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

Speaker 1: Welcome to The Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse work place.

Toby Mildon: Hey there. Thanks ever so much for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby Mildon, and today I’m joined by Cynthia Fortlage. Cynthia is a gender identity speaker, consultant, and specialist, and I was introduced to her by a colleague of mine, and having spoke to Cynthia on the phone, she’s just full of wisdom and I just thought we have to get her on the podcast. So, Cynthia, it’s great to have you on the show, thanks for joining.

Cynthia Fortlage: Well, thank you so much, Toby. I really appreciate having the opportunity to come and share a bit of the insights that I have, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with your audience today.

Toby Mildon: You’re welcome. So, Cynthia, can you just let us know a bit more about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to this line of work?

Cynthia Fortlage: Absolutely. So I always like to start at the very beginning. So I am a UK citizen, even though I don’t sound like it. I was actually born in Belfast, and in the early ’70s, due to the troubles in Northern Ireland, my family ended up immigrating to Canada, and I like to call it my first transition in life: Changing country. And so I ended up growing up in Canada, having a career that ended as a C-suite executive, specifically in charge of technology. But when you’re a C-Suite technology executive, you end up doing lots of things within an organization. And some of the things that took me away from that… So through that career, while I was the senior most executive in charge of technology, we also launched into the whole online e-business, social media for corporations, and for six years, I led that at the same time while leading IT, so developing the entire marketing presence as well.

Cynthia Fortlage: Until we built that up to the point where we were prepared to invest in a full-time dedicated executive to oversee it, and then I handed off that portfolio. And then, of course, not to sit on my laurels of only doing one thing, then I got into helping to develop an intentional culture. Every organization has a culture. The question is, “Is it the one you want?” And we did not believe that that was in alignment with where we were at, and we knew that from Simon Sinek’s Finding Your Why Process, which we actually 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: And when we realized the misalignment with that, that got into developing an intentional culture that represents… And really, that’s why, of course, Drucker has been quoted many times talking about the idea that culture eats strategy for breakfast. So I have lived through that and seen it, and seen how the alignment of all of these things start to come into a business setting, but also much larger, because obviously, when organizations talk about that, they talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as a key value that they want to have within the DNA of the organization. So that was my corporate career, and along the way, I had this life epiphany that I was not who I thought I was, and I came to a reckoning with it after… At the age of 50, I began the process of transitioning my gender. And I did it while working as an executive, so I learnt a lot, because one day I was seeing the world through the eyes of someone perceived to be male, and then the next day I was seeing it through the eyes of someone perceived to be female, and the world was very different.

Cynthia Fortlage: And that’s what led me into the work as a gender specialist, realizing that within organizations, 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 that even women… Women are the largest marginalized group of people on this planet, and the whole idea as I looked at it was, “What are the pillars that kind of underline that maybe aligns my lived history with all other women, and perhaps with all other folks who are marginalized within the corporate world and within the world itself?” And 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. And it could be young women that were 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.

Cynthia Fortlage: The idea that you end up having people asking… Under the diversity, equity, and inclusion, people asking for a seat at the table and a voice at the table and to actually be heard at the table, and how that changes based upon gender. So those are all the things that led me in and said, “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. And I’ve been very fortunate to be able to share some of what I’m gonna share with you today to over 300 audiences in 25 different countries. So 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, that’s really cool. And I think when you were sharing that, I was just thinking that actually we’ve got quite a lot in common, ’cause before I got into D and I, I worked in technology. I’ve got a connection with Canada as well. I’ve got family that moved out to Canada…

Cynthia Fortlage: Wow.

Toby Mildon: And so, I’ve been able to visit quite a lot. They live all over the place now, from East Coast to West Coast, so I can pick some really cool places to come visit. So, yeah, that’s really cool. And one of the things in the work that you’ve done is that you’ve coined the phrase which is, “Acceptance without understanding,” and so what is that about?

Cynthia Fortlage: Thank you. Yeah, I think with every kind of major thing that we discover in life, and for me it’s, “Acceptance without understanding,” it comes from a very deeply personal place. So the origin of it was that when I first encountered this, I was so naïve. I thought it applied to just me. Didn’t apply to anybody else. This was just my life. It was just about what I was going through. And it actually was with my… At that time, marital partner of over 30 years, and when I went through the process of coming out, I was very much rejected. I call it kind of an “atom bomb” in the relationship. And what happened was is that it… We didn’t stop loving each other, but my partner couldn’t accept me, and it was that realization… When I talked about in my life in that moment that I needed love and acceptance in order to have true love, unconditional love, as we talk about, especially with children, right? And so the whole idea is, “What does that mean?” Well, really, it means that we need to see others as they are, not as they were, so that 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.

