Tell us a little bit about yourself, and your journey that led you where you are now?
My name is Jennifer Henderson. I have been in technology almost 35 years. I have had two startups on my own, filed several patents, and have done consulting. A lot of my career was in marketing and marketing technology, although over the last five or six years, I have been mostly in finance for Fortune 500 banks. Currently I’m a Senior Vice President at a large national bank, and I’m in charge of the teams that support the technology that powers one of the most critical portions of our business.
I transitioned about six or seven years ago while I was working for WPP, which was the world’s largest advertising agency at the time. When I started going through the transition process, I realized that the company didn’t have any gender transition guidelines or documents.
And so, as usual, when nobody has something you need you have to do it yourself, and that’s what I did – writing the company’s transition guidelines, which was a holistic document for both managers and for the person who is transitioning around honoring the change that happens when somebody transitions in the workplace. That resource then became the overarching document for the entire world, not just my division. Now it covers hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide.
I want to repeat back something you just brought up: When something doesn’t exist, we just have to get it done ourselves. That is often the story of marginalized people – LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities. What were you feeling in the moment when faced with such a challenge and opportunity?
I really believe in servant leadership where the reason that you’re a leader is you’re helping everybody else. I could have just done my version of transition. I could have just said, “Well, the company doesn’t need a document. This is what I’m going to do. This is what makes me most comfortable.” But I didn’t want the person after me to have to reinvent the wheel.
I think this is especially important when looking at the younger generations coming into our workplaces and their needs. A recent study found that up to 5.6% of the American population identifies as something other than straight. I did a lot of recruiting on campuses to create a pipeline of students coming into the company. I found it interesting that there were a large percentage of people who were out when they were in college, but then cover as soon as they start their first job because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be accepted for who they are. But there are also people, especially trans people, who are in an affirming company and feel safest during the hours of 9-5 at work. They may not feel safe at home, or going to the grocery store, or interacting with police officers or doctors, but they know that if they work for a company that really values who they are, they can shine and be relaxed at work.
We’re continuing to bend the arc in the right direction, but that’s why it’s really important to not only consider what you’re doing for yourself, but what you can do for others.
In the past month, we’ve already seen many steps towards prioritizing diversity and inclusion from our current administration, from the numerous executive orders to the nomination and soon confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine. What was your reaction when you heard that Biden was nominating Dr. Rachel Levine?
I’m a resident of Pennsylvania and I really liked her, especially with the COVID response and how she emphasized science to lead us through under a very difficult situation because of the mixed messaging that we were getting from the previous administration around COVID. If you look at her history, she was unanimously confirmed to that post in Pennsylvania. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was qualified to do that work.
Most people are not familiar with the position she is nominated for – the Assistant Secretary of Health. This position puts her in charge of the largest portion of the Department of Health and Human Services, and demonstrates the Biden administration’s clear focused on the science, not opinion, when it comes to healthcare. And for me personally, I am happy to see a transgender person going into such a high role because it shows that your skills are more important than the unfortunate politics surrounding your identity.
I do have some fears because as she is debated, I’ve seen a lot of negativity on social media, and I’m hoping that doesn’t encourage people that don’t really know trans people to spout their opinions on things they don’t understand.
Dr. Levine’s confirmation hearing is essentially a job interview to determine if she is qualified and the best fit for this role. We’ve already seen uninformed Senators ask her inappropriate questions around her identity and we know she will face additional scrutiny for being transgender. What types of questions are trans people asked in interviews that they shouldn’t be, that cisgender people wouldn’t be asked? How should Dr. Levine respond to these types of ignorant questions?
There is nothing about being transgender that would disqualify anyone from any job. And being trans does not affect in any way, your ability to do a particular job. I believe that as a trans person, it’s really important to be honest about who you are, but that doesn’t mean you have to come in with a trans flag pin on your shirt.
We saw some incredibly ignorant and rude questions during her confirmation hearing, especially from Senator Rand Paul. I believe that when the people interviewing you are ignorant and/or trying to score some cheap political points, the best approach is to hold your head up high and let it roll off of you. These people who are looking for cheap points with their electorate are a very small and shrinking portion of the population that is against us. I was delighted with her professionalism and composure- it focused the hearing on her qualifications.
How important is it that Dr. Levine’s confirmation is happening now? What message does it send to the LGBTQ community, or to anybody, to see trans people in these positions of power? What does it mean for the trans community as a whole?
What we’ve seen over the last four years, unfortunately, is the weakness of the Executive Branch. One of the issues with the way that our government works is that the largest portion of the government is under the Executive Branch. There’s a lot of power in the ability for these different departments to actually subvert, or at least aim, certain legislation to their own political desires. An example of this was with Trump on Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act and deciding that sex just meant the sex assigned at birth. He was able to eliminate transgender health care and the protections around trans people being treated in certain hospitals. I lived in an area with a lot of religious hospitals, and feared that if I was in an accident and taken to the nearest hospital that they could refuse to treat me. We’re not looking for special, we’re looking for equal. It is very exciting that what happened with the Affordable Care Act will be under Dr. Levine’s portfolio.
Representation does matter and we have seen in recent years more trans people represented in popular culture- on TV and in movies. We know that if we see others succeeding, we can succeed too. But I’m thrilled that this visible representation is now building in other spheres of life. There were probably 200-300 people that Biden could have picked for this position, but he chose her. She not only believes in science and is extremely qualified, but she is representing an amazing community of people.
I want to close by saying I’m extremely proud of her. She is proof that being good at your job is enough and that being trans is not an impediment to that success. And that should be true across every aspect of our lives. She’s a doctor who is a woman, who happens to be trans. I think the headlines like to reverse that, but I think that we have an extremely competent and capable person in Dr. Levine. We should be thanking her for deciding to serve us in that capacity.
Jen currently is the Senior Vice President of Software Services and Data Group Manager for Corporate and Institutional Banking at a large national bank. Jen has long history supporting women in technology and LGBTQ+ causes. She is currently a board member at Out & Equal and was formerly on the board of GLSEN Cincinnati, AIDs Volunteers of Cincinnati (AVOC), career development lead for the Chicago chapter of Women Who Code and chaired the Trans Queer Plus subcommittee of Out Front, Capital One’s LGBTQ+ business resource group. As an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and for her work on transgender policies at WPP she was named Grand Marshal of the 2016 Cincinnati Pride parade and was honored as Out & Equal’s 2018 “Outie” Champion of the year award.