A is for Acceptance

In this conversation, I spoke with gender identity speaker, consultant and specialist Cynthia Fortlage. We spoke about her lived experience, how it brought her to this work and she shared her insights and unique method, not only of seeing the world, but making it a more inclusive space for all marginalised groups of people.
Photo of Cynthia Fortlage

Cynthia Fortlage is a gender identity speaker, consultant, and specialist. We were introduced by a colleague of mine and when I spoke to her I found Cynthia is full of wisdom. I had to get her on the podcast and find out more. We started off by me asking Cynthia to tell me a bit more about herself and her work.

‘I always like to start at the very beginning. I am a UK citizen, even though I don’t sound like it. I was born in Belfast. In the early ’70s, due to the troubles in Northern Ireland, my family ended up emigrating to Canada. I like to call it my first transition in life: changing country. I grew up in Canada and had a career that ended as a C-suite executive, specifically in charge of technology.

When you’re a C-Suite technology executive, you end up doing lots of things within an organisation. Whilst I was the most senior executive in charge of technology, we also launched the whole online e-business and social media for corporations. So for six years, I led that and was developing the entire marketing presence as well as at the same time as leading IT.

‘Once that was built up to the point where we were prepared to invest in a full-time dedicated executive to oversee it, I handed off that portfolio. Then not wanting to sit on my laurels and only do one thing,  I got into helping to develop an intentional culture. Every organisation has a culture. The question is, “Is it the one you want?”

We did not believe that the culture was in alignment with where we were at. We knew that from Simon Sinek’s “Finding Your Why” process where we went through a branding exercise of branding from the outside in. In other words, your brand is not who you say you are, it’s who others say you are.

When we realised the misalignment we got into developing an intentional culture that represented the business. Peter Drucker has been quoted many times talking about the idea that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I have lived through that. I’ve seen how the alignment of all of these things starts to come into a business setting. And also when organisations talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging it’s as a key value that they want to have within the DNA of the organisation.

That was my corporate career. Along the way, I had this life epiphany that I was not who I thought I was. I came to a reckoning with it at the age of 50. I began the process of transitioning my gender. I did it while working as an executive, so I learned a lot. One day I was seeing the world through the eyes of someone perceived to be male. Then the next day I was seeing it through the eyes of someone perceived to be female and the world was very different.

That’s what led me into the work as a gender specialist. I realised that within organisations, there are lots and lots of issues when we talk about people and processes, that are affected greatly by gender. Not just someone transitioning. That’s certainly an aspect of it that is my own lived history. But the fact is that women are the largest marginalised group of people on this planet. The whole idea as I looked at it was, “What are the pillars that align my lived history with all other women, and perhaps with all other folks who are marginalised within the corporate world and within the world itself?”

That really took me down a path of developing a lot of insight and expertise in that space. I was coaching for a while, really trying to help individuals reconcile these differences in life. It could be young women struggling with, “Why don’t I get that promotion? Why am I not seen as a viable candidate, where every male colleague gets promoted?” And they don’t. That’s driven by gender.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion, people asking for a seat and a voice that’s heard at the table and how that changes based upon gender are all the things that made me think, “This is something I really need to do.” So in 2019, I left that corporate role and I began focusing full-time on being a gender identity speaker, consultant, and specialist. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to share some of what I’m sharing here with over 300 audiences in 25 different countries. I’ve been very blessed that people are really interested in this idea because I really take it from a completely different perspective that most people don’t think about.’

One of the things in the work Cynthia has done is to coin the phrase, “Acceptance without understanding”. I asked her what it meant.

‘I think we have major things that we discover in life, and for me, it’s, “Acceptance without understanding”.  It comes from a deeply personal place. The origin was when I first encountered this, I was so naïve. I thought it applied to only me and didn’t apply to anybody else. This was just my life. It was just about what I was going through. When I went through the process of coming out, I was very much rejected by my marital partner for over 30 years. I called it an “atom bomb” in the relationship. We didn’t stop loving each other, but my partner couldn’t accept me. It was that realisation that when I talked about my life, in that moment, I needed love and acceptance. To have true love or unconditional love, as we talk about, especially with children, what does that mean? It really means that we need to see others as they are, not as they were. So if something changes, if the person has something that happens to them, then the whole idea is, “Can you still love them and accept them as they are? Not as who they were,” which is always looking back.

That’s what led to this understanding. As I applied it, I realised, “Oh, this whole concept actually applies to the entire LGBT community,” because that was obviously part of my identity. And then it was, “Oh, well, this applies to all women,” by realising how women are marginalised within the world. Then the epiphany hit me, “This actually applies to every marginalised person, including all of those aspects that are not my own lived truth.”

