Cynthia Fortlage was 50 years old when she came out and began her gender journey at her workplace. She was the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at GHY International, where she’d worked for nearly three decades, and most people had interacted with her as a man.
In April 2016, with the help of human resources, she came out as a transgender woman to the company owner and executive vice president. Cynthia slowly started to change her appearance. She let her hair and nails grow and had her ears pierced. After a few months, people started noticing those changes, and were told that she was transitioning.
Even with the support, Cynthia says that transitioning at the workplace was scary.
“Gosh, at that point, I’d worked with some people for more than 28 years,” she says. “You’re never really sure how people are going to react.”
According to Cynthia, the concept becomes real to people only when they have a first-hand experience.
“Maybe when they see you on a same sex date or they see you in a dress or makeup, it’s not just an idea, it’s real,” she explains.
As someone who was in an executive role in a small organization, Cynthia was also associated with the brand of the company.
“When people think of the company, you’re one of the people they associate it with,” she says.
So in addition to supporting Cynthia’s experience within the workplace, they also had to consider brand and reputation management. They had to prepare for the company’s identity to transition and make sure that the message they were putting out was supportive and positive.
Cynthia was lucky to have a good experience with her co-workers and was able to move onto the next phase, which was physical and medical-related. However, many companies aren’t prepared to support the needs of diverse employees.
Cynthia says that many companies claim to be diverse and inclusive but they aren’t really ready to help 2SLGBTQ+ or other employees when they come forward. In order to be prepared, they need to have a communication plan and strategy prepared that they can modify depending on what the employee needs from them.
“It is not a snap of the fingers and it is not just a written policy,” she says, “There’s so much more than needs to happen to be ready.”
To help organizations put the concept of diversity and inclusiveness into action, Cynthia started a consultancy, public speaking, and career coaching business – Acceptance Without Understanding.
Acceptance Without Understanding stems from Cynthia’s real-life experiences. She says as human beings we are conditioned to ask questions in order to understand a concept. This is especially true in the world of technology where so much importance is given to understanding the cause and effect. So when we come across someone who is different than us, we try to understand them before we can accept them.
Cynthia developed a five-step model that aims at accepting differences instead of trying to understand them.
“I’m asking you to accept that I’m a human being,” she says. “Then, we don’t need to talk about human rights because you’ve accepted that I’m a human being and therefore have the same rights as you.”
Using this model, Cynthia helps organizations and individuals make the shift from understanding to accepting themselves and others mentally, spiritually, and physically.
Cynthia believes that she helps companies start the work of diversity and inclusion but that is not the end. As we become a global community, organizations need to increase focus on diversity and inclusion in order to become a good corporate citizen and an employer of choice.
“These are things that are not meant for a consultant to hold your hand and walk to the finish line,” she says. “There is no finish line.”
In the Spring of 2019, Cynthia made the difficult decision to leave the company to concentrate on her consultancy, public speaking and career coaching business. She realized that her passion lay in working with people and figuring out what technology can do for companies, not the assembly and operation of it.
“I felt that I needed to take my message and the skills that I have out to a much broader community,” she says.
Over the next year, Cynthia plans to continue developing her business. She has now had speaking engagements in over 17 countries, including New York and Israel this passed summer. She also hopes to do more work in technology consulting, which she says is her forte.
Cynthia looks forward to developing more of the diversity and inclusion space. She is excited to assist organizations prepare so that 2SLBTQ+ people, people of colour, and women feel supported in their careers.