What being non-binary taught me about collaboration and leadership

Aeri Shan
3 min readFeb 13, 2021

I am non-binary. Transgender in the sense that I am not male, but not transsexual in that my gender is both or all and yet neither and I’m just fine with my body the way it is. I’m sorry if that confuses you but it makes perfect sense to me. My gender identity, which I’ve understood since I was seven or eight years old, has afforded me a certain frightening perspective on how people work together, especially in the tech industry.

I’ve seen decades of rampant misogyny. I’ve been allowed into the locker room and experienced — in some ways from both sides — how men shut out opportunities for women and how they steam-roll over anybody not male. How it’s assumed that women cannot be engineers and how their work is belittled and negated. Even men who profess to be aware of this help create a situation where the dominant paths for success and the modes of working together are inherently male. People who are not male are forced to become more so… to “lean in” and exercise power in ways that stifle diversity and make real equality impossible.

I’ve learned to pass and succeed but every time I play the part it feels so wrong. In meetings I am not really a “me” person and when I feel I’ve needed to be simply to not have an idea or decision subsumed or co-opted, I feel terrible. I am about the “we” and am most comfortable when I can cede power and space to be inclusive and when others are quick to do the same, because I believe in “us”. And I believe that in professional settings a spirit of collaboration and team work, rather than command, is what fosters diversity and elicits humane and positive impact in the world.

To be a good leader is to be a great listener. Yet we are taught to be aggressive, self-centered and to dominate in order to get ahead. The tech industry especially rewards such behavior and yet it only fuels exclusion and inequality. We lose so many valuable voices and those in power rarely notice because they are listening only to themselves and people like them. I can think of so many times great ideas have been dismissed when someone not “in power” — be it women, a minority, someone young, or someone like myself has been talked over or ignored not because the idea had no merit but simply because it was assumed that power conferred greater merit. Great ideas don’t come from power, they come from creativity, experience, intelligence, diverse thinking and most of all, collaboration.

Things are better now not least because young women have been so strong in demanding it. But just talking about it is not change and we are so very far from done. Men talk about diversity and inclusion because they have no choice but too often do little or nothing to change their own behavior. A product of a culture that all but forbids it, they often don’t know how.

There’s a first step you can take today: Talk less and listen more. Practice not being in control. Practice giving others a voice. It’s not easy to let go, especially when you are trying so hard yourself to “get ahead”. But when you do I think you will discover just how powerful and productive it is to collaborate as equals.

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Aeri Shan

Story-teller. Data-wrangler. Product visionary. Empath. Non-binary human.