wrong. When you’re actively using your voice to put people over profit, that’s the difference in performative versus, “Not only giving money but where are you showing up using your voice, body and actions? What are you doing to make a difference in this world?” That’s one of the differences and there are probably deeper experts in this area of consumerism.
To the consulting point too Whitney is how are you using your personal brand to attract your clients? I think about it because I’m finding my voice, especially after coming out. Before I came out, I was like, “I was still a disruptor. I still pushed against the corporate boundaries,” but now, I’m like, “This is what we need to do for our LGBTQ+ community.” Your voice evolves and the energy changes. You’re able to lean into your truth and you feel like this weight is off your shoulders. I can be me more than I was years ago.
I started putting that out on my social platforms. When people hear me speak like that, this is me. If you go out to LinkedIn, you start reading my posts. If you feel that that resonates with you and you want to do business, visit my website because there’s no difference in my voice on my website to my LinkedIn. Everybody thinks, “LinkedIn is this professional platform,” which I hate the word professional because who gets to define what a professional is?
That’s something also that you can build on. It’s like, “On your website, what do you stand for? What is your inclusion statement? What are your values? Do people align?” Even during your intake, you get a feel of whether somebody is going to do the work or not or aligning with who you are as an individual or as a business. If they don’t, they see your brand like that and they’re not ready for what I have to say like, “If you can’t take that I’m telling you, ‘Don’t say hey guys to everyone or don’t use the word, my tribe,'” then you’re probably not ready for me. You got bigger things to worry about that word.
Heidi, I love that you brought up my tribe because one thing that I’m noticing as an offshoot of capitalism is how a lot of what I’ve observed and I know Whitney has observed when we talked about this. Digital marketers will notice that there is a “disenfranchised group of people” that they somehow identify with. They will find out what those pain points are of this marginalized community of which they’re a part of.
I’ve noticed them leveraging certain language of like, “Hey goddesses. Hey tribe. Hey this. You’re a disempowered woman. Give me $30,000 and I’ll invite you into the goddess circle and then you can feel a part of something.” I’ve noticed, for me, it’s my opinion, a certain manipulation with the marketing of, “You feel on the outskirts and not included. There’s a whole group of human beings like you. You just need to pay the right amount of money so you’ll feel included with this circle.” When you said tribe, it triggered me honestly because I see that and cringe when I see that terminology.
It’s not that far from guru too, which is another word that triggers you, Jason.
It does because I feel like there has been a co-opting of language from other cultures that you may not even be a part of, where then Native American content creators I’ve seen on TikTok and Instagram go, “Please don’t use tribe. Please don’t use that terminology. It’s disrespectful to us. It’s not your word. Don’t use it in alignment with your goddess circle full of cisgender, White, single women. Don’t do that.”
Going back to the power and evolution of language, the word tribe brought this monster out of me. I see language being used to manipulate and coerce people to feel a sense of belonging, “As long as they pay you the right amount of money then you can belong.” My long question here is the role of capitalism because I don’t want to throw capitalism under the bus. I don’t think it’s fully a bad thing. I do believe late-stage capitalism and some of the tentacles are destroying the fabric of humanity and the planet in a lot of ways. That’s a whole other subject matter.
When we’re talking about diversity, inclusion and allyship, what are some ways that you think capitalism could evolve in a more compassionate, honoring and respectful way? If you could be like, “We’re going to change the system. Here’s how I want to change the system,” do you think we should destroy capitalism altogether? I don’t want to assume.
That’s a whole other podcast. When it comes to organizations, they have to realize that we are not cogs in wheels and machines. We are people and human beings that have a whole life outside of these four walls within your organization. I could give my whole life to an organization. When I leave, they wouldn’t give a shit. They would find somebody else. You are replaceable. Everyone is replaceable. Companies need to appreciate their employees way more than, “I’m going to throw you a pizza party.” Who cares about that?
Psychological safety, safe spaces and a sense of community are the things that are going to help you retain individuals and also realize that we’re not a singular identity. We come from many different layers, backgrounds, colors, ethnicities, races, religions, gender, non-binary and realize that we want different things and our sense of belonging is different. It’s things like when the murder of George Floyd happened. I reference that because that was the turn when a lot of companies were like, “Now, we need to do something about it.”
