Being gender-inclusive at work and beyond

On March 31, 2021, International Trans Day of Visibility, I came out as nonbinary. This was the end result of a lot of exciting, difficult, devastating, and ultimately affirming work over the last year-plus. Understanding my gender and who I am is, of course, a wonderful thing!

That said, living as a nonbinary person in an extremely gendered society has presented a whole new set of challenges. I’m constantly misgendered when I’m out and about, and I’m coming to grips with the fact that I probably always will be as an assigned female at birth (AFAB) person. The really tough part to deal with, though, is being misgendered by friends, family, and even close coworkers. I know that it’s very likely unintentional, but I described it to my therapist today as “death by a thousand cuts.” These are people who are supposed to know me and understand me, and yet they can’t change their pronouns for me? It feels awful. And I’m still struggling to find a way to feel comfortable with correcting people.

To make myself feel better and try to help others understand how their language impacts me and other nonbinary and transgender people, I shared a version of the post below on my company’s internal blog. I’ve made some edits to share it here. This post was inspired by and borrows heavily from my friend and former colleague Enfys Book’s post here.

How can I make sure my language is gender-inclusive?

Gender-inclusive language is really important. It’s a very basic thing that we can all do to ensure that no one feels excluded from our communication. It’s especially important because there are a lot of phrases and words that we use regularly in the workplace that are gender-exclusive, often of women and nonbinary people. For example, many people heavily use “guys” to refer to a group.

Note that when I refer to “gender” throughout this post, I’m referring to the spectrum of gender: men, women, and nonbinary people. As Enfys noted, “references to ‘men and women’ exclude those of us who are nonbinary.”

Instead of…Say…
“Ladies and gentlemen”“Everyone,” “everybody,” “folks,” “esteemed colleagues/guests,” “guys, gals, and nonbinary pals”
“Men and women,” “boys and girls”“People,” “folks,” “everyone”
“Guys”“Friends,” “colleagues,” “y’all,” “yinz,” (I’m partial to this one as it’s a Pittsburgh word) “everyone,” “folks,” “team”
“Dude,” “girl,” “man” (i.e. “Thanks, dude”)“Buddy,” “friend,” “teammate,” “esteemed colleague”
Examples of gender-neutral substitutions from https://majorarqueerna.com/how-to-use-gender-inclusive-language/

Some good tech-specific examples of how to use these:

  • “Do yinz think we’re going to go over estimate on this task?”
  • “Can you folks update the estimate by the end of the day?”
  • “Hi team, how are we doing on the sprint so far?”
  • “Thanks for catching that, friend, I really appreciate it”

Outside of work, I’ve been struck by how often nonbinary people are grouped with women as “women and nonbinary people,” somehow implying that nonbinary people are “women lite.” Nonbinary people are not women. They may share things in common with women, such as menstruation, which you can address by using a phrase like “people who menstruate” (instead of just “women”).

Cool cool. What about all those pronouns?

At my company, we’re encouraged to include our pronouns in our email signatures as well as Slack profiles. In addition, Zoom’s most recent release now allows users to add their pronouns. Lots of other work-related tools, including LinkedIn, now allow users to share pronouns.

tl;dr: When you see a pronouns field, use it! As Enfys notes: “By sharing your pronouns, you create a safer space for other folks to share theirs, and you normalize them in conversation.”

Sharing pronouns is great, but we all also need to make sure that we’re actually using the pronouns that our colleagues and clients have shared. Remember: you can’t assume someone’s gender identity by their name or how they look. If you’re working with someone new to you at work, be sure to review pronouns when they are included on a profile and use them accordingly. And if you’re meeting a new contact or coworker and you’re not sure of their pronouns, you can inquire by saying “I’m [name] and I use [she/her, he/him, they/them, ze/zir, etc.] pronouns. What are your pronouns?”

Okay, but what about “preferred pronouns” or “identifies as”?

Please avoid using these phrases. A nonbinary or transgender person doesn’t “prefer” their pronouns – they’re their pronouns just like a cisgender person’s may be she/hers or he/his.

These phrases can actually be quite hurtful to nonbinary and transgender people as they imply that their gender is just a “preference” and they can prefer to be identified as one gender but are actually another gender.

What if I make a mistake?

We’re all human. Mistakes happen, especially if someone’s pronouns have changed and you’re used to their previous pronouns. The important thing is that you acknowledge and correct your mistake quickly, for example:

“Bethany said she was going to check on that – I’m sorry, they were going to check on that. Thanks, Bethany.”

As Enfys very astutely observes:

Over-apologizing or making a big deal of it often makes the person you misgendered uncomfortable, or makes them feel like they have to support you and that your embarrassment is more important than their pain. (We shouldn’t have to say “that’s okay” when someone misgenders us, because it’s not okay, but sometimes we feel obligated to do so in such an awkward situation.) Just make a conscious effort to do better next time, and move on.

Thoughtfulness is key

It’s a wonderful new world that we’re living in where people feel comfortable sharing their gender identity at work. This shift requires some adjustments on everyone’s part to ensure that people of all genders feel comfortable and safe.

Additional resources

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