It was this understanding that what we need to do is change the way the world sees each other. How we see each other. We are encouraged when we’re young to ask questions. “Why is the sky blue? Why is this? Why is that?” You get into school, through primary school, secondary school, and we’re encouraged to ask and to learn. Then when you get into the world of careers, you end up also having to be curious and ask the question “Why?”  In the world of IT, we even have this troubleshooting technique called the ‘7 Why’ technique.

All of it is designed to gain understanding. This means that we have been programmed that, “I need to understand you in order to accept you. So if I can’t understand you, I can’t accept you.”

What we find today is everybody yelling at each other, trying to force each other to understand them, because they’re not being heard, or they’re feeling that they’re not being heard. If we can flip that and go, “Can you just simply accept that I’m a human being? That’s all. I’m not asking you to accept whatever you perceive as my lifestyle or anything else, or decisions that were or weren’t made along the way. Can you accept that I’m a human being?”

This is powerful, because if the first thing somebody can accept about you is that you’re a human being, then they’re also acknowledging that you deserve human rights. Because human rights are about equity, and we are all unique individuals, that means we all need equity in a different way.

It creates the challenge that we cannot completely understand the depth of each other, to understand why our lives are the way they are, why we are the way we are. All we can simply do is accept each other as we are.

That’s not to say, “Yeah, but weren’t you… Didn’t you do this before?” So again, it’s not recognising the identity of who you were or who they thought you were, but to recognise who you are. When that changes in the moment, no matter which part of your identity whether it’s your sexuality, or gender identity, the way that you dress or present to the world, any element of it, that you can all of a sudden step back and ask yourself, “This is who they are today, and can I just accept that human being?”

That starts us off in an amazing place. Rather than coming in and going, “Well, you know, Cynthia, why are you like this? Cynthia, why didn’t you make that?” And almost feeling like a verbal attack because you never know the intent of the person coming at you.

If I can know that you’re coming from a place of acceptance, now you’ve opened the door. As I like to say, “We go from the place of you accepting me without understanding, to you accepting me with understanding,” because you have created a safe space for us to have dialogue. Not shout at each other, but actually have dialogue and learn from each other and about each other.  It doesn’t mean that we agree with each other. We don’t have to agree. But it simply means we can actually communicate and have dialogue. I believe that is a key element of culture. Especially when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, which are all designed to create a space of belonging, which ultimately is what culture is.’

What Cynthia said about acceptance without understanding seems to me like someone sharing respect for someone’s choice or decision about who they are. I was also thinking, “What is the flip side to that?” And obviously, the flip side is not acceptance which opens the door to not creating space to understand each other, and maybe even creating the opportunity to kind of grieve what was, and to kind of cling onto something that no longer serves the individual as well. It is a powerful mindset.

Cynthia also stressed that she enters it realising that not everyone is prepared to accept the fact that sometimes others cannot do that, and she can accept that they cannot. She continued, ‘That also means that you get to decide, “Do you need them or do you have them in your life?”

They could be a co-worker and you can work with them fine, but that doesn’t mean that you have to involve them in any other part of your life. But if everyone that you work with, if the entire culture of the organisation is also not accepting, well, then you really have to question the idea of, “Is this business that I’m working at still?”

The word I use is, “Is it still selectable? Would I want to work here again if I had the choice to get hired in the first place?” They always have a choice to hire you. The question is, would you want to get hired by them? Most people don’t think of that. Of questioning. Evaluating whether you would choose to work for this company again, if you were back at the place of making that decision in the first place.’

I really like the binary nature of Cynthia’s concept. It’s either, “Do you accept this? Yes or no. If you do, then great. Let’s work with that and work together and move on.” And if you don’t, then I can accept that. But is this what I want for myself? Is this the kind of place that I want to be or the kind of people that I want to hang out with? That’s empowering.

I asked Cynthia how people could apply this to their day-to-day lives within the workplace?

‘In my experience, the most amazing organisation with the best strategy that has the wrong culture will not perform. I see the idea of creating spaces of belonging as a key part of the culture. Earlier I mentioned making it part of the DNA of the organisation. To do that, you have to go back to the building blocks of that DNA. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy the how you do it or what you do, they buy why you do it.” So you have to go back and reset yourself. Everything you do should always touch the why.

It was this idea that we need to develop intentional cultures that speak to the why and create an organisation. From that, you can leverage that power as your strategy, into your branding. That obviously leads to your marketing, to your systems, processes, and even your people choices for HR professionals are driven by, “Are we meeting this why?” That becomes a key element of intentional cultural development.’

 I know that in Cynthia’s work she is particularly focused on four priority areas: healthcare, economic equality, representation, and safety. I asked Cynthia why she picked those four areas?

