The CTO wore drag

Whenever I interview a Wall Street executive, or a technology expert, I have to ask for a photograph.  I often joke that we already have a lot of headshots of guys in suits — what I really want to see is some variety. Maybe a photograph of them on a beach. In a bikini. Wearing a blonde wing.

It’s not a joke anymore.

I’ve been meeting a stream of male executives dressed in drag lately — during meetings in virtual worlds.

(Photo by islandmoore, via flickr.)

(Photo by islandmoore, via flickr.)

Maybe I’m old-fashioned. But it kind of freaks me out. Unless I’m interviewing someone in the arts sector, I’m using to meeting folks without disguises on.

This is how I see it. You’re a guy out at a night club. You wear a dress and makeup. You have a good time. You make a lot of friends. You don’t want to become a woman necessarily — you just like dressing up sometimes. Then those friendships turn into business relationships, and you invite people to your office. Do you still wear the dress and makeup? After all, that’s how people know you. Or do you wear your normal suit and tie?

Second Life is, in many respects, like that night club. People come dressed in all sorts of costumes — male, female, animal, robot. It’s a round-the-clock party.  When the party is over,  and it’s time to do business, do you keep the costume on?

Some companies have an offline dress code, and simply transfer that dress code into the online world. If you wouldn’t wear an animal head to work normally, don’t wear one online, either.

At my company, all employees must use avatars with their real names, of a gender that matches the gender they happen to be in real life, wear business casual clothing, and be somewhat realistic in their shape. (Okay, I somehow lose a few pounds whenever I go online — but I use a photo for my avatar face.) There’s a reason for this. We’re a media company, and we normally interview executives in the finance and technology sectors, and the dress code tends to be very conservative. As journalists, we’re also not allowed to disguise our identities — that would be a violation of the ethics policies of most major news organizations, as well as our company.

But say your company is in the party business. And your client, a conservative business, is looking to hold a party. Is it okay to come in costume? And is it okay to encourage the client to loosen up, maybe put on a funny wig?

Maybe.

Maybe if you’re throwing an office costume party.

But if you’re looking to host a catered lunch for your board members, say, you might expect your service providers to be more conservatively dressed.

When I’m hiring someone to do a virtual worlds project for my company — or am recommending someone for project — I want to know that the person is serious. I want to know who they are — their real name, their professional experience, check their references.

Unfortunately, when it comes to virtual worlds programming and design, there is a big obstacle in the way — the fact that many designers have cut their teeth in Second Life, a free-for-all creative community and hotpot of innovation, a place where you couldn’t use your real name even if you wanted to. Unless you were lucky enough to find your actual name in the limited list of choices that Second Life allows for avatar names.

It will probably take years for this to shake out. Meanwhile, I’m going to have to get used to the very disconcerting experience of discussing outfits with middle aged male chief technology officer — who happens to be wearing the body of a young woman.

maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

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  • http://www.getbusinessideas.net/ Tateru Nino

    An old boss of mine used to say about suits, that "Business-wear is the ultimate disguise. We wear suits to conceal who we are."

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can't wait to read your next one!

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  • http://dwellonit.taterunino.net/ Tateru Nino

    An old boss of mine used to say about suits, that “Business-wear is the ultimate disguise. We wear suits to conceal who we are.”

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

  • http://whenitchanged.blogspot.com Lauren Jones

    Your company has "dress rules" regarding how you dress as your avatars. That's all well and good. Other companies (including the one I work for) don't have such limitations. I can understand your views but I disagree with them. Virtual worlds and especially Second Life are first and foremost a creative media and not primarily a business tool. If you intend to have meetings with other companies in say Second Life, get used to the fact that other company's employees may show up as flying spaghetti monsters, furries, wizards, ninjas and so forth. It's right there on the new homepage of Second Life – SL is a hotbed of creative counterculture. Can it be used for serious business? Of course but just be aware that your customers might have different ideas about suitable attire. Don't like that? Don't use Second Life. You can't demand that the world changes to fit your expectations.

  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    Paraverse evangelist Peter Finn (day job at IBM) just pointed out on Twitter that it is illegal to discriminate against transgender employees.

    And, in fact, laws against such discrimination are already on the books in many states, and federal legislation, in the form of the ENDA act, is currently being debated in Congress.

    I'm not sure what this means for people who do not identify as transgender, but like to cross-dress in virtual worlds.

    Is it legal to ask that employees use the same gender identity (whatever it may be) for virtual work functions as they do for RL ones?

    Eventually, all this would probably become a moot point, since gender identity is becoming increasingly fungible.

    I wonder if virtual worlds — Second Life being in the forefront here — will help inspire a more relaxed view of gender identity?

  • http://www.l4l.co.uk Leon Cych

    A lot of cross dressing av’s are usually quite obvious – they never change outfit from one week to the next … ;)

  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    Lauren —

    In fact, we do NOT use Second Life. All our meetings and company functions occur on a private grid in OpenSim. We do occasionally join events on other grids — such as the Hypergrid Entrepreneur Group events on OSGrid’s Hypergrid Business region — and I expect all employees to dress professionally while they are representing our company.

