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Melissa Griffiths: Forging A Path For Transgender Talent

The greatest hypocrisy of the creative industry is that we purport to be cognisant of culture, yet we willingly live in a giant bubble. The people inside this bubble are often homogenous, which can stifle our creative ability. To burst this bubble, Mavens interviewed Melissa Griffiths, a transgender authority and advocate working to show the value transgender people can bring to any organisation – or creative team. Not only that, she’s educating organisations on the changes needed to become truly inclusive and attract gender diverse talent.

Tell us about your career journey. What led you to become a transgender advocate and D&I consultant?

As a transgender woman, my personal journey began a long time ago – as a child I was different to the other boys around me. Especially as I progressed from my teenage years to adulthood where I was able to dress more. In the process of living part-time as a woman, I encountered the challenges of being transgender; at the same time hiding this from my colleagues which became increasingly difficult.

It was seeing my dad and cousin in hospital – both dying of cancer – that made me realise life is short. This was the catalyst for my decision to live full-time as a woman. After I announced my transition, I realised that many others don’t understand transgender people. Through the questions I encountered at work (such as ‘what bra size will you be?’) and my experiences pre-transition living full-time as a woman, it became clear to me how few people understand what it means to be transgender at all.

Becoming a transgender authority and advocate started with talking to other transgender people. I realised that workplaces (and society) don’t understand what we go through.

When I had the opportunity to get a Gender Identity Policy introduced at the Victoria Racing Club (as part of their vision and values), I saw that I could make a difference in the world and make life easier for transgender people.

Living full-time as a woman, I encountered discrimination and nasty stares and glares when out a pub by myself or walking down the street. I have also encountered being mis-gendered which, even to this day, is an issue for transgender woman like me. Going to the races and hearing comments like “it shouldn’t be allowed” or going to a restaurant and having the waiter calling me “sir” (even though I’m dressed as a woman) were hard to deal with at the time. But somehow, deep down, I knew I had to change this.

So it is was these experiences, my belief that I could change the world and already having some success in advocacy work with the VRC that were the catalyst for me to become a transgender advocate and D&I consultant.

You’re shining a light on the value transgender people can bring to any organisation. What actions can advertising agencies take to be genuinely inclusive and attract transgender talent?

For any organisation to be genuinely inclusive, they need to have a transparent policy that encourages and protects transgender people. They also need to be visibly proactive in that area and ‘walk the walk’. This could mean being present at Pride March and other events that show support for transgender people.

Organisations need to create an environment which values transgender people and ensure that staff are aware of important things like which pronoun(s) to use when addressing transgender people. An environment where inclusivity is a priority – not just box ticking – makes a huge difference.

If a talented transgender person wants to work for an advertising agency, then they will want to be valued for their contribution as a talented creative person and not because they are transgender. Focusing on the person and their abilities rather than the fact they are transgender will also go a long way.

It’s also important that the agency leadership makes an effort to truly understand the challenges transgender people face in their daily lives and when transitioning. These might include changing their documents, receiving exclusionary treatment during job interviews or being subjected to outright discrimination. This is why it helps to have transgender role models within the business or strong, empathetic leaders who visibly advocate for inclusive spaces where respect is number one.

If leadership can understand these challenges, they can help create work environments where inclusivity is the norm rather than the exception.

Educating employers on gender identity is something you’ve successfully done for a range of businesses including Cricket Australia. What are some key things you advise employers to help them understand (and support) gender diverse people?

Employers need to understand that gender diverse people are still people with abilities, feelings and skills just like everyone else. Additionally, some gender diverse people may not want their gender advertised in the workplace.

For example, a person who has already transitioned from male to female and identifies as gender diverse may not want their work colleagues to know because of negative past experiences.

Employers also need to understand that how gender diverse people are addressed (such as their pronouns) are important to them. Employees can support their gender diverse peers by wearing name badges that show their pronouns – it’s one small but effective way of creating awareness. Pronouns can also be added to social media profiles like LinkedIn, and staff email footers.

It’s also important to have policies in place which actively encourage respect. Start by openly recognising gender diverse people as valuable employees and contributing members of society. Create guidelines for dealing with adversity – for example, some individuals in the organisation (be it a workplace or community sports club) may not like having a gender diverse person present. By having policies in place to help deal with discrimination, issues like this can be addressed with minimal harm.

