Natalie Egan, 40
Not many of us get to see what life is like on both sides of the gender divide, but for transgender activist and tech entrepreneur, Natalie Egan, that unique vantage point has sparked an inspiring business idea. To help combat harassment and prejudice for others, the brilliant innovator founded Translator, a game-changing software that helps increase workplace empathy. “There is a ripple effect,” says Egan. “If we can make someone a little more empathetic it can actually save someone’s life.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Since I was age 5, I remember being obsessed with solving problems and trying to start my own businesses. So of course, that became my career path––I am an entrepreneur! My current company, called Translator, is a B2B technology company dedicated to helping large organizations positively manage human interpersonal differences while fostering a more open and inclusive culture.
I started Translator based on my experience coming out as a transgender woman after spending the majority of my life as a white man with access, privilege, and resources. Long story short; I experienced bias, discrimination, and hatred for the first time and became obsessed with building a for-profit company that systematically promotes empathy and helps people be themselves. And while our ultimate vision at Translator is #EqualityForAll, my greatest achievement to date is just finally having the courage to be me.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
Ironically, my whole life I was told I could ‘be’ or ‘do’ anything I wanted, except the one thing that I wanted most: to be a woman. When I was born, I was “assigned male at birth” by a doctor and a society that never took into account my unique identity, how I want to express myself, my goals and aspirations, or who I am inside. I am not angry about it. We didn’t know any better. But we know better now and I won’t stand for it anymore. Not for me. Not for anyone. No one should be held back from living their truth and being their authentic self because of a body part, a skin tone, an ability, a belief, or anything. In my opinion, we are all humans and all humans are created equally.
3. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
As a transgender woman, I now face stereotypes and challenges that I never experienced in my life. People openly and blatantly discriminate against me. Others refuse to look me in the eye or won’t sit next to me. They pull their children away from me when I enter the room. When I walk down the street I don’t know if I am going to be verbally or physically attacked. I am told that I am mentally sick or perverted and that I can't go to the bathroom. And these are just a few of the challenges I face navigating the real world––let alone pursuing my career dreams. But none of this slows me down anymore. When people doubt or judge me it actually make me stronger. I am no longer bound by the limitations of other people's expectations. When I first figured out I was transgender I was so scared, but I no longer see being trans as a weakness. It is now truly my competitive advantage. My experience and point of view gives me a mental toughness in the business world that very few people can match.
4. What did you learn through your personal journey?
For me, #SWAAYINGthenarrative was about taking the ultimate risk. What if I just tried it? What if I was just me?
The reality is that I was programed my whole life to believe that transgender people were somehow “less than” everyone else. So much so, that when I finally figured out I was trans, I nearly killed myself. I had lost everything at that point. My marriage was in shambles and I had been fired from the company that I started by the CEO that I put in. But suicide would have been the easy way out and put those that judged me in a position of power and control. The moment of clarity and opportunity came to me when I realized I had nothing else to lose. I thought to myself, who cares what other people think? I am just going to be me and see what happens.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
My advice to all women and all people in marginalized communities is the same: Just be you. Don’t be afraid. It isn’t going to be easy but when you do it and do it consistently and authentically, good things will happen. People will be drawn to you and people are portals of opportunity. You are never going to be or do everything you want by yourself, no matter how strong you are. You need people and the best way to do that, in my humble opinion, is to just be yourself.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."