Gender Perception In Corporate America With Alaina Kupec

by | Jun 11, 2020 | Podcasts

SWGR 526 | Gender Perception


As more queer people are coming out and sharing their stories, gender perception in America has shifted. People are exposed to more lenses, realities, and perspectives that broaden their minds as a result. Elizabeth Bachman speaks with Alaina Kupec, the Senior Director of Global Value and Access at Gilead Sciences. From the point of view of a transgender person, Alaina shares how gender perception has shifted in Corporate America. If you’d like to learn more about how gender perception is shifting, Alaina’s empowering story is a great place to start.

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Gender Perception In Corporate America With Alaina Kupec

This is the show where we interview leaders from around the world about how you can use your presentation skills to make a difference and move your audience to take action. Another big piece of that is whether they’re going to take action or not has to do with how they perceive you. This is part of our Pride Month series. My guest is the wonderful, Alaina Kupec. I’m excited to have you. Before we get started, I’d like to remind you that if you’re interested in presentation skills, if you’ve tuned in because of that, please take our free assessment at If you’re reading this, you can pause and go over, take the assessment and come back because that will inform the way read this. It takes four minutes and that’s where you can see where you are rocking your presentation skills and where maybe you might want a little bit of support. Alaina Kupec, thank you for joining us. Welcome to the show. I know that you have a lot to say about gender and gender perception in Corporate America. Tell me first, if you could interview somebody from history, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be in the audience?

The person that I would interview would be Joan of Arc for a number of different reasons. Diversity is extremely misunderstood. Those who don’t come from a diverse background, whether that’s racial diversity, religious diversity, gender or sexual orientation diversity, look at the world in a different way than those of us who have come from a diverse background. I would want those people to be in the audience. Why do I say Joan of Arc? She is someone who was a pioneer in many ways. We won’t go to the end where she was burned on the cross. If you think about what she did for the country of France, the strong leader that she was, and the gender barriers that she broke down in leading the regiment she had led there. She’s the first person that I can look back at historical times and point to and say, “Here’s somebody who defied cultural norms and grew to be revered and grew to be able to reach people and change people’s perceptions about what a woman can do to be a strong leader.” I would love to have the opportunity to sit back and interview her, get into her mind a little bit and find out about what drove her and how did she break through the societal barriers that she may have faced in going through and accomplishing the amazing work that she did. Never mind how it finished.

That’s the thing about breaking the barriers, sometimes you get burned at the stake or you get lynched. That still happens metaphorically. That indeed happens. I forgot to talk about your bio. You work for Gilead Sciences. Tell us a little bit about who you are, how you got here, and what you’re doing now, which is cool.

I work on the Global Value and Access team at Gilead, a large biotech company here in the Bay Area, California. I lead the Value and Access work for the inflammation part of the company. I work in the early stages of our discoveries and development programs or what we call the pipeline. Each day I get up trying to find ways that we can take the incredible science that our scientists have and the molecules that they discover and develop. We match those with what is the opportunity and the unmet need that patients have around the world. My work is global in nature. As an essence, it’s trying to take what’s in the lab, translate it into the patient’s needs, find out where’s that gap and what’s not being satisfied by therapies. We’re looking at what is the pathway for development ultimately with the goal of trying to make sure it’s accessible for the patients. It’s affordable and accessible, the insurance companies cover it, and that governments around the world will pay for it. It’s translating the science into markets essentially.

Are you a scientist or a doctor yourself?

Make a difference in people’s lives every day. Share on X

I am not. I have a BS degree in Political Science, which there are all kinds of jokes that can be made about that. That’s as close to being a scientist as I am. I’ve spent many years in the pharma and the biotech space after I left the Navy as a Naval Intelligence Officer. I wanted to make a difference in patients’ lives and I was thoughtful in choosing this particular sector to go to work many years ago after I left the Navy.

How does a background in Naval Intelligence connect to marketing legal drugs?

When I was getting out of the Navy, I had many choices ahead of me. As a junior military officer, you’re very sought-after by a lot of different companies. I wanted to do something that made a difference in people’s lives every day. Having had an opportunity to talk with a number of different companies and a number of different sectors, I want to go to work every day trying to make the world a better place and to help other people. Every day for the past years I’ve been in this industry, that’s been the goal I’ve had in mind. If you talk to 100 people across my industry, 99 would tell you the same. We’re all driven by trying to find new therapies to help patients and people live longer lives across the globe.

