There is a new kind of leader emerging in the workplace: One who doesn’t identify with your gender roles, programming, or expectations. This is one of their superpowers. They will challenge your boundaries of what it means to be feminine or masculine and whether that is even matters. There is a rising of transgender and non-binary employees who are willing to be open and honest about who they are, even in the workplace, and it’s forcing a new conversation around gender equality. One where gender is very important to get right, and yet may not be obvious on the surface.
We can’t ignore that this is sparking up some areas that may be uncomfortable to navigate in the workplace. They are uncomfortable because we haven’t faced them before, and we feel unequipped. But there are tools you can use to navigate this new working environment and raise awareness and empathy for correct gender identification in the workplace.
Lead with they/them
The biggest area to practice is in your speech. We naturally say “he,” “him,” “she,” and “her” when referring individuals in conversations without ever truly knowing their preferred gender identity. However, if we didn’t know what someone’s gender identity was, we would naturally say “they” and “them” without hesitation. So, just assume you don’t know what someone’s gender is and lead with “they” and “them” unless you are told otherwise. Doing so as a default will help you overcome the language barrier faster as you will get lots of practice quickly.
You will naturally make mistakes and call someone by the incorrect gender as you are learning. When this happens, simply correct yourself and move on. You’ll likely correct yourself thousands of times before it sticks, but eventually it will. By leading with “they” and “them,” you immediately show empathy to a community that is an important part of the workforce, and you ensure you don’t damage relationships with key contributors where gender identification is important. Eric T. Tung (they/them) is a genderqueer derby girl in Houston and a social media consultant. They shared”
I feel like gender is still evolving in how people are understanding it. I applied for 300 jobs in 2018, and only a small handful offered gender options that were anything other than male or female. Inclusion and diversity includes more than just LGBT people. Of course, they’re important to include as well, but there is usually more confusion about gender.
Don’t assume you know someone’s gender
In the transgender community, it is not uncommon for someone to express their true gender in their personal life and not express it at work. For some, this is a result of discomfort, and for others, they enjoy the separation of identity. This means anyone in the company could be transgendered and you wouldn’t necessarily know.
The non-binary community is a little different. They prefer not to be referred to by their gender and do not identify as either female or male. Many times, their gender appearance is unclear. Some identify as both genders and simply don’t want to eliminate a piece of their identity. Others identify as neither gender and feel like the construct of masculine and feminine is a broken and outdated model for identity.
We should assume that we don’t know anyone’s gender preference unless they specifically tell us. Yes, this will require some reprogramming for yourself. We have all been programmed to associate someone’s physical appearance with their gender, and it will require practice to stop doing this.
Display your own gender identity
Pave the way for our transgendered and non-binary friends by displaying your own gender on work platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Slack, and others. For platforms that do not have the option to display your pronouns, cleverly use your name field to display them. This simple act shows that you understand that gender is an important part of self-identity and should be referenced with respect to one’s preference. It is especially important for leaders in the organization to do this, as it sets the tone for the rest of the organization and provides a permission slip for others to do the same.
You’d be surprised how important this simple move is to the transgendered and non-binary community. By making the switch, you acknowledge their presence and their struggle in the world to be seen and heard. You’re saying, “Hey, you’re accepted here. I’ll tell you my preference. Feel free to tell me yours.” That builds meaningful relationships.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that this community is open to helping others learn about their gender identity. Tung shared a positive experience:
I used they/them pronouns on my email signature and my AVP pulled me aside and wanted to understand more. That was amazing. If everyone lists their pronouns on email signatures or Zoom calls, that can help make pronouns a non-issue and helps to indicate that people are accepting.
Provide space for self-expression
Few people actually want to live a life with a split identity where they have to be one person at work and someone else at home. Yet, in the transgender and non-binary communities, this is a common occurrence. Forward-thinking organizations understand that providing a workplace where transgender and non-binary employees can thrive could help them close the talent gap. And that means our culture needs to be accepting and open, for example, to seeing someone they thought was a man wearing heels in the office. That may be a shocking sight for some employees, and they might not know how to respond. Faux pas that come as a result of people’s conscious and unconscious bias can make for uncomfortable office environments. This is why sensitivity and awareness training are so important.
We’ve only talked about three different gender identities here, but the truth is there are several more. And if we want our organizations to be a safe haven for this community, we’ll need to actually make it safe. This means exposing our team members to other leaders who are transgendered or non-binary so they can hear their stories, and hear their struggles and successes as they’ve begun to overcome social expectations.
A trans friend of mine who wished not to be identified said:
Trans-acceptance in the workplace can, and should, be taught to non-trans employees, but I believe experience to be a great teacher. Make it a priority to hire trans employees, and work with them to get their unique needs cared for. Working with trans employees will help people naturally come to understand how to interact with trans people in a respectful way. In lieu of figuring it out on your own through research, let your trans employees lead the way to how best to provide for them.
Update your forms and platforms to be inclusive
Technology needs to evolve to be more inclusive, too. Forms, platforms, and databases that only include male and female options are out of date. We should provide the option of female, male, transgender, non-binary, and “prefer not to respond.” This includes forms in your employee hiring and onboarding process, marketing programs, customer service programs, and anything you do that asks someone to identify their gender.
Yes, this is not a “small” change as it requires databases to be updated, scripts to be written, forms to be changed, and a whole slew of other things. But it’s important because, when you don’t provide someone with the option to identify as who they truly believe they are, they immediately have a negative experience with your brand. And it’s entirely unnecessary. This is an example of where a little move toward inclusion can go a long way.
There’s no question that organizations that can create safe and accepting environments for the transgendered and non-binary community will thrive. This community is hungry to both be seen and contribute to the organization’s success. And in many cases, they are also open to helping people learn and overcome their own biases.
We all know that there is a pretty big program running behind gender identification, and it’s not going to be unraveled in society overnight. Instead, we’ll have to work on it one person, one organization, and one community at a time. By making these simple shifts, you can make the workplace a better place for even more people to thrive.
nichole Kelly is the VP of Growth at Windward Consulting.