Since coming out as a transgender woman more than a decade ago, Ashley Brundage has used her personal experiences to create further inclusion for others in the workplace. Beginning with her decision to self-identify during a job interview, she has fought through homelessness, discrimination and harassment. 

Brundage began her transition in 2008. At the time, only 13 states and the District of Columbia had legislation on the books that specifically prohibited discrimination based on gender identity in employment and housing. Hawaii prohibited discrimination in housing and public accommodations in 2005, adding employment in 2011. Protections at the state or local level are still limited, but the landmark Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County, in 2020, clarified that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits anti-transgender discrimination in employment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had said the same years earlier for Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman originally from Fayetteville, N.C. who was fired because of her gender identity. 

Through various financial roles, Brundage worked her way up to Vice President with the National Diversity and Inclusion Team at PNC Bank, a position she held until December 2021. Today, she speaks nationally about her transition, workplace equality, empowerment and leadership principles. A resident of Tampa, Fla., Brundage was named one of the National Diversity Council’s “Most Influential and Powerful Women” in Florida in 2018. Her book, “Empowering Differences: Leveraging Your Difference to Impact Change,” provides lessons from “living on two sides of the gender divide.” Brundage also offers a workbook, “The 10 Empowering Actions to Leverage Change” and an online course of the same name. 

Qnotes recently interviewed Brundage via email about her work for our project, OUTlook: Finding Solutions for Labor and Workplace Equality

Photo courtesy of Ashley Brundage

Qnotes: Your experience led to the development of these 10 Empowering Actions that you describe in your book. What do you think is at the core of finding workplace equality for LGBTQ people? 

Ashley Brundage: Having worked on both sides of the gender continuum and on both sides of the glass ceiling I think we can drive workplace equality for LGBTQ+ people through various ways but it starts with leadership development programming tied directly to our intersectionality. 

Being LGBTQ+ is different for each person and that is why we are facing so many different levels of challenges. 

Our community, besides being minorities in gender and/or sexuality differences, also have all the other differences that we have as people on this planet. I used my own research on leadership development through empowerment of differences to grow my career from a homeless proud out woman of transgender experience to become the national vice president of DEI for 60,000 people at PNC Bank in 4.5 years. 

Leadership development programming serves many functions and can look very different, but the key point here is the open framing of leadership versus calling it a diversity program. The word diversity is very problematic as it can turn off people who could learn to be an ally in the future for us but also have a history of only trying to reach a minimum target level. We must do more than marketing [so] that workplaces are inclusive, we have to show it through various intentional programs.

QN: What do these intentional programs look like? 

AB: Training can make all the difference, but we must engage people differently than using the word diversity. As the DEI person, I have trained on every topic from LGBTQ+ inclusion, Trans 101, anti-racism, disability inclusion, and cultural competency, just to name a few. I probably have done enough Trans 101 to be at trans one million and one at this point. All these topics have the same audience that will attend and for me, it is extremely frustrating. It is the marginalized group that shows up, some people who are already allies, the leader or executive to say hello and welcome, and then a few people who are there to get face time with the leader, or they are there for the food, among other disingenuous reasons. 

For these trainings to really build ally networks we must sell LGBTQ+ inclusion way differently. Major brands like Coca-Cola sell their products in various ways around the world, they even change the recipe based on where you live, so why do we think we can sell LGBTQ+ inclusion to create more allies in just one way? Therefore, diversity trainings need to be branded as leadership training going forward. This will provide an untainted level of what is to gain by attending and then the organization can add other measures to make it mandatory as skill building for all leaders. They can even tie these types of leadership training to annual reviews or even compensation for their employees. 

QN: What about those people who are there for disingenuous reasons, as you say? Are these trainings making a difference? 

AB: Another thing I have seen in my time attempting to create an inclusive culture for all is that you cannot change everyone’s outlook on LGBTQ+ equality, especially as some of our world-driven topics are generating lots of buzz politically and socially. Our goal was to create a place to work where everyone feels welcome and is part of the organization. The key point here to remember is that sometimes that is going to include people who want to invalidate your existence, among other potential negative things. We can’t let these people bring us down, but this is why it is extremely important to help educate your human resources team and anyone who works in employee relations on what constitutes someone being anti-LGBTQ+. Many HR professionals are not experts in this space, but we tend to think they can already spot a transphobic remark or joke and that is not true. 

Many of my training sessions I would hold would be for internal HR associates to better understand LGBTQ+ culture but especially help them understand the trans community. After George Floyd was murdered, we saw people open up about wanting to learn more about the Black community, and then when Jacob Blake was shot our CEO posted a blog about his shooting. This created a visceral response from people who were clearly posting racist comments on an internal chat forum. I saw the same thing happen to my trans community on the same CEO blog in 2016 after North Carolina passed HB2, the comments were littered with transphobic responses. Both blogs had to have the comment function turned off but what they both taught the organization is that we had built a culture so open that racist or transphobic people would be so comfortable sharing their opinion in a public open forum. 