That’s what’s driven me to be a part of this industry. As an intelligence officer in the Navy, I had two remits. One was to take strategic intelligence to look at a theater of operations. For example, operating in the Persian Gulf, which we were back in the mid-‘90s when we were supporting no-fly zones over in Iraq on the aircraft carrier and the fighter squadron that I was a part of. You had to take the geopolitical environment you’re operating in and be able to react to anything that could happen in that whole Middle East on the one hand.

On the other hand, I had the job of making sure that the pilots in my squadron went out there for their missions and came home alive. It was strategic and tactical. What I’ve done for the past years and what I do in my role now is strategic and tactical. It’s being able to take complex information from a lot of different sources and then bring that into something that tells the story that you pick out what’s the real valuable information and all of that, and then use that effectively to execute a plan. There are a lot of translatable skills between what I did in the Navy and what I do in taking a look at complex environments of markets across the world, new medicines that we’re developing. We’re then thinking about how do we match the medicine to the markets around the world and make them affordable for patients, and bring them to patients to help meet their needs.

SWGR 526 | Gender Perception

Gender Perception: The US medical system is completely different than every other system around the world so you have to find ways to align the medicine you’re selling with different markets.


I love that because that international communication is a big theme of this show and how people pay attention to you around the world. You’re also part of the Global Value and Access teams. You’re still working internationally.

I support all the different geographies around the world like the US, the EU, Japan, Asia, China, all the markets around the world. We’re trying to look at the complexities and the different ways that medicines are delivered in those markets because it’s unique. The US system is completely different than every other system around the world. We’re trying to understand what are the drivers of those individual markets and how our medicines are valued and then reimbursed. Also, how are they accessible to patients. We’re thinking about how do we align our medicine to those different markets in a way that can enable the most number of patients to get access to medicine.

You said something about not needing another blood pressure pill or something.

For a long time in our industry, companies would bring medicines to the market because they could, because the scientists had discovered and developed something. Therefore, it would advance to the clinical stages and then it would come to the market. The teams would say, “We have to find a way to get this to patients.” There was no matching of what the need was in the market to what the discovery in the lab. What I do is match those two things. We say, “Before we get too far into the investment, which typically nowadays it’s $1 billion to bring a drug to the market and to get approved. Before we invest $1 billion, how do we take a look at the landscape and make sure there’s going to be a landing place for it that’s going to differentiate and help patients?” We then proceed to make the right clinical decisions along the way that helps the actual number of patients get access to it. The worst thing you can do is spend $1 billion and years of your life investing in something as a company, and then find out at the last second when you’re on the market that there’s no need for from the patients or from the prescribers around the world they may prescribe in.

That pushes many buttons for me because of the themes that I’ve been listening to. I was reading a book about medicine in the early 20th century. One of the things was that the male doctors would operate on poor patients, male or female. The doctors would do their experiments by operating on patients and using them as experimental subjects without caring whether it would make sense because they were poor people, so it didn’t matter. This whole thing of figuring out if there’s a need first, that’s a theme that’s been going on for decades and decades if not centuries.

Insurance companies are doing better at covering treatments for transgender people. Share on X

What you mentioned reminds me too of being a woman who is transgender. That still was going on in the transgender community. It’s only been in the last few years that the insurance companies have started to cover a lot of surgeries that transgender patients need. There was a whole ecosystem of physicians out there who are preyed upon the community. Maybe they were not able to make it as a surgeon and get clients around themselves in their natural markets. What they would do is start to do surgeries for transgender people, men and women. Oftentimes, their results were horrifying. There are unsafe practices. People had infections and died, but it was all cash paid because insurance didn’t cover it.

There’s no regulation on these surgeons. There was nobody to complain to. It was an agreement between you as a patient and the surgeon. One of the nice things that’s happened in the last couple of years, and we still have a long way to go for the community, is that we get all these medical procedures covered by insurance companies. There’s some level of regulation because otherwise, it’s preying upon the vulnerabilities of the transgender community who are so much of a need to align their physical body to their brain that they’re willing to do things out of desperation. Unfortunately, there are a lot of physicians out there who have taken advantage of that desperation and had negative outcomes for people in the community.