Another key area of education is mental health. Society is not always kind to (or supporting of) gender diverse and transgender people. Often, transgender women like myself will only go to clubs/events that are LGBTIQA+ friendly (such as Pride of Our Footscray Community Bar) and catch up with other transgender women and gender diverse people in our community.

Gender diverse people may develop more mental health issues if they feel their employer doesn’t understand them or support them. This can lead to anxiety and depression. I have experienced anxiety attacks at various stages of my transition and they are no fun. Also, a recent University of Melbourne study revealed that we have some of the highest rates of suicide in the world, making the issue all the more urgent.

Acknowledging this and addressing it in the development of gender policy is hugely important. Include options for both internal and external support (such as a psychologist) to support gender diverse people when they are experiencing mental challenges of any kind.

At Mavens, we admire your leadership style because it’s kind yet unapologetic. What do you think are the most important leadership qualities?

Accountability, self-belief, bravery, confidence, courage, empathy, humility and integrity. And recognising that you’ve got to have your own leadership style.

Last year, Mavens conducted a Gender Diversity Study for the advertising media industries, which revealed that 55% of respondents had been bullied at work. What defines bullying, and what action can employees generally take if it happens to them?

Bullying is any unreasonable or unacceptable form of behaviour that includes intimidation – either verbal or non-verbal. This can include glaring or staring at someone, teasing, writing inappropriate names on their property or making offensive remarks about them, their friends or their family. Bullying may be verbally aggressive or create a physical risk to someone’s health and safety.

Bullying can take many forms including practical jokes or pressuring someone to behave badly. Even excluding someone from work social functions by giving them too much work to do – this would be considered unreasonable and therefore bullying.

Bullying can be overt but it can also be insidious, occurring through gossip or innuendo where a person is unaware of others making inappropriate jokes about them. Bullying can occur both on an individual level (one-to-one) or be perpetrated by (or to) a group of people.

There are several actions an employee can take if they are bullied. The first is to note it in their diary and report it to their manager and/or human resources department, harassment officer or health and safety representative. If an employee is a member of a union, they can speak to their union representative.

It is important that any action taken is recorded in order to track the resolution process. If the matter cannot be resolved internally, the employee may decide to report it to the police and/or take legal action. There is also the option of applying to the Fair Work Commission to have the bullying stopped. It is important that one also gets independent advice so can make a decision about any steps they take.

Being bullied is difficult and it helps to have support. Reach out to organisations like Bully Zero to see how they can help. If you are feeling anxious or suicidal as result of bullying, call Beyond Blue, Lifeline or your psychologist. This is nothing to be ashamed of; it should be encouraged not discouraged. If we all recognise the harmful effects of bullying and proactively address it in our own ways, it may not be as prevalent in the future.

Lastly, who are your favourite female role models?

Whilst former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard were in different political parties, they have always championed change. I admire Julia Gillard as she paved the way for women in leadership, and her government introduced important schemes such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Julie Bishop always stood her ground and spoke her mind – a quality I admire and have encompassed in my own life.

Michelle Obama is an amazing woman, deserving of the many accolades she has received. I admire her as a role model and for her advocacy work improving other people’s lives.

I have looked up to Tara Moss as someone who has always been a feminist making life more equitable for all of us. I also admire Tara for her calm and professional manner and her writing abilities and talent.

Tracey Spicer AM has paved the way for women in media, working tirelessly to raise awareness of bullying, harassment and intimidation in the workplace. Her strength is one I admire; she has personally supported me during my tough times transitioning and continues to do so today. Reflecting on that support in the last five years does make me a little teary, as women don’t always understand or support transgender people like myself.

Presenter and journalist Lisa Wilkinson knows her strengths and stands up for herself. I admire her empathy when interviewing people – she is understanding of transgender people, too. Lisa holds her own in the media and is a strong role model.

All of these women have leadership and personal abilities, qualities and skills that I admire and encompass into my life where I can.

In addition to her role as Board Director for JustSociale (and former board director of Elder Rights Advocacy), Melissa Griffiths maintains a public profile as a media commentator, speaker, writer and thought leader. This visibility makes her a role model for transgender people – after all you can’t be what you can’t see.

If you need a new fresh and experienced person on your board or a brand ambassador, model for your next runway or fashion show, emcee or speaker for your next conference, contact Melissa here.


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