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