I’m trying to understand the systemic issues that have been built upon Corporate America, education and healthcare. Instead of getting on the defense, have a natural curiosity to learn. It goes back to that gaslighting, which my partners will hear more about gaslighting and intersectionality than they probably want to know. If I tell you what my experience is, don’t say that it didn’t happen to me. Listen to your employees. That’s the biggest thing.
Those are the people that are interacting with your customers. They’re on the frontline. They’re in the weeds. They see things that you don’t get to see at your corner office. Have that ability to empathize with your workers and get in the weeds with them. Who knows if this is capitalism or what its purpose of it is? Remember that show, Undercover Boss? People saw things. Have that curiosity to go and be with your employees in more than one 45-minute observation. What are you going to be able to tell from that? Stay curious and empathetic.
Also, make those personal connections. We’re not just all about work. We have lives and families. We enjoy things out, “What do you like to do on the weekends?” Get to know people on a personal level and develop that connection. That will increase loyalty on both ends. A lot of organizations are scared to go against their stakeholders losing money, “What if I make a mistake and it blows up?” Your company could go under by saying the wrong thing. That’s why you can’t be reactive to situations like this. You have to be proactive in your learning. You’re constantly learning. If you do make a mistake then make a public statement and say, “I’m sorry,” and then say what you’re doing to be a better person.If I tell you what my experience is, don't tell me that it didn't happen to me. Click To Tweet
That point too though is tricky. Similar to how Jason got triggered by the word tribe, one of my big triggers is shame. It drives me nuts when people are shaming one another because it has happened to me so much. Many people are afraid of that public shaming. They’re afraid to be called out and canceled.
I don’t know if people are as worried about being held accountable. There’s this deep human fear of being told that you made a mistake and you can’t fix it. I take issue with that because you’re right. It’s important to make mistakes. Everybody has been saying that. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned also from the George Floyd situation. It’s fascinating how it took him specifically to make this huge shift when so much of that is constantly happening. It’s like, “Why was it that? I don’t know but I’m very grateful, sadly.”
It’s hard to say you’re grateful for someone’s death but I’m grateful that at least there was this awakening within myself and many others but there was also the simultaneous fear of saying the wrong thing. I learned through that that you have to try because if you don’t, if you’re silent then you’re part of the problem. It’s that tricky thing of being terrified of saying the wrong thing because we don’t want to be shamed and canceled but we have to keep experimenting and finding that courage.
When you also brought up the apology, Heidi, that’s tricky too because people are constantly shamed for not apologizing correctly. That’s disturbing and it’s like, “What do you do then? It’s not okay that I made the mistake but now that I made the mistake, you want me to apologize. Now, you’re telling me that my apology is not good enough. I’m also being canceled because of my apology.” No wonder people are standing still and not doing anything because it all sounds awful.
That’s where the empathy piece comes in. It’s like, “Come on.” It would be one thing if you made the mistake. You didn’t make an authentic apology, not just a written PR statement or whatever the case is that, “I am going to do better,” and then, “Okay. Let me see.” It’s the same thing with DEI efforts. You can put out a statement. You can say you’re going to do something. You can say, “Diversity matters to us,” but what actionable steps are you doing?
A lot of times, people think they have to overhaul the whole system. I don’t know how many people tell me, “I don’t even know how to start a DEI strategy.” To that, I’m like, “Let’s work.” I have programs that we break this down into how to develop a DEI strategy because, on the same hand, people are thinking, “I need to make a change overnight.” I once had a client say, “How long is this going to take?” I was like, “It’s going to take your whole life.”
It goes back to having that natural curiosity, being a lifelong learner, asking questions, learning and not waiting for somebody to present the information to you. Google is your friend. Go out and say, “Is this term offensive?” It will pop right up with the answer. Stay curious about those types of things. If you don’t know what to say, google it, “I don’t know what to say to my Black employees.” It will come up. They can help you along the way. Hire a consultant.
A lot of times, C-Suites are expected to be the leaders. They’re running an organization but when it comes to DEI and psychological safety, they don’t know what to say, when to say and how to say it. They themselves may need a safe space to have a conversation or ask those questions. That’s where inclusive leadership coaching is. I work with C-Suite leaders to have that space, develop that space and answer those questions. One leader, White, cis-male CEO said, “I support my LGBTQ+ employees. That’s their preference.” I was like, “Hold up. That’s not a preference.”