    The dress code/name issue is the secondary reason that we don’t use Second Life. (The primary reason is that we don’t have full control of the environment.)

    We create the accounts for all our employees — real names only, thank you — and mandate the dress code.

    If they want to dress as a furry or a wizard, they can do so on their free own time.

    Except for Halloween, of course. :-)

    – Maria

  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    Lauren –

    That's exactly what we're doing for our employees. Except now I'm wondering whether legislation protecting transgender employees applies to people who crossdress online but don't crossdress in real life.

    It's a weird, weird area.

    I actually have less of a problem with people actually going through a sex change. At least there, I know I'm dealing with a person with a serious commitment to a new gender identity.

    With casual crossdressing, however, it's almost as if I'm being unwillingly pulled into someone's sex play fantasy. Like suddenly realizing that the person helping you try on shoes has a foot fetish. Like having a co-worker come to work in a sexy nurse uniform (when they're not a nurse) or a French maid outfit (when they're not a French maid).

    If its Halloween, or another big party — fine. We're supposed to let loose. But for other business meetings?

    In real life, I've written for an LGTB newspaper, and helped out with a local political campaign by a transgendered individual. I live in Massachusetts, near the lesbian capital of the universe (Northampton), and there's a lot of overlap, I know, between crossdressing and gender and sexual identity issues. But, very frequently, cross dressing is done by straight men, who have no intention of actually becoming women, who simply get a kick out of it.

    Is this legally protected?

    As a business journalist, I'm trying to keep an open mind about it.

    But as a business owner, I definitely have to say that when someone comes to me trying to sell a product and they're dressed in an animal costume or as a fantasy character — and especially if their offline gender identity doesn't match their virtual one — then I assume that they're not serious about business. Otherwise, they'd change into a business suit before coming to a meeting with a potential client. Unless the client was specifically in the market for fantasy costumes. :-) A crazy costume or a gender-mismatched avatar makes me think that they're more interested in the gaming aspects of virtual worlds than the business ones — and are having trouble drawing a distinction between the two. Can I really trust them with a serious project?

    Now, at some point, many fetish items devolve into fashion statements — body piercings, for example, or leather collars. At that point, they lose their sexual character, and become much less of a problem at the office. At that point, its just a dress code issue, as opposed to a sexual identity issue, and much easier to deal with.

    Are gender-inappropriate avatars a simple fashion statement at this point, instead of a sexual issue? Or is it going in that direction? I hope they're are sociologists out there trying to figure it out.

    – Maria

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  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    I certainly wouldn't mind a Star Trek tie at work — whether a physical or virtual meeting. But I'd be very surprised to see the whole outfit!

    I guess the question is — how creative do I want my employees to be? I'd want my graphics designer to be very creative. My bookkeeper — not creative at all. But that applies to both off-line and on-line environments.

    Is there a reason why a virtual workplace should have different standards?

  • http://whenitchanged.blogspot.com Lauren Jones

    HI Maria :)

    Ahh, I actually slightly misunderstood what you wrote I’m thinking ;) I’d still stand by my comments in general, but of course they may not necessarily apply to your situation as I now better understand it :)

    I can understand why you’d choose OpenSim over Second Life itself for the reason you stated. We just use Second Life itself at this point and have had no problems but perhaps our requirements are different.

    But then here’s my next question. Your employees have accounts in their real names and which are supplied and arranged by the company if I understand that correctly? Surely your answer is very simple then! Employees can only use work accounts for work purposes and according to work rules/guidelines. If they want to set up they own accounts so as to explore then great but work accounts should be kept for work purposes.

  • B. C. King

    There are a couple of issues getting confused here.

    First, is the question of “gender identity.” If you are familiar with LGBT questions, and especially the fact that straight men do indeed crossdress without sexual(ized) intent, then you should realize that for many crossdressers what you’re seeing is personal expression, not problematic “gender identity.” A guy who wears a dress because he thinks it’s comfortable and / or pretty is not necessarily pushing a gender identity issue at all, although society often interprets it as such because there are so many rigidly gender-related issues surrounding dress and fashion.

    That said, however, there is a difference between a man in RL crossdressing and a man in a virtual world using a female avatar. The avatar is not the same as the person, even though your company is at least mostly right in recognizing that it is a presentation. Crossdressing is probably not the right term; how do you differentiate between someone using an avatar that represents the other sex and someone using an avatar representing their actual sex but wearing clothing from the other sex? The latter is crossdressing; what do you call the former?

