How are organizations
acknowledging heightening awareness and evolving understanding of gender,
identity, and orientation in the workplace?
For example, are leaders using
pronouns in their email signatures? Is there understanding about misgendering? Are employee groups being leveraged
to help navigate all of this? And, what about HR? Is HR adjusting by expanding
beyond the typical M/F labels in policies, practices, and metrics?
These questions and others were posed recently to 150 HR
leaders by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). Encouragingly, we
found that many larger organizations (61% of those that employ 1,000+) have
taken some measures (or plan to soon) to recognize gender fluidity.
Among the findings of the survey, we noted that the most
popular actions organizations plan to take in the coming year to address gender
fluidity have a distinct external focus including:
- Educating recruiters to ask
applicants/candidates about their preferred pronouns (42%)
- Educating customer-facing employees to ask
customers about their preferred pronouns (32%)
- Encouraging the organization’s leaders to
voluntarily include pronouns in their email signatures (28%)
Of course, asking others about their pronouns can be
awkward; you might wonder if it’s even okay to ask someone directly what their pronouns are—the answer
is a resounding “yes!” according to one advocate who writes frequently about
this topic, and offers the following advice:
This is an important skill to cultivate.
We have probably all heard this, but there are plenty of times we feel awkward
asking, and so we don’t. But it’s never too late—ask at any point during the
conversation. It’s not a faux pas if you have
to stop in the middle of a sentence—just ask:
“Sorry, what are your pronouns?”
“I didn’t get your pronouns,
what are they?”
“Will you remind me your
Why is identity in the workplace an important topic? Because
conversations about gender and identity—the very essence of the much talked
about “bringing our whole selves to work”—seem to be everywhere lately.
Recently, veteran actor Billy Dee Williams made headlines
published an interview in which Williams talked about embracing gender fluidity,
describing himself as both masculine and feminine, not feeling that he conforms
unequivocally to male or female identify.
Identity is the centerpiece of the new Showtime comedy
series Work In
Progress, which explores the trials of Abby, a self-described “queer dyke”
who is often mistaken for a man. Abby works in a corporate environment, and
some of the most cringe-inducing scenes are of workplace exchanges between Abby
and a colleague who is clearly rattled by her inability to grasp Abby’s gender
identity, gender expression, and orientation—her intersectional “otherness.”
The colleague’s approach comes off equal parts condescending, judgmental, and
In addition to addressing the workplace challenges of
non-conforming individuality, the show does a great job of reminding viewers
that gender ambiguity—and the awkwardness many people feel in response to it—is
A major subplot of the show is Abby’s fraught connection to
comedian Julia Sweeney’s 1990's Saturday Night Live character, the gender
The punchline of every SNL
skit featuring “Pat” was that none of their co-workers could figure out
Pat’s gender. Abby confides in a friend that “Pat” had a deep, negative impact
on her personally, making her the butt of jokes to include being mockingly called “Pat”
during her college days
The chance meeting of Abby and Sweeney (playing herself) and
their developing friendship offers the audience a fly-on-the-wall view into
both Sweeney ruefully exploring the impact of her character and the many
regrets she has in hindsight, and the pain, rage, and exhaustion of Abby, who
has been navigating a world insistent on forcing her, a nonbinary person, into
one of two binary gender role boxes—female or male?—with no other options.
Popular culture is one thing—what about the workplace?
In thinking about the workplace and the importance of everyone
feeling seen and accepted for who they are, the role of human resources has
never been more pivotal or challenging, especially in an era in which we are
all (hopefully) learning more every day about what it means to be gender
nonbinary or trans, for example, how deeply personal and consequential identity is, and how
to this can be.
HR most definitely needs to ensure that acknowledging and
accommodating gender fluidity is about so much more than adding a third (or
fourth) check box option to standard forms. But building and sustaining a
culture in which feeling a sense of belonging is the real deal rather than a
buzzy catchphrase takes a lot of commitment and hard work.
So, what are other ways that organizations are responding (or
not) to the issue of identity in the workplace, and what’s ahead?
Among those survey participants who told us that their
organizations recognize the need to respond to gender identity concerns, the
following practices make up the top five that are currently in place or planned
to be within the year:
- Include gender identity or expression as a
protected category in firm-wide non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies
- Incorporate education about gender identity and
gender expression in diversity and Equal Employment Opportunity compliance
training programs (96%)
- Institute gender-neutral language in all HR
- Institute gender-neutral language in internal corporate communications (86%)
gender transition guidelines that delineate responsibilities and expectations
of transitioning employees, their supervisors, colleagues, and other staff (72%)
Organizations are not yet widely including gender identity
(e.g., nonbinary/trans) in their employee demographic tracking—just 28%
currently do so. But some said that their organizations are exploring ways to
incorporate this into their tracking soon, noting that they anticipate that the
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will eventually amend its annual
EEO-1 reporting form to include options for nonbinary individuals, and they
want to get out in front of that by starting to track this data internally now.
Leverage employee groups to help build a culture that
Having an LGBTQ resource group is critical to building and
sustaining an inclusive culture, but while an overall 44% of those surveyed
said that their organizations currently have such employee groups or plan to
start one within the year, just over half (51%) said that their organizations don’t
have LGBTQ groups and have no plans to start one.
The numbers are a little bit better when we looked at larger
employers (again, those that employ 1,000+ people).
Clearly, larger organizations recognize the value and power
of LGBTQ employee groups, which can be absolutely essential to helping to
address gender and identity issues in the workplace in real time.
In these companies, employee groups are overwhelmingly (70%)
relied upon to identify and surface important issues and needs and provide
leadership, guidance, and support in addressing them through advocacy,
education, and policy change.
LGBTQ employee groups can also help (if they choose to, this
should not be expected) to provide guidance on decisions such as where
to begin incorporating the usage of pronouns, for example in email signatures,
social media bios/profiles, on business cards, conference nametags, in introductions
at meetings or workshops, speaking engagements, etc.
It is of course we who decide who we are, how we identify,
and how we express our identities. But in order to truly thrive at work, most
of us need to feel comfortable being who we are. Employers need to figure out a
way to make this possible.
View the results of the survey here (i4cp member's only).