Change yourself, and change the world: Q&A Session with Catherine Kohler.
A few days ago, HP signed the Business Statement for Transgender Equality to support the rights of our transgender employees, customers, partners, and community.
To enlarge this conversation, we spoke to Catherine Kohler, a commit planner who’s a transgender woman in transition.
Q. What’s a commit planner? It sounds like you’re a wedding matchmaker.
It means I’m a process coordination specialist who’s good with numbers. I think of myself as an air traffic controller or a circus ringmaster. We promise thousands of units of hundreds of models per week that we can deliver to dozens of partners. How do we break the smallest number of promises? How do we strategically assign new supply? So we transform policies into algorithms that can be duplicated over and over. That way we come up with something that always works, an algorithm, math.
Q. How do you come up with the math, the numbers, the algorithms?
An algorithm is a process, a list of instructions or recipe to be followed, to get to the desired outcome.
Solutions come because we are all on the same team and working in the same direction. We have a drive to simplify and plan. The bias is toward getting things done and making things work. No one almost ever says no, unless it’s for a technical reason, and you can get help for that.
To hear, over the years, that the design works, and seeing my work becoming part of a basic competency, is almost a justification for my career. I helped design demand classification sequences and this is baked into our tools. I feel I’ve decanted part of my brain into HP. To some extent, I’m inside the computer! I’m part of a logic.
Q. Help us understand more about being transgender through someone we have heard a lot about, Caitlyn Jenner.
Systematic acceptance requires a greater dialogue. In my opinion, Caitlyn Jenner, in front of the world, was a tremendous aid. She helped people understand because, whether people approved or not, or liked her decision or not, at least they knew her. Having her story out there helped others better understand mine. The national dialogue had to occur, and the more that happens, the easier it is for individuals.
Q. Can you say a little about your transition?
I was AMAB or assigned male at birth. I now present as female every day, as Catherine. Every morning when I wake up, my BIOS internal check tells me that the wrong hardware has been detected. My transition is a way of acknowledging that: Yes, the wrong hardware was installed. I accept it. That’s better than having a kernel panic.
Q. What has your transition meant to you?
People correctly reading me as a woman is enormously satisfying.
I had been working with the HP Pride employee resource group. I was not open or out except for a few hours at a time. Every few months, in this small support network, I could drop my mask and publicly experience my life. This was a big step forward.
When I began to tell people, change my dress, and change my appearance, it was confusing at first. A lot depended on managing individual relationships. When you transition, you’re communicating with people through your appearance. You’re always catching people up to speed with where you are. Otherwise, people treat you where you were, and there can be a real discomfort. Misunderstandings are inevitable.
Q. What has been truly challenging?
Going through a gender reassignment, I often find that there are limits to how much I can change. There is no end to the challenge of meeting social standards of appearance, something most of us can relate to. Not matching unambiguously what a woman looks like is really hard for me. I am going to be obvious all my life, so I have to make it easy for people to treat me well. You may not get a positive response no matter how you try, and that’s difficult.
Understanding takes time, and even I don’t always understand it as it’s happening. You have to accept that there will be a lot of misconceptions.
I’ve had to learn situational awareness. It’s like I changed my citizenship and went to another country as an immigrant. I need to be very observant, learn the idioms, and infer the behaviors that are not intuitive for my biology. Imagine imposter syndrome taken to a ridiculous extreme.
Q. Why did you decide to come out at work?
A life in the closet is compartmentalized and timid, and I’ve had to learn not be tentative or afraid. In the past, exposure for a transgendered person has meant a high risk of danger and even death. But working at HP is a controlled environment, and I can safely make the assumption of professionalism. Relationships are defined, and there’s no room for unacceptable behavior.
Now I’m nowhere near so nervous and twitchy. I don’t feel under siege anymore.
Q. Are you supported by your home and family?
I’m securely married to my long-term partner. It took her a couple of years to understand my decision. She is my consigliere, the absolute confident in my affairs and life. She’s in my corner, working to understand me. Having this security gets me through difficult experiences in the transition.
Q. What does Pride mean to you?
You don’t have to stick to one place just because that’s where you began. You have the freedom to imagine how to improve. If you’re constantly examining and questioning everything about yourself, you can question the world around you, too. With that questioning comes genuine perspective and compassion. And with those, you can change yourself and the world.
Thank you, Catherine, for your openness and for sharing this in such an important time!