He/She/They: Gender Identity and Expression in the Workplace

May 19, 2019

A group of diverse employees sit in chairs.
Bana Jobe

If you took a hard look at your company policies, chances are that you might — however unintentionally — have a few documents, forms or processes that marginalize those who don't conform to traditional gender roles.

And that's common: After all, ours is a society that was built for the binary — for people who can decidedly check the "female" or "male" box whenever they see it. But what about those who need a third (or fourth, fifth or sixth) option?

Are you including them? By establishing a gender identity policy, you can help — in a very big way.

Gender Identity and Expression at Work: Why It Matters

Gender identity and expression have become top-of-mind in the United States as we navigate a more fluid definition of what it means to be a person. But what is gender identity, exactly? It's a million things, of course. It's an essential part of the human experience. It's a way to orient yourself around the world and all the people in it.

And of course, it's an acknowledgement that your identified or expressed gender (if you have one) may not align with your sex at birth. In 2016, for example, 1.4 million Americans considered themselves transgender, or being born one sex and identifying with another. And 1 in 2 millennials (which make up a growing part of the workforce) consider gender as something you can't just identify as "this or that."

Numbers like these have brought with them a growing vocabulary beyond men or women, such as:

  • Gender Nonconforming: A departure from "conventional" gender roles.
  • Polygender: Associating with more than one gender.
  • Intersex: Someone born without a single-sex anatomy.
  • Third Gender: Someone who doesn't identify with male or female.
  • Gender-Queer: Someone who may have components of both the male and female gender, or components outside of those roles.

Even still, LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and more) employees still face discrimination at work: About 4 in 10 LGBT people report that they've been victims of workplace bullying. And more than half of them say that the bullying happens over and over again.

Specific to gender expression and identity experiences, about 90 percent of transgender workers report feeling mistreated, harassed or discriminated at work — with nearly half of them saying that their professional prospects were affected by that identity, either by termination or not getting the job or eligible promotions. This may also be the reason for unemployment gaps: The self-reported unemployment rate for transgender workers is double that of the general population.

Establishing a Gender Identity Policy (or Policies)

Employers are stepping up, putting in place policies and protections to safeguard their workforce against discrimination. Where just 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies had such protections in 2002, 82 percent of them did in 2017.

How can you join them? By creating a policy for your employees, you can help make everyone feel more included. But the thing is — so many components fall under gender identity that it may take more than one policy. And that's okay.

The Human Rights Campaign offers many ideas to get to a more inclusive place, along with sample policy templates and best practices for each:

  • Restrooms and Locker Rooms: Consider gender-neutral or single-stall facilities — or allow employees to use the restroom they most identify with — like Target has done for both team members and customers.
  • Dress Codes: Allow gender-neutral uniforms or allow employees to dress with the gender they most identify with — and steer clear of being too specific.
  • HR Forms: Audit all forms and communications for gender-specific references, add new terms where possible, and ask employees what gender they'd like to be regarded as for bios and profiles — as the University of Vermont has done for students.
  • Transitioning Employees: Consider a documented policy to support employees as they transition from one gender to another — as IBM has done with its gender inclusion initiatives.
  • Inclusive Health Coverage: Look for health insurance plans that offer more inclusive coverage, such as hormone therapy or reassignment surgery — as these 759 companies have done as of 2018.

Communicating Change for All

Simply making policy changes won't suffice — you'll likely want to complement those policies with employee sensitivity trainings to make them as effective as possible. The Human Rights Campaign offers ample resources for gender expression and identity diversity training, something 42 percent of Fortune 500 employers offer.

But like everything else, expect those policies and trainings to be ever-evolving things. As self-expression and identity change, employers' efforts to make everyone feel included will need to change as well.

It's not just the right (or legal) thing to do: It's the human thing to do. And whether you're male, female, both or neither — we're all human after all.

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