That too has been going on for decades if not centuries. Tell us please, I’m curious about this. The title of this episode is Gender Perception in Corporate America. You went out there and did your presentations and did your work as a man. Now, you’re doing it as a woman. How is it different?

It’s night and day difference between how I’m accepted as a woman presenting and how I was accepted previously when I presented as a man. I had no idea how stark the differences were. It’s been eye-opening in every way. I still continue to be surprised. As a man, you can go out and act with confidence in your interactions with your peers in informal and formal leadership opportunities. People automatically assume credibility and respect and expect that. What I’ve found as a woman is that you have to earn that twice as hard as I did previously as a man. A good example that I can think of is after I transitioned a few years ago. I had the same manager that led me before my transition, during my transition and afterward. I was a high-performer on his team before I transitioned.

I became a higher performer after my transition because once you align the mind and the body, amazing things happen. You can be your true self and everything else follows. At the end of my performance review, after my first year working for him and how I appear to the world as a woman, he sat down with me and said, “You need to tone it down a little bit in meetings and presentations. You come across strong. You come across in ways that are overconfident.” I thought, “I haven’t changed what’s on the inside whatsoever.” The wrapper may have changed, but my confidence, my knowledge and my skillset for the same job I did before is the same job I did after. It hasn’t changed whatsoever. How people perceive that confidence is different when it comes to a woman. It’s viewed skeptically. It’s viewed as a challenge to sometimes many men out there. That’s one example. That was a few years ago.

SWGR 526 | Gender Perception

Gender Perception: There are many people preying at the vulnerabilities of the transgender community, who feel both the need and desperation to align their physical bodies to their brains.


Let me give you another example. I had my end of year performance review in 2019. I had a new VP come in that I worked for. The only piece of constructive criticism was essentially in the same theme. I had glowing feedback, exceeding expectations, doing all the right things. The peers that I worked with all love me. They look to work with me. They view my knowledge of the subject amazing, but as a confident woman, I have to be careful of how that’s perceived by others. A woman VP is giving me this feedback. It’s interesting to me that I’ve gotten feedback from a man and I’ve gotten feedback from a woman. It’s like women are not supposed to be confident. Women are not supposed to be experts in their field. Women are not supposed to be viewed as credible. They’re supposed to be somehow seen but not heard is the message that I’ve gotten from those two leaders. It speaks to me the challenge that women have faced for many years that I had no idea existed. I’m sure you as a woman and other women reading this may be in agreement of many have gone through the same exact experience.

You’ve been male and you are now a female. You said something once about whether it’s hardwired or socialized. What do you think? Is it nature or nurture?

Being transgender is definitely nature. There’s no nurture about it whatsoever. In the last few years, if you look into the science behind what it means to be transgender, it’s conclusive even though I may have been assigned male at birth. Essentially, they’ve studied the brains of transgender people pre-hormone therapy and post-hormone therapy, and pre-transition, post-transition. The brains of people who are transgender image more like their presenting gender after they transition than they do of their assigned gender at birth. In my case, my brain has always been a female brain. I’ve always thought that I should be a woman ever since I was a young age, since the age of 6 or 7, prepubescent, pre-hormones and all of that. The brain didn’t match the body. The science that’s come out in the last few years has only confirmed that, the imaging studies and other studies. Whether we like it or not, in utero, we’re all female for the first couple of weeks of gestation. Only when the hormones turn on, bathe the fetus, and flip the switch to give us our later gender. The fetus then changes or the X, Y chromosomes come into play.

There are a lot of different chromosomal abnormalities that come into play when people are transgender. There are different ways hormones act at different receptors that may not receive the different hormones the right way. They may block testosterone, so they are only getting the feminizing hormones. There are all kinds of ways that people are either transgender or intersex. We’re talking about purely scientific discussion. There is no question whatsoever if you talk to the scientific experts that transgender is nature but not nurture at all.

However, the way people perceive us, that is the way we’re socialized. Boys are socialized to go out and be brave. Girls are socialized to be nice. We’re also socialized to expect that from boys or girls.