‘It actually comes from some of the background work that I was doing when I was the national board president for the feminist organisation, Women’s March Canada. Those were four founding pillars, and I reflected on it and it was shaping the work that I was doing at the time.

If I look at part of my identity as a transgender person, based upon some general studies that have been done across population densities, transgender folks represent about 0.4% of the general voting population. That’s enough for us to change some minds and some hearts. Probably not going to change a ton of policy. If we leverage the entire LGBTQ+ community, we represent about 15% of the general voting population. That is certainly enough to change hearts and minds and we’re going to change some policies.

But if I look at women as the largest marginalised group and representing about 52% to 54% of the voting, not only can we change hearts and minds, we are in power to actually change policy. The question is though that we all see something different and we all want something different, so what are the pillars that connect these things? For me, as I was thinking through it, I thought beyond all the identities that are not mine. The idea was that we all have different needs for healthcare, and no group that I spoke to felt they were getting the healthcare that was equitably designed and supporting what they needed. That became a pillar because women did not experience that, transgender folks do not experience it.

Another was economic empowerment. Again, from the largest group, women, we talk about this idea of the very typical American woman earning 80 cents compared to a male earning a dollar. But those ratios are based on a white cisgender woman compared to a white cisgender man. So even within women, there’s no equity because in that model. If you’re a Black woman, I think it’s about a 64 cents to a dollar comparison. In America, for Hispanic women, we’re talking about a 52 cents to a dollar comparison. Within the LGBT+ community, we find that they are chronically unemployed or under-employed as well.

We see this difference in economic empowerment across all different groups that are marginalised within this heteronormative society, that’s patriarchy based. The same goes for representation. I don’t see myself on boards. I want to be on boards, but I don’t see myself represented on boards today in organisations. I certainly don’t see folks like myself in senior leadership. In fact, for six years, I have tried to find other C-suite executives that I could relate to who have gone through a similar journey to myself. I have not found that audience, in order to say, “Yeah, those are my people.”

In elected positions of power and authority, we are not seeing ourselves represented, so representation matters, and it becomes super important.’

I can totally relate to this. The lack of representation feeds biases as well. I grew up with a disability whilst not seeing disabled people in positions of power and business, politics, and things like that. When I took the Harvard Implicit Association Test, I found that I had a mild bias against disabled people which is a product of social conditioning. It’s not having those role models. And I talk to so many clients where people say to me that they look up in the organisation and they just don’t see people like themselves. So it holds them back in wanting to progress within the organisation.’

The fourth pillar is safety and Cynthia believes that is foundational. She said, ‘I can tell you that from my life before as a white cisgender man, I never thought of this. It’s striking because it was one of the first things a former male colleague had said to me one week after transitioning on the job, and came up to the photocopier machine, and did the elbow tap, before we had to do elbows in a professional setting, and came up and said, “You know there is no such thing as male privilege.”

I was so dumbfounded because, A, I knew he was wrong, but I was, quote, “so new,” I didn’t even know how to respond. Then it struck me that the first loss of privilege that I ever recognised was the simple ability to walk down the high street in the middle of the day and feel safe. The realisation that unless you’re part of that group of privilege, walking out our front door every single day is a question of safety or accessibility. The whole idea is, “Why can’t we experience the world the same as everyone else? Why do we have to be further marginalised in just not even feeling safe?” in what should be the safest situation, broad daylight, the whole bit. Safety was absolutely critical because you cannot create spaces of belonging unless you create safe spaces.’

I love these four areas Cynthia works with. I often make the point that employers who I work with play such a critical role in improving our society, because they create these ecosystems where people congregate, and they are a reflection of society. But also they can create spaces to explore issues and make improvements, and support people. I think if an employer is thinking about, “What is their strategy for improving society at large?”  how can they improve healthcare, economic equality for their staff, fair representation and safety is a great place to begin. These four areas should be the bedrock or the cornerstone of their strategy.

Since I was talking to Cynthia for The Inclusive Growth Show we finished our conversation with my final  question, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘It’s something that evolves and continues to evolve. The more that I learn and unlearn in attempting to be an ally for others… you never declare yourself an ally… I just have so much that I know that I need to keep growing. So inclusive growth is the idea that, regardless of an aspect of someone’s identity, society and workplaces are gearing towards complete inclusivity. It means not only one identified group benefits from the things that are done, that everyone has an opportunity to leverage and to continue to grow. That it’s not a one and done. Not, “Oh yeah, we did that. Let’s check that box.” It is a life-long continuous pursuit. It literally is the organisational, cultural, societal level of continuous learning and improvement that needs to happen.

To find out more about Cynthia’s work or to get in touch visit her website www.cynthiafortlage.com or connect on her LinkedIn page. Cynthia has kindly said if you do connect with her and mention The Inclusive Growth Show she will send you a code for her latest e-book.

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