Cynthia Fortlage: So that really led to this understanding, and as I applied it, I realized, “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,” and realizing how women are marginalized within the world. And then it kinda hit me the epiphany, “This actually applies to every marginalized person, including all of those aspects that are not my own lived truth.” And it was this understanding that what we need to do is change the way the world sees each other, how we see each other, because today, we are taught right from a young age… We’re always encouraged especially when we’re young is like, “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 questions, to learn. And then when you get into the world of careers, you end up also having to be curious and ask the question “Why,” and I’m sure as you’re aware that even in the world of IT, we have this troubleshooting technique called the ‘7 Why’ technique.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: All of it is designed to gain understanding. Which means that we have been programmed that, “I need to understand you in order to accept you.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: “So if I can’t understand you, I can’t accept you.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: And that’s what we find is… Today everybody’s 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. Whereas if we flip that and go, “Can you just simply accept that I’m a human being? That’s all I’m… 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?” And this is really 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, and because human rights are about equity, and we are all unique individuals, that means we all need equity in a different way.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: And so this really 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 met.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: And that’s not to go, “Yeah, but weren’t you… Didn’t you do this before?” So again, it’s not recognizing the identity of who you were or who they thought you were, but to actually recognize who you are. And so when that changes in the moment, no matter which part of your identity… It could be your sexuality, it could be your gender identity, it could be the way that you dress or present to the world, any element of it, that you can all of a sudden step back and go, “This is who they are today, and can I just accept that human being?” And that really starts us on an amazing place, because it has the power… 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.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: Because if I can know that you’re coming from a place of acceptance, now you’ve opened the door, and so we can… 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, that allows us to… 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, and that is a key element, I believe, of culture. And 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, is, “I wanna create a place of belonging.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah. It reminds me also… We talk about respect just now, and I think when you’re saying, “Accepting without understanding,” it’s saying, “Well, actually, yeah, I’m sharing respect at your choice or your decision or who you are.” As you were describing that, I was thinking to myself, “What is the flip side to that?” And obviously, the flip side is not acceptance. And then I was thinking, “Well, what does that open the door to?” And I think ultimately, it 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 you as well. It is a powerful mindset.

Cynthia Fortlage: Yeah. It is, and I do enter it realizing that not everyone is prepared to accept, that… Part of accepting the idea of acceptance in your life, that… Really an idea of non-judgment, is the fact that others cannot do that, and I can accept that they cannot.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: But that also means that you do get an actual choice to decide, “Do you need them or do you have them in your life?”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: 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.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: But if everyone that you work with, if the entire culture of the organization 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?

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: And most people don’t think of that… Of questioning, “Have you gone back and evaluated, would you choose to work for this company again, if you were back at the place of making that decision in the first place?”

Toby Mildon: Yeah. I really like the binary nature of it in a way, ’cause it’s like, “Do you accept this? Yes or no. If you do, then great. Let’s work with that and work together and move on.”

Cynthia Fortlage: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: And if you don’t, then I can accept that. But is this what I want to myself? Is this the kind of place that I wanna be or the kind of people that I wanna hang out with? That’s really empowering. So how can people apply this to their day-to-day work within the workplace?

Cynthia Fortlage: Great question. I think it really comes back to, at least from my experience, what Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The most amazing organization with the best strategy that has the wrong culture will not perform. So I see the idea of creating spaces of belonging as a key part of culture, ’cause every time organizations talk about it, they talk about it within a cultural aspect. My teachings, we talked about making it part of the DNA of the organization. Well, if you’re going to do that, you kinda have to go back to the building blocks of that DNA. And really that is… 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 actually reset yourself. And so my teachings were you go back and you check the why, because everything you do should always touch the why.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: So it was this idea of we need to develop intentional cultures that speak to the why and create an organization, and from that, you can leverage that power as your strategy, into your branding, that obviously leads to your marketing, that leads to your systems, processes, and even your people choices for HR professionals are driven by, “Are we meeting this why?”

Toby Mildon: Absolutely.

Cynthia Fortlage: And that becomes a key element of intentional cultural development.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I love Simon’s book, and he’s done this graphic, like a bull’s eye, hasn’t he? So you’ve got Why in the middle, and then he talks about the Whats, and then the How on the edge. And he was saying a lot of organizations work outside in, so they do What, How, Why. Because it’s easy to get our head around the what. It’s harder to get our head around the why because it’s quite an emotional thing to talk about as well. And actually working inside out doing why, and then what you need to do satisfy the why, and then how you’re gonna deliver the what stands the test of time. So yeah, it’s great. I know that in the work that you do, you are particularly focused on four priority areas. So you focus on healthcare, economic equality, representation, and safety.

Cynthia Fortlage: Yes.

Toby Mildon: Why did you pick those four areas?

