I Often Feel I Have to Choose Between My Gender Identity and Professional Community
5 min read | Apr 2022

I Often Feel I Have to Choose Between My Gender Identity and Professional Community

I struggled to navigate career transition as a nonbinary person.

Corpus Callosum / Millennial / Progressive / Writer

It was morning. I lay in bed, waiting for my brain to wake up and checking my social media when a post caught my eye. A group of women in professional attire stood in a conference hall, smiling and laughing. The author of the post discussed the wonderful experience she had with her community at a recent conference. I checked out the organization, and my rush of hope faded. It was a women’s group, promising professional community based around womanhood. 

The community part sounded great. The womanhood part, not so much. 

Even before I identified as nonbinary, I balked at the idea of joining a professional group for women. In graduate school, I declined to take part in groups for women in science. After all, I already had community. I had mentorship. My resistance to women’s professional groups made more sense when I realized that my gender identity doesn’t include womanhood. It wasn’t resistance to the idea of a community for women; it was resistance to the assumption that I was a woman. 

My gender identity includes aspects of both traditional femininity and masculinity but not in a way that instills a sense of womanhood or manhood. I am nonbinary. But gender identity is only one part of me. My love of learning and the value I place on collegial friendships are also part of who I am. For a long time, my job met my needs for learning and professional community.

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I Sought Community During a Career Transition

Then came a cross-country move, and geography limited the jobs available in my field. I needed more options. So I tapped into the programs and communities that were available to me as a military spouse. I thought I might find common ground with others seeking career advice and guidance.

I felt out of place. On paper, these were groups for military spouses, but in practicality, most members were women. I tried to ignore the pang of frustration whenever someone shared or started a post with, “Hey ladies!” 

Although there were men in the groups, most photos featured women. They projected an image of polished, professional femininity. I didn’t see myself represented among them with my menswear and short, masculine haircut—I felt pressure to be more polished, more professional to make up for my nontraditional appearance. 

Conversations about work-life balance were viewed overwhelmingly through the frame of balancing children with a career. I struggled with the implications that motherhood was a valid reason to prioritize work-life balance, while simply wanting more freedom was not. I especially struggled with the occasional comment suggesting that motherhood was obligatory and inescapable for any person who happened to have a uterus.

Still, people shared useful resources, and I found programs geared toward providing mentorship. That sounded perfect—I had greatly valued the mentorship I received in academia. Maybe a mentor was just what I needed.

Over the following weeks, I had dozens of casual discussions with the mentors in the program. My goal was to understand their career paths and insights. I appreciated the conversations and valued the time of those who spoke with me. Still, I received comments suggesting that some saw my advanced degree as a defect, as evidence I possessed no “real” work experience. The comments added up: an implication that my interest in multiple career fields was a symptom of naivete, a suggestion that I needed extra hand-holding in the job search process, a warning that I should expect to endure extra scrutiny to prove my competence. And, in turn, I felt my mentors’ views on work and professional identity were stifling.

Moreover, I expected that resources or groups these mentors might direct me to would be related to profession rather than gender. I didn’t mention my gender identity in these conversations and certainly not that I feel like an imposter in women’s groups; none of that seemed relevant. I did not expect to be shunted toward so many resources, groups and programs for women.

The Mentorship and Community I Found Felt Rigid and Stifling

For several years, I considered transitioning into tech. From the outside, there were career paths that looked stable, portable and intellectually stimulating. Yet, most positions required additional knowledge or at least a substantial reframing of my current skill set. I knew I needed a road map, and this seemed like a great topic to bring up during my networking conversations. 

However, I didn’t get what I hoped for. One male mentor reacted in utter surprise when I described my interest in tech. I thought a mentor might appreciate my willingness to learn and see what I saw as obvious parallels between my scientific background and technical concepts. Instead, he reacted as though coding was wholly outside my capacity to learn. He and another male mentor tried to redirect me toward customer service jobs instead. 

I came away feeling demoralized and foolish. Still, I knew these were only two people and their opinions didn’t need to matter to me. But the more I learned about jobs in tech, the more the gender disparity was obvious. I weighed the time and money involved in pursuing a boot camp or another degree. As it happened, the other military spouse communities offered something to defray the costs: scholarships to tech boot camps. For women.

I did more research and found information on several other scholarships, programs and groups to help aid the transition into tech—for women. I tried to tell myself it was just branding; the goal seemed to be to level the playing field in an industry dominated by men. But I couldn’t shake the thought of being prescribed a label of "woman" just to get access to those career resources.

Ultimately, I decided not to pursue a career in technology.

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I Want a Professional Community That Acknowledges All Marginalized Genders

I’ve quietly taken my leave of many military spouse communities. But even outside those spaces, I regularly run across professional communities that appeal to me until I see they are branded for women and only women. 

When I look at the websites or social media from these groups, I see women with big smiles. Their attire is feminine. Long hair cascades down their shoulders and, if their hair is short, it still retains femininity. They hug each other, exchanging knowing looks as they bask in community, understanding and sisterhood. 

When I see womanhood in this context, I’m witnessing the celebration of a culture that is not my own. It is wonderful, but it is not mine. 

Somehow, being short, lacking facial hair, having round thighs or something else about my body prompts strangers to call me “ma’am.” I don’t understand why my body is viewed as my identity. When I try to wear women’s clothes, I want to rip the soft, thin fabric off. It hugs curves that I view as a quirk of biology rather than an integral part of who I am. 

When I see women smiling in solidarity with each other, I understand they are experiencing something that I do not. I’ve learned those spaces aren’t for me. The trade-off is too steep, and I can no longer stomach invalidating my sense of self for a shred of professional community. 

And yet, what I want out of a community feels minimal. I want a good faith effort to use gender-neutral pronouns for me. And I want collegial friendships that don’t involve assumptions about my experience based on my gender. I want a community where we can acknowledge the impact of gender on our professional lives while including people of all genders. It doesn’t feel like a lot to ask for, but I haven’t found it yet. I’ll keep looking. But in the meantime, I try my best to forge professional connections with individuals rather than groups. 

Maybe one day we’ll have a community of our own. 

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