He is within the Boomer generation. Those are the words that he was taught, using the term homosexual. We’re herds. Language changes and evolves. It’s like taking back the word queer and re-empowering people to use that term. That shift in, “Let me explain to you why that word is triggering for people and harmful to your employees because me being gay is not a preference, it’s my identity.” You can do that in an empathetic and educational way that doesn’t shame him for what he has always learned and he didn’t have to ever look at it or learn.
You think of DEI as this big lake and I’m way in the deep end. I want everybody to come and swim with me in the deep end but they are way on the shore. If I make them come to the deep end, they’re going to drown and they’re never going to come back. I have to go out to them, dip their toe in the water, hold their hand, tread water and get to the deep end. Sometimes that can be frustrating and painstaking because we want to make change and we know what needs to happen but when you’ve never been exposed to it, you were raised in a different generation or system, have an unseen or unrecognized privilege, you just don’t see it.
I felt very seen at this event. I was sitting next to a Black man. He is a Gen X or Boomer generation and we were having a conversation. I was telling him what I do and talking about intersectionality and feeling seen. He looked at me and he was like, “How did you get to be this way?” I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “You’re so human.” It gave me goosebumps. I was like, “Thank you so much for recognizing that because I try. I’m not perfect.”
Being raised to be kind and empathetic and treat people the way they want to be treated is important to how my family structure is, how my children are raised and how my children interact with other individuals. You’re raising individuals and kids to be caring adults. What we’re teaching our children is this next generation that can change the world and make a bigger impact. I didn’t know that I was helping him at that moment. I was just talking about what I do. I felt seen at that moment. It was a cool moment.
It also reflects on the fact that you’re helping so many people. You’re raising children and helping adults understand these things at the same time. It’s important because they both need that information and training. One of the biggest takeaways that I have from everything you shared is it helps us to look back into our childhood experiences.
When you were bringing up swimming and how delicate that is, it’s like riding a bike too. Many of us take for granted riding a bike if we know how to do it but if we go back and remember how awkward, hard and uncomfortable that was and your body doesn’t know what to do so you’re falling down and scraping your knees. You can think about all of these tough times.
There are many metaphors, even driving a car. You have to learn how to drive a car and so much information. All the rules are changing and they’re different from place to place. You have to constantly be adjusting. It also reminds me of like, every time I drive past a cop, I worry that I’m going to get pulled over. Even if I’m not doing anything overtly wrong, there’s a part of me that’s like, “Am I doing things correctly?”
Even though that’s a weird paranoia, I feel like it ties in here too because it’s revealing to me that even when I’m doing my best, I still might be making a mistake. Somebody might have to point it out to me and I have some consequences. I’m going to learn from that. When I make those mistakes and pay those consequences, I do better as a result. It sucks in that period of time. If we use this metaphor of getting pulled over like, “Who wants to get a ticket? Who wants to feel that discomfort, pay that bill or go to court?” It’s a huge inconvenience but it’s such a great learning experience.
I will say on that because that’s a great example. If our differences is getting pulled over and how am I teaching my White son what to do when he gets pulled over or the differences in our Black and Brown community getting pulled over versus him as a White male getting pulled over? What do you do in these situations with your friends that don’t look like you? How do you use your privilege? How do you be an ally in those situations?
There’s a commercial and I forget who the company was. It was a mother speaking to her Black daughter and said, “Here’s what you do when you get pulled over.” She was like, “Mom, I’m not going to get pulled over. I’m going to be safe.” She goes, “I know you’re going to be safe. That’s not what I’m referring to.” I’m like you, Whitney. If I pass a cop, I’m like, “What did I do wrong? I better slow down,” but I would have to think, “Am I going to get pulled over for being a White woman, just for existing? No, that’s not my first thought.”Me being gay is not my preference, it's my identity. Click To Tweet
Those are the things that we don’t have to think about. They never happened to us. We have that privilege. Some people think that privilege exists and some people don’t. It’s from the systems that were built to benefit White individuals. Those are all little things. You have that conversation with your child to say, “This is the difference. Does make it right? It’s not right. It’s totally wrong but here’s where your role comes in if you should witness this. Regardless if you’re driving by or with your friends, what do you do in this situation because we’re not going to stand around and let it happen?”