Once you align the mind and the body, you can make amazing things happen. Share on X

I can’t go back and redo the socialization that I missed out on for the first 40 years of my life before I transitioned. There are gender norms that we’re all expected to fulfill and that we’ve all been exposed to our entire lives. For boys, it’s going out there, compete and win, be visible and be present. For women, in many cases, it takes more of a back seat to the men in their lives. Don’t go out there and push their career forward, support that man in their life. Those socialization norms shape a lot of our perceptions of ourselves and shape a lot of the perceptions that people have of men and women. Only in the last ten years or so that we’ve seen a real breaking down of pushing back against these gender norms and pushing forward in a new way, especially with the younger generations. It’s wonderful to see, but there’s much work to be done from where we are to get to gender equality. The mountain is high and we’re still at maybe level-three of getting there.

It’s a process. A whole lot of what I do is helping women navigate that tight rope between being respected and being called bossy. Getting what you need to get as to getting what you need by paying attention to how you’re perceived, who you need to convince, how they’re going to perceive you, then speaking in a way that you can do that. It reminds me of my 30 years in the opera. We had many stories that started with Commedia dell’arte, and then 18th and 19th-century literature that was all about how the woman could persuade the man that what she wanted was her idea. We think about the Barber of Seville or the marriage of Figaro or any of that which comes directly from Commedia dell’arte and so forth. It’s about how do you convince the person with the power to help you do what you want to do. It changed the costume now. The vocabulary is a little different, but it’s the same thing. What advice could you give to the men who would be reading this on how to get the most out of their female colleagues?

Try to understand their perspective and have the ability to empathize with them. Get to know what are the challenges that they face in their careers. I’ve been a socialized male and work as male for the first 40 some years of my career, I was blind to the challenges that women face in the workplace. There are systemic barriers to women advancing their careers. The company that I work at has goals for women in a senior leadership position. Every company I’ve worked at had the same goals. What that means is companies have a problem with women getting to the senior levels in a company, so they’re having to look for ways of solving that actively. There are systemic reasons why those goals have kept women where they are.

It’s trying to talk with them and understand what their personal experience been is. What are the barriers that they have faced? Whether it’s not being given the same opportunity to be part of an interviewing pool. Are they interviewing people who look like themselves and act like themselves and come from the same background? It’s proven that people oftentimes hire in their own shadows. They hire in their own circles. What’s the value of having diverse candidate pools when they interview? Diversity can mean gender. It can be religious, ethnic, work experience. How do you not rely on your tried and true and look for ways to strengthen the talent that you have around you by bringing people from different perspectives to the table who can look at problems from a different way? Oftentimes, they offered solutions that may be outside of the norm and make the ultimate solution stronger because of that diversity of input.

If you talk to a woman and you ask her, “What are the 2 or 3 things that have held you back in your career?” You’re going to get probably education and some things that you have no idea about. You probably aren’t even aware of this and the systemic challenges that they face. If you do that with the different women that you work with and most by that time score 5, 6, 7, 10, whatever it may be. You’re going to be able to grow a much better appreciation for the challenges they face, but also at the same time what the strengths that they bring to problem-solving. Hopefully, you walk away as a stronger ally of women and their opportunities to do bigger and better things in the organization.

SWGR 526 | Gender Perception

Gender Perception: There are gender norms that we’re expected to fulfill because we’ve all been exposed to these norms our entire lives.


It should be said here that by diversity, we both mean racial diversity, ethnic diversity, and all sorts of things. We’re both white and blonde. What makes us different is not visible at first glance. We could pass if you will. My friends with darker skins, they will often notice things that I don’t notice because I may feel different but I’m not. I don’t necessarily look different. That’s a big deal. One of the things that I’m hoping is the movements nowadays of getting women onto corporate boards for instance, or getting women into positions of power is just the beginning. Hopefully, the women who do get into positions of power, they’re aware enough that once you’ve got a couple of women up there who have fought to get there, then it is your job to open the door for those behind you. It is a start, but thank goodness there is a lot of progress being made.

I’ve encountered two types of women in my career. Those that lift up and empower other women, which we both see as the ideal, and those who act as mentors, provide that coaching and support, and that pulls the others up behind them. I’ve experienced and I know others I’ve talked to experienced women who for whatever reason aren’t as helpful and don’t help other women get up there too. We can’t assume that because it’s a woman, they’re automatically going to be the same way. I’ve experienced in my career, about 2/3 maybe are those who were supportive. We also have to look at it and say, “If they’re not doing those things to help support women, why aren’t we? Why aren’t we trying to make others around us better and help them tackle the same challenges that we’re facing and bring them along with us?”