Photo courtesy of Ashley Brundage

Immediately our DEI team knew we needed to act so we created forums and town halls to gain more insight, but the result was to embed the DEI component as a core value into performance reviews. Going forward I wish there were immediate leadership development programs for all marginalized groups, not just ones tied to race and gender. This is one of the main reasons I left my post-running DEI for the bank to go run my own company. I wanted to create a world-class leadership development program for the empowerment of all people with all of the differences we have across the 8 billion people on this planet. 

QN: That’s a pretty big feat. What have you learned along the way? 

AB: Working to drive the empowerment of our differences is key to my research. There are four main things that came from this eight-year project on empowerment. The first is a deeper understanding of the three parts of empowerment. 

Empowerment has been recently seen and used as a tagline or marketing ploy, especially in a recruiting manner for more employees or customers. It is important to be sure you and your organization foundationally understand that there needs to be three things involved for empowerment to be present in a moment, and those are Authority, Power, and People. A corporation or organization is not part of that equation based on the definition of empowerment, which is the authority and power connected to people. 

Authority is centered around how people feel empowered, the confidence they have [and] all the ways they care for themselves. Authority-driven items usually produce that boss-like mentality you get from being empowered. It can be very emotionally driven, and it is usually hard to track an honest answer. See your nearest supervisor feedback review scores that paint a different opinion than the turnover rate is telling you. How does it make you feel to provide the rideshare car driver with a 5-star rating? That process is all tied to the authority portion of empowerment. All things in this world either raise or lower someone’s authority of empowerment. The emotional side of empowerment can often have different answers to the same exact question because it is based on people’s perceptions. On the other side of the parts of empowerment is the power side, and that portion is where all the data and numbers live.

Power in empowerment is where people usually get caught up in trying to acquire these intrinsic items. The tangible measured items like money and all its derivatives, functional power like energy, and the most powerful of all the power items, which is time, are some examples. Most of the power items can be captured, grown, and invested. Time is the only one that is exactly what you get. However, you can think about how much time you devote to something and collectively as an organization how many resources you use to impact change or produce a profit margin. Tracking the impact of these power items in your leadership and workforce development programs should be inherently easy because they all involve some sort of measurable number tied to each of them. Often organizations are the only ones attempting to track these items and the successes of the DEI program. They are looking to provide an impact number of promotions or pay equity of the organization among other metrics. Where we can create more change for 2023 through our people is by helping them better understand how to measure and track their own empowerment this year. And that is why people are the final part of empowerment, and they must be involved to connect your program to empowerment. 

People will always play a critical role even with machine learning and artificial intelligence. They are all a part of your workforce, and all can be collectively working together to track the impact that they each make this year. To track authority accurately you are going to have to teach your employees more about empowerment by connecting it to your leadership and workforce development programming. 

Measuring the authority each person has within themselves will help your employees develop by understanding how they feel about their own commitment to your organization. 

Then, remember the power items can be easily tracked since they all contain a measurable component to them, but the key element is teaching your people to also track their power items as well, which they contribute to the organization. 

If your people are truly empowered, then they should be able to provide their own empowerment reports at the end of the year. This report can showcase all their personal successes and also examine how they connected to other people through authority. It also contains the “power numbers” of their business results. DEI programs are only successful when they ultimately tie back to business, and if your people are empowered then they should be able to communicate exactly why they are instead of it just being a blanket statement. 

QN: You mentioned four key insights. What other lessons can business leaders take from this method? 

AB: With a deeper understanding of empowerment, it makes the other findings from my report so much easier to navigate. 

The second finding was the top 10 common differences we have as humans: ability, age, class, education, ethnicity, gender, language, race, religion, and sexuality. Gender and sexuality are the main two differences largely connected to the marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community and those are the differences to apply the leadership model found in my research.

The third finding was the “Four Empowerment Steps” that anyone can do to drive empowerment faster. That starts with you, and step one is titled “Knowing Yourself.” I created an empowerment self-assessment to aid in this process by giving people the chance to answer open-ended questions about themselves. Nobody can placate empowerment to you. Only you know what is empowering. 

Step two is called “Knowing Others.” This is where we learn about those differences mentioned above. This is also why all leadership models should connect training for people to learn about the differences we have as those things shape better leaders for our future. 

Step three is to “Develop Your Strategy.” This is where you can begin to prioritize the differences you have. Which ones need empowerment and which ones contain more empowerment? You need to build your prioritization of the leadership actions you are going to do to drive empowerment for people. 

The last step is “Empowering Actions.” These are the leadership actions that drive the empowerment of people. It is imperative that you make all your leadership actions empowering actions by being able to communicate the tracked authority, power, and the people involved in each action. You can refer to that as the “APP” of empowerment. 

Throughout my research on empowerment, I have found that each difference has leadership actions that can drive this change faster. Start with actions like inclusion, education and access for gender differences. Then actions like education, inclusion, and investment are the top three empowering actions for our sexual differences. These are the leadership actions to drive more empowerment for the LGBTQ+ community and lead to more workplace equality for all of us. 

Learn more about the Empowering Differences method and find online assessments and courses at empoweringdifferences.com.

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