Thank you for pointing that out because that’s a whole other level of this. It ties back into the theme of being a better ally and understanding and knowing not just how to take care of yourself but how to support other people. It can be so overwhelming sometimes to take care of ourselves but I certainly don’t want to be a bystander.
There was a story that I got a glimpse of. It was a sexual assault on a train in Philadelphia. The big remark was people just watched it happen. Some people were recording it with their phones, not because they agreed with what was happening but because they didn’t know what to do. People now are so used to getting their phones to document things but sometimes documenting gets in the way of preventing these horrible things.
This is a little bit out of ignorance but George Floyd was documented and I don’t know if those people that were documenting his death felt helpless. What was going on at that moment? You raised this important point of like, we need to know how not to be bystanders and how to take bigger action. I’m so grateful for all the work that you do, Heidi and how you speak about this but also how you post online. That’s something I reflect on often is like, “How can we contribute to educating others and sharing what we’re learning?” Teaching constantly is a beautiful thing to witness and practice.
I’m so grateful that you took the time to come on the show and talk about it and all the different tangents, elements and places that we went. I love it all. I feel very happy that you were here because it gets me thinking about a lot about what I can do, how I can adjust, how I can do better and also finding the courage to make mistakes and not being so afraid of it. This constant concern about not being good enough and wanting everything to be perfect gets in the way.
The next level for that is speaking out here on the show but understanding that not everybody is going to have that same perspective. In fact, I’m going to constantly run into people that don’t understand, don’t get me and don’t agree. I posted on TikTok something about pronouns. It was International Pronouns Day. I wouldn’t have known that had I not been on TikTok because that’s not a world that I’m deeply immersed in, although I would like to be more so.
I thought, “Okay, great. I’m going to go check out who is posting about these hashtags.” They were amazing. I love TikTok for this reason and for many reasons but people explaining it and all the different ways that they were sharing. On TikTok, you can do this thing called the Stitch. You can take a part of somebody’s video and then comment on it. It’s like a retweet on Twitter with comments or a share on Facebook.
I remember posting it and feeling so vulnerable. That vulnerability was like, “Did I comment on this quote right? Did I represent what I was trying to say in a clear way?” It was the fear of other people’s judgments. I had to find the courage to do it anyways and say like, “I might not have done this right or well. I might be misunderstood and criticized but I’m a little bit more comfortable doing that than not saying anything at all.”
That to me is one of the biggest lessons. I’m so grateful for you advocating for that and helping me and Jason but also the reader and everybody else that you touch through your social media. I can’t wait to dive deeper into it and your website and all the amazing work that you do to help people. I hope that the reader does take the step of at least following so that you can continue to educate yourself and grow your awareness around these important topics. Thank you, Heidi, for being here.
Thank you so much for having me. This was a great discussion!
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- Heidi Duss – Culturescape Consulting
- Instagram – Jason Wrobel
- LinkedIn – Jason Wrobel
- LinkedIn – Heidi Duss
- Women in the Office Should Not be Referred to As
- Out and Equal Workplace Summit
- TikTok – Whitney Lauritsen’s Pronouns Video
- TikTok Stitch Feature
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About Heidi Duss
Heidi Duss is a Human Resources Leader who has built her career and expertise in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, organizational culture, and recruitment and talent management. She has worked with organizations of all sizes, from startups to Fortune Global 500 companies in recruitment, insurance, finance, technology, and marketing.
As the Founder and Chief Consultant of Culturescape Consulting, Heidi provides thought leadership, strategic planning and creative solutions to her clients that help foster more equitable and inclusive workplaces. She is a Course Facilitator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Certification course at Cornell University
In 2021, Culturescape became a certified LGBT+ owned business through the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC).
Heidi received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, along with a Certification in Human Resource Management. She also completed Deep Diversity Institute and Facilitator Lab, and holds additional certifications in Leadership and Diversity Recruitment.
Heidi serves on the Board of Directors for OPEN – Out Professional Engagement Network and is actively involved in her community. In 2019, she was awarded Advocate of the Year by the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber and was one of Brava Magazine’s 2020 Women to Watch.
Heidi is a true believer that we should all be able to bring our best and authentic selves to a workplace that champions safe spaces for all identities.
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