I feel like it’s scarcity and fear thing. Some of it is, “I got here but there’s only room for me. I can’t let anybody else come in who’s good.” We’re seeing other people as a threat, male or female. Let’s hope that can be minimized as we move forward. We both certainly have seen that and see how that makes a difference. I was coaching a female client to prepare for a meeting with a difficult female superior. We talked about understanding and thinking about where the difficult superior might be coming from and then how could we address her in a way that would support her. My client was nervous, but it wound up to be a great interview. She had come in and had a great conversation because of all the preparation she had done in terms of, what does this superior need and how can I address what her needs are so that she understands why we want to do what we want to do? I keep coming back to rule number one over and over. It’s all about them. It’s all about your listeners and how do you phrase something in a way that your listener can get it? Alaina Kupec, this has been fascinating and exciting. Do you have other thoughts about how to navigate gender perception in Corporate America or things that we should know?

I have grown much more empathetic towards anybody who’s not a straight white male. Having lost that white male privilege when I transitioned, I’ve been at the forefront of advocating for transgender rights outside of the corporate environment. Having lived in North Carolina for HB2 and I’ve been involved in the fight for equality there, and then nationally since then. That fight is not over when it comes to serving in the military, unfortunately. For me, it’s how do we break through and help others who don’t come from a diverse background and don’t look at the world from a female perspective? How do we help them understand that it’s not a fixed piece of the pie? They don’t have to give something up.

That’s what we have faced in this country for the past years. We’re facing a large section of people who have a fear of giving something up. What I mean by giving something up is a fear of their religious liberties or the way that they see relationships between themselves and others in a heterosexual environment. It’s helping people understand that when other people get equality, it doesn’t mean that they’re losing any equality. It’s helping other people enjoy the same benefits that they have probably blindly been the beneficiary of their entire life, but they’ve never known that. They don’t recognize that because they’ve never had to look at the world through a lens of anything other than somebody at prison. By sharing our experiences with others, this is why I’ve chosen to be visible in the community and my workplace for being transgender.

By sharing our experiences with others, we can expose them to different lenses, realities, and perspectives. Share on X

It’s helping others understand in the way of sharing my life experiences with them. Maybe by sharing something about myself, they will find some seed to grow inside of that other person that they will then be open to learning about a different point of view than maybe they’ve encountered before. If we can stop this world of constant arguing and bickering, have a word of dialogue, and not threaten somebody’s beliefs because they uphold them. People are entitled to believe what they want to believe but hopefully, they respect that we’re entitled to have different perspectives. The sharing of those perspectives, ideas and experiences that we’ve had that shaped what we are, we would all grow stronger and better for it. We’ve got to try and break through this division and try and reach this level of dialogue that doesn’t seem possible now. I’m not going to give up on it.

I’m open about who I am, my journey and how I’ve gotten here. I hope that in some small way it helped others find strengths in themselves to move forward with accepting who they are and be confident in that way. Find the strength to live their truth as I’m able to find the strength to live mine. In my perspective, it only comes by making people feel comfortable and not threatened in how you engage and have that dialogue. If we engage with hostility, would we meet with hostility? If we engage with civility and the sense of trying to understand their perspective and hope they will understand our own, we’re more likely to get results.

Alaina Kupec, thank you for being a guest on the show. This has been fun, fascinating and useful. I must remember to thank you also for your military service and for having done that for the sake of the whole country. I want to remind you one more time that you can go to our free assessment at and that’s where you can see where you are great with your presentation skills and where you might want to get a little bit of support. It only takes four minutes, so give it a chance. If you like this, please also like us on iTunes and leave us a review. We’re happy to have you here. I’ll see you at the next one.


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About Alaina Kupec

SWGR 526 | Gender PerceptionAlaina Kupec is a transgender woman living in New Jersey with her wife Kathy. Alaina is also a veteran, having served in the Navy from 1992 to 1996. In 2016, Alaina was featured in a national TV ad produced by the Movement Advancement Project, Freedom for All Americans, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Equality Ohio, and others, highlighting the discrimination transgender people may face in public spaces. The video notably debuted during coverage of the Republican National Convention on FOX News.

Now, Alaina often speaks out about the attempted ban by the Trump administration on transgender military service. “It just really saddens me for the transgender sailors and soldiers who are serving around the world today and are selflessly giving themselves to protect our country,” Alana said.