    But all of this really serves to hide a separate question, which is about your admission that you “assume” someone who doesn’t wear the uniform is “not serious about business,” whether it’s in the virtual world or *in the real world*. Where do you draw the line with that? Your examples of someone wearing a costume to a (real-life) business meeting points out what you seem to think is absurd. Fair enough. But what if a man (since the suit-as-uniform generally means we’re talking about men) comes to your office for a meeting in a suit–but he’s wearing a Star Trek tie? Does it make a difference if it’s a subtle pattern based on the Federation logo versus a giant pic of Captain Picard’s face? What if he wears a garish Spongebob tie? or he has blue hair, or large earrings, or any of a number of other things that render his uniform no longer…uniform? These are all things that allow men a modicum of personal expression in an otherwise extremely stringent uniform; would you take them less seriously for wanting a little freedom? You’re a woman – your business uniform has restrictions, but you have a *lot* more freedom than the men do when it comes to the conservative business uniform. You may think some of these things are inappropriate in a business context, and there’s nothing wrong with having that opinion. However, in the twenty-first century, in which our country is (kind of) trying to embrace “diversity,” it seems a little unfair of you to dismiss someone outright simply for not wanting to be the same as the next guy.

  • http://theslrevolution.wordpress.com/author/vwestl Valiant Westland

    Although a discussion on the ethics of gender identity is not the main purpose of this post, the topic of gender policies raises important questions for the SL community. Is there ever a situation where portraying oneself as a different gender is unethical?

    Much of the experiential "data" (opinion) on gender switching in virtual world business settings, such as that collected by IBM, was collected during the bleeding-edge phase of virtual world adoption, when everyone involved was acutely aware of the socially avaunt garde nature of the virtual community. These days are over. Mainstream businesses utilizing virtual world tools will NOT tolerate behaviors that are going to distract or potentially offend their clients or partners.

    Some people may not like this and it may irritate the hell out of those who see virtual worlds as a tool to further their social agendas, but the fact remains; The vast majority of companies are as likely to support cross-dressing virtual employees as they are to hire the leading "ladies" of Too Wong Foo to represent them at their next trade show!

    Excerpted/Related Blog Post – Mutatio Vox Populi (Changing the Voice of the People) – http://theslrevolution.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/m

  • http://virtyou.com/ Torrid Luna

    Hi Maria, thanks for this very interesting series of articles. And I'm very sorry to have been your disconcerting experience! :-)

    Cheers,

    Torrid

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  • http://daleinnis.wordpress.com/ Dale Innis

    Do you really not want your bookkeeper to be creative at all? You don't want him to dream up new more efficient ways to do his job, to relate to his co-workers, to make the workplace happy and productive? You want him to just stay in the tiny box of his job-description, dressing and acting exactly the same every day, without an unusual thought in his head? That seems awfully boring, as well as bad for the bottom line. You're definitely not going to get the best bookkeepers with that attitude.

    I think making work avatars for employees is exactly the wrong thing to do; you will just find it that much harder to keep up as virtual identities become more mainstream. People will be used to doing everything as their virtual selves; their possessions and contact lists and personal customizations and music playlists and favorite useful bookmarks and so on and so on will be associated with their primary selves. Forcing them to switch to the Official Company Virtual Identity to do work things will just alienate them and them less productive.

    That's my expectation, anyway. You are of course feel free to experiment with the other approach and see what happens. Better you than me. :)

  • http://tromblyltd.com Maria Korolov

    Employees also need to keep in mind that if they get an avatar located on a company grid, then they will need to leave that avatar behind when they change jobs — just as they leave a corporate email account behind.

    It would make sense not too invest too much of a personal life into that avatar, instead having a separate identity with which to interact with friends and relatives. For example, at Trombly Ltd., employees can create accounts on the Trombly Ltd. grid. Of course, our grid is hypergrid-enabled so they can take these avatars to other grids, and go to social outings, even create a homestead somewhere. But it makes more sense for them to create another avatar on a consumer-friendly grid so that personal belongings and friend lists aren't lost when you change jobs.

    In Second Life, the situation is similar if a company creates standard accounts for its employees, with avatar names like JohnSmith CompanyName.

    In these cases, it wouldn't benefit the employee or the company if too much time and effort was invested in creating a rich and full virtual life for the avatar and identity separate from the regular working persona of the employee.

  • http://daleinnis.wordpress.com/ Dale Innis

    That was sort of exactly my point, Maria. :) If you require people to have separate business-only avatars, and encourage them not to invest much time and effort in them, you are signalling very clearly that you don't take business virtual worlds very seriously, that you don't expect people to really immerse in them, that you don't expect business use of virtual worlds to be an important part of their lives, and so on. And imho you will probably not derive the full benefit from them.

    To my mind a effectively-used virtual identity isn't analogous to a business phone number or a business email address; it's more an actual identity, integrated into the rest of a person's life in the way that a string or ten digits can't be. If I have (for instance) a good reputation in the virtual worlds as Dale Innis, and then I go to work for Acme Corporation, I don't want to have to start from scratch building a reputation for JoeSmith AcmeCo, nor do I want to have to walk around with an "I'm really Dale Innis" tag over my head.

    (And on the gender thing, I'd advise just getting over it: welcome to the XXIst century!)

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