Virtual Gender: Q&A with Jamison Green

Ever more frequently, companies looking to save money are moving meetings and training into virtual environments such as Second Life, OpenSim, Forterra, and Qwac.

In some cases, the company fully controls the environment, creating avatars and user names for their employees. In other environments, it’s all up to the employees.  In those, the avatars that employees pick can be fantastical, mythical — or gender-bending.

Jamison Green

Jamison Green

In Second Life — the most popular such environment — users have an almost infinite array of shapes and clothing to choose from.

To what extent can companies impose dress codes on their employees’ virtual representations? In particular, can they insist that employees have an online gender identity consistent with their offline identity? To answer these questions, we checked in with Jamison Green, chair of the Gender Education & Advocacy organization. Green is also the former president of FTM International, the  longest-running, largest organization serving the female-to-male transgender community in the world, and is a current board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. Green is a writer and public speaker, and an internationally recognized advocate for transgendered and transsexual people’s legal protection, medical access, safety, and civil rights.

There are laws in many states protecting transgender people, and a national law currently being discussed as well. Do these laws also apply to the virtual environment?

Green: These laws don’t specifically apply to the virtual environment, but the spirit of the laws would demand that transgender and transsexual people be treated equally with respect to any work-related function.

Can a company insist that an employee present a consistent idenity online and offiline? For example, if an employee normally presents as male at work, can they be asked to present as male in a virtual workplace?

Green: Generally, a company’s policy about workplace attire and presentation could be construed to extend into the virtual environment.  If a conflict arose, that is what the company would likely argue in a dispute resolution situation.

Can companies enforce dress codes online that include gender presentation?

Green: I would think in most professional settings this might — if the company thought about it — only apply if there were external customer or client contact in the virtual environment.  An internal network could have different standards, and could allow much more latitude in expression.

Is it gender identity discrimination if an employee who identifies as male in the physical office is not allowed to present as female online?

Green: Technically, no.  Gender identity discrimination applies in cases where a person asserts a gender identity that is different from that which they have previously expressed, and the typical understanding is that an employee is intending to express their “new” gender identity consistently, not switch back and forth at will.  Alternatively, gender identity legislation is intended to protect people whose gender is not clear to others, and that doesn’t fit the scenario you describe.

Is there a freedom of speech issue here?

Green: Not under the current framing of most anti-discrimination ordinances or statutes.  Companies retain the right to establish work-related dress codes and behavior standards.

On another note, regardless of the legal issues, to what extend should companies allow employees to experiment with identity — whether gender or otherwise — during work hours at work-related functions? For example, some people’s avatars are wizards, or robots, or animals.

Green: In an environment where creative use of avatars is encouraged — or even merely tolerated — it would be disingenuous to forbid experimentation with human representations, too.  However, in some corporate cultures, this experimentation might be seen as disruptive to the work flow, while in others it might be seen as contributing to a creative environment.

Should a company encourage this, to improve morale, employee retention, provide a more inclusive workplace environment? Or do the sensibilities of other employees, customers, business partners and management come into play here, or the need to maintain a consistent corporate image?

Green: As in my response above, it completely depends on the people involved.  Some companies might be more concerned about what others think than others are.

Do you have any recommendations? This seems like it can become a very thorny issue as more meetings are conducted virtually.

Green: Personally, I think workplace communication should be clear and direct – this is what enables the work to get done.  If you are constantly having to figure out who you’re dealing with, that could be a hindrance to productivity.  But if the environment is creative and everyone engaged in a certain communication loop understands who they are dealing with, there should be no reason to disallow creative expression.  And if the environment is not so creative, but more bottom line oriented, there may be less ability to accommodate such experimentation.

It’s all about relationships and image, and if an individual can negotiate her or his relationships so that those she or he works and communicates with on a regular basis have the ability to grasp who they are and don’t mind inconsistencies or shifts in gender presentation, I actually think this would be a good technique for helping people to let go of the need to pigeonhole people and box them into certain roles and expectations.

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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. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

8 Responses

  1.' Marianne McCann says:

    Good article. I know that, as a person who has had to work with some businesses and universities on their Second Life projects, I have had to alter my avatar a time or two for their projects.

    I would highlty recommend the book "The Second Life Grid" by Kimberly Rufer-Bach for further delvings into how to handle avatar presentations in the workplace.

  2.' Patrick M. Callahan says:

    Excellent article about an issue too many view as irrelevant. People work better when they believe they are accepted for who they are rather than for who others would prefer them to be. The bottom line in any business is directly linked to the quality of service or product they provide and that quality is the result of the work of employees. There is a very simple truth that more employers need to remember, support your employees and they will support you.

  3.' brian bauer says:

    This is a subject about which we cannot be passive. For anyone involved in VW imlpementations, you can either address the question properly in the beginning, or potentailly face real challenges down the road. On a related subject, we also need to consider the question of those with physical challenges. i.e. if a user in real life is in a wheel chair, should that physical representation be required in a virtual world? the fip side of that is that many VW's are designed for walking, not rolling. Making a VW "virtually accessible" could result in additional cost. I'd like to hear what others have to say about non-gender related phsyical representations.

  4. I think I would go a bit further than my friend Jamison in questioning how far an employer should be allowed to go in imposing its own gender expression, racial expression, ethnic expression, or as Brian suggests, rendering of physical challenges upon diverse employees in virtual graphic spaces.

    Being a geek gal, however, I thought I should try Second Life before commenting. I installed their app (only at beta revision) on my ubuntu notebook, set up an account, and found myself standing in a stone plaza for new arrivals, wearing a really hideous punkish looking outfit that certainly didn't reflect my identity. I found the menus for configuring my appearance and told them to change my hair and clothes. Instead, the server deleted them. All of them. And there was no way to get them back. So there I was, standing naked, busty as Barbie and bald as a peach, in the middle of the newbie plaza. As a large herd of gawking young male avatars gathered around me, I thought about my last boss in the corporate world and felt glad to be retired. At least I made a lot of new friends that afternoon.

  5.' Ener Hax says:

    Very well written, balanced, and reasonable. As time passes and adoption of 3D realms continues, these issues will (hopefully) become less relevant. If an employee was good enough to hire in the first place, it is likely they will portray themselves in an appropriate manner (appropriate being the operative and subjective word).

    That said, I did run across a LinkedIn discussion where someone was looking for a way (software) to enforce very strict company presence of their employees in ALL social networking arenas. It reminded me of how a photo was a standard item to include with your resume in the 60's. Clearly used as a discriminatory tool. Which is interesting considering how centre your image is in LinkedIn. I venture to say that the use of your image in social networking is again being used by others in shallow judgement.

    As for me, I will stay either a small genderless beaver or a pink haired fairy with wings.

    btw Maria, thanks in part to you, we have now entered into Reaction Grid as resellers – thank you for all your wonderfully written posts =)

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