Cynthia Fortlage: It actually comes from some of the background work that I was doing when I was the national board president for the feminist organization, Women’s March Canada. And those were four founding pillars, and as I kind of reflected on it and was shaping the work that I was doing at the time, what I looked at and kind of understanding… I guess the best way to put it in perspective, when I work back from… And I said, “Well, if I look at part of my identity as a transgender person, based upon some general studies… ” There’s no all-inclusive study, but when you kind of take some studies that have been done across population densities, transgender folks represent about not 0.4% of the general voting population.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: That’s enough for us to change some minds and some hearts. Probably not gonna 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 policy.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: But if I look at women as the largest marginalized group and representing about… Depending which study you look at, 52% to 54% of the voting, not only can we change hearts and minds, we are in power to actually change policy. But the question is, we all see something different. We all want something different, so what are the pillars that connect these things? And for me, as I was thinking through it, I thought beyond just those identities… All the identities that are not mine, such as all marginalized people, and the idea was we all have different needs for healthcare, and no group that I spoke to was ever feeling that they were getting the healthcare that was, again, equitably designed and supporting what they needed. And so that became… “Yeah, that sounds like a really good pillar,” because certainly, women did not experience that, transgender folks do not experience it. And everything else… I know that within my own family, they’re dealing with mental health and again, the resources are not available. So equitably, they need something else.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: The other one was, of course, is the economic empowerment. Certainly, what I’ve seen is we talk… Again, from the largest group, we talk women, we talk about this idea of the very typical American, 80 cent/dollar comparison to a male. But again, those are based upon a white cisgender woman compared to a white cisgender man, in that comparison. Even within women, there’s not equity because in that model, if you’re a Black woman, we’re using… I think it’s about a 64 cent/dollar comparison. And in America, they actually use for Hispanic women, we’re talking about a 52 cent/dollar comparison, so it’s not even equitable within the band. But certainly within the transgender, in the LGBT+ community, we find that they are chronically unemployed or under-employed as well.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: And we see this across all different groups that are marginalized within, “this heteronormative society,” that’s patriarchal based. And the whole idea was, “Okay, well, we need to look at the equity associated with this economic empowerment.” And of course, 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 organizations. I certainly don’t see folks like myself in senior leadership. In fact…

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: 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 go, “Yeah, those are my people.”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: “And I see it.” So, again, we’re not seeing it represented there. Certainly, in elected positions of power and authority, we’re not seeing it. So we are not seeing ourselves represented, so representation matters, and it becomes super important.

Toby Mildon: It does. And I can totally relate. Except that feeds biases as well, because I grew up with a disability, not seeing disabled people in positions of power, and business, politics, and things like that. And then when I took the Harvard Implicit Association Test, I found that I had a mild bias against disabled people.

Cynthia Fortlage: Oh.

Toby Mildon: And that 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… They look up in the organization and they just don’t see people like themselves.

Cynthia Fortlage: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: So it then holds them back in wanting to progress within the organization.

Cynthia Fortlage: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Sorry, I interrupted you a bit.

Cynthia Fortlage: No, that’s okay [laughter]

Toby Mildon: The fourth one was safety, wasn’t it?

Speaker 1: It was… And really the foundational… 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 kinda 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.” And 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. And then it struck me that the first loss of privilege, if you will, that I ever recognized was the simple ability to walk down the high street in the middle of the day and feel safe. And the realization that basically, unless you’re part of that group of privilege… Which also has some detractors to it, but the simple fact is, walking out our front door every single day is a question of safety or accessibility. And the whole idea is, “Why can’t we experience the world the same as everyone else? Why do we have to be further marginalized in just not even feeling safe?”

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Cynthia Fortlage: In what should be the most… Safest situation, broad daylight, the whole bit. So that led me to, again, look and say, “Safety was absolutely critical,” because you cannot create spaces of belonging unless you create safe spaces.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, yeah. I love these four areas ’cause I often make the point that employers who I really 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. So I think if any employer is thinking about, “What is their strategy for improving society at large?”

Cynthia Fortlage: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Then just starting with these four areas of how can they improve healthcare, economic equality for their staff…

Cynthia Fortlage: Yeah.

Toby Mildon: Fair representation and safety is a great place to begin.

Cynthia Fortlage: Right.

Toby Mildon: That really should be the bedrock, or the cornerstone of their strategy. So this, of course, is The Inclusive Growth Show. What does inclusive growth mean to you?

Cynthia Fortlage: For me, it’s something that evolves and continues to evolve. The more that I learn and unlearn as an ally… 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, that society, workplaces are gearing towards complete inclusivity, so that not one identified group benefits from the things that are done, that everyone has an opportunity to leverage and to continue to grow. And that it’s not a one and done. It’s like, “Oh yeah, we did that. Let’s check that box.” It is a life-long continuous pursuit. It literally is organization, cultural, societal level of continuous learning and improvement that needs to happen.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Excellent. Well, Cynthia, thanks ever so much for joining me on the show today. Before we go, if somebody wants to find out more about what you do, and reach out to you and get in touch with you, what should they do?

Cynthia Fortlage: Love them to visit my website, just www.cynthiafortlage.com, but you can also connect with me on LinkedIn. Easy to find, Cynthia Alison Fortlage, so you can find me easily there. And in fact, if you do connect with me and mention this program, then I will send you a code for my brand new e-book coming out soon.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Excellent. Definitely. I’m gonna be the first in the queue to download that.

Toby Mildon: Cynthia, thanks ever so much for joining me, I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you today and… Yeah, thank you ever so much. And thank you for tuning into this episode of The Inclusive Growth Show with Cynthia and myself. No doubt you’ve taken some wisdom away with you. I think the acceptance without understanding is a fantastic mindset to have, and if you want to improve society, then using the four pillars of: Healthcare, economic equality, representation, and safety, is a wonderful place to start. So thanks for tuning in, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the show.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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