Christine Hallquist never had dreams of running for office. But this August, she made history as the first openly transgender candidate to be nominated for governor by a major party. What you may not know is that this isn’t Hallquist’s first experience being a trailblazer.
In 2015, while CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, she transitioned from man to woman. Hallquist says it took a lot of unlearning of what womanhood traditionally means to gain the confidence she needed to do her job while being open about her identity.
“In 2010, I sought out a transgender counselor — she said, ‘What is your goal?’ And I said, ‘as a man, I’m a very strong leader and I’m very confident. I believe I can handle any situation that comes up.’ But being Christine, as a woman, I was full of shame and really just not confident at all. I told her that as a woman, I wanted to be as strong as I was as a man.”
Hallquist spoke to Fairygodboss about her experience as a trans CEO, her take on what’s (still) holding women back in the workplace, and how to make company practices more inclusive.
You’re the first openly transgender candidate to be nominated for governor by a major party in the United States. How does that feel?
I’m very honored and humbled at the same time. When I transitioned from man to woman while CEO, Vermonters welcomed me with open arms. I was actually the first CEO to transition on the job, and the fact that Vermonters welcomed me as their candidate is not a surprise. I guess the real surprise was how big the margin of victory was. It’s pretty clear that Vermont continues with its history of being an inclusive, welcoming state. As a state, we have a long history of supporting civil rights.
Did you ever expect to be where you are today? Did you always have dreams to run for office?
I definitely never had dreams to run for office. It’s really a civic and democratic duty. My passion was to solve climate change or mitigate the effects of climate change.
The real thing that kicked me into action was January 20 of this year. I was down in our state capital listening to four young women — they call themselves Muslim Girls Making Change — they’re high school seniors. They were doing slam poetry on what it’s like to live as Muslims in Vermont… and I cried. It was so hard to hear that every day they would come to school and they would face harassment in my own state. So that’s the moment I decided to run for governor — when I listened to those young women.
That brings us to a question we have about diversity and inclusion. A lot of the work we do at Fairygodboss involves working with companies that want to make their workforce more diverse and inclusive. What are some of the steps you believe companies can take to ensure that they're becoming more supportive of all people?
It does start from the top. It has to come from the CEO; it really has to reflect the CEO’s values. What you really have to do is work with the CEO to get them to understand their implicit bias. [While CEO], I did change our senior leadership team so it was balanced between men and women.
Certainly, when I transitioned from man to woman, I learned that it’s one thing to understand the bias; it’s another to experience it firsthand. I began to see a lot of things as a woman that I did not necessarily see as a man.
[For example, at Vermont Electric Cooperative], we ended up getting the best forester in the state — I’m going to tell you how it happened. I remember senior leaders saying to me, “Hey, we’ve got this forester we want to hire.” I said, “OK, why are you asking me?” And they said, “Well, because she's pregnant, and she's going to lose some time.”
I said, “Are you kidding me? She’s going to be here 20 or 30 years; I’m not worried about a couple of months of leave for pregnancy to take care of a child.”
The forester told me when she heard that story she cried, because she had been turned away from so many jobs. And she is just a great employee; she loves the company and she works hard.
I’ve always been a believer that as a leader, if you give people an inch, they give you a mile. You really get a lot by giving.
We hear a lot from women about the challenges they face in male-dominated fields or jobs. What do you believe are the main obstacles that still hinder women’s progress in the workplace?
I’ll tell you about one of the things that I did when I transitioned from a man to a woman. I would be sitting in a meeting, and a man would be facilitating the meeting, and there might just be myself and one other woman in the room. I would witness the fact [the other woman] would raise her hand to ask a question and she wouldn’t get picked. So I would say to the leader, “Hey, Dan, Sally’s got her hand up.” You know, I would point it out.
I think women need to help each other and we need to engage men in the practice of helping women amplify their voices. Because oftentimes, these are well-intentioned men, but they don’t even realize their own filters.
And I encourage women to ask for money. If you get offered a job for, say, $50,000, ask for $70,000. Be bold. We really have to be aggressive about pay.
Has your perspective on women in the workplace or women in leadership changed at all or been informed by your transition?
I’ve always been a believer in collaborative leadership. There’s this traditional style of command-and-control leadership that’s fine in some circumstances, but it’s not how you lead people and get their emotional commitment.
I’m generalizing, but women tend to be more collaborative and inclusive [in their leadership style]. Each style has its place. But for the most part, I think men can learn a lot from women.
What ultimately made you feel comfortable about coming out?
Even though Vermont has good transgender protection laws, as a CEO I was sure I was going to lose my job. The whole issue for me was that my children didn’t know my truth. I didn’t want to leave the planet knowing that I didn’t tell them the truth.
[After working] five years with a transgender counselor, I transitioned on December 2, 2015. I was really ready. I was excited.
When you did ultimately come out at work, how did your colleagues respond? And what surprised you most about their response?
For about a month, it was very tense. I had faith that they would adjust and eventually it would become part of the norm, and it did. What surprised me was how hypersensitive all the employees were around using the correct pronouns. I was really patient; I said, “Don’t worry about making those mistakes, because I understand, and it’s natural.” And that was very helpful. I hope they didn’t [respond that way just] because I was CEO. I hope they would do that for anybody.
Do you feel like your position as CEO made it more difficult or easier to make the transition that you did?
On the one hand, it made it much more difficult because I could not do it quietly. I was very public about my transition because I couldn’t just show up the next day as Christine without shaking up our small world of Vermont.
Being very public about it was difficult, but at the same time, of course, who’s going to pick on the CEO? When I say it comes from the top, well, I was the top — so that pretty much sets the tone for the company.
Do you have a single piece of advice for women who want to lift other women up — especially marginalized women?
I would like to see women encourage each other to go beyond what they believe their limits are.
The person who I asked to replace me is a woman. She’s very good, yet I had to convince her to take the job. I’m generalizing, but on a whole, if you told a man they could be CEO, they’d probably say, “When can I start?”... Whereas you have to convince a woman that she’s so qualified. And I think women can encourage each other to take those jobs that they may not think they’re qualified for.
What do you most hope people walk away with when hearing your story?
I think what I would like people to understand is that I truly believe anything is possible when you’re on the side of justice.