Why (And How to) Use Gender-Neutral Language in the Workplace

May 24, 2019

Gender neutral restroom sign
Kip Soteres

Gender-neutral language is increasingly important as growing numbers of people become more comfortable with gender fluidity for themselves and others. Twenty years ago "he/she" pronoun use was the predominant usage challenge. Gender parity in the workplace has, in intervening years, become significantly more nuanced.

NBCnews.com ran a story last year about parents raising "theybies," allowing their children to identify their gender and orientation to escape gender norms. The trend is unsurprising as millennials begin to have and apply their own values to the parenting of their children.

The Houston Chronicle reported in July 2018 on the doubling of "trans adults" in the past 10 years from .03 to .06 percent. The term "trans adult" is used as an umbrella term for anyone whose gender does not match the sex that they were assigned at birth. A recent survey of Boston high school students reported that 1.2 percent identified as trans. A more recent survey reported that 2.7 percent of Minnesota's youth identify as trans and gender nonconforming.

Beyond the people who directly perceive themselves as trans or gender nonconforming, increasing numbers of the full population recognize the importance of affirming each individual regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

To some extent, the legally protected status of trans and gender nonconforming employees is still working its way through the courts. And there is also high variance in state and local laws. But regardless of their formal legal status, U.S. workers increasingly expect tolerance from their employers. Treating all employees visibly with respect is one way among many to make the majority of employees feel more engaged and proud of their organization.

What Is Gender-Neutral Language?

One easy way to demonstrate broad respect for all employees is to use gender-neutral language. In its simplest form, gender-neutral language means avoiding using gendered pronouns like he and she, as well as gendered words such are often associated with professions, "firemen" and "policemen."

Tips on alternatives abound on the internet. One good resource is the Writing Center Page of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Most business writing challenges associated with gender-neutral language are easily overcome with a little thought and common sense. "Mankind" can become "all people," and note that "human" and "humankind" do not lose their gendered "man" root. Policemen become "police officers," a chairman of the board can be a "chair" or "chairperson." Depending on the expectations and common usages within your culture, even a "manager" can become a "supervisor" or "front-line leader."

The most common solution for gender language is to use plurals. Instead of "Each employee should complete the form. He/she should then submit it to his/her manager for approval," consider, "All employees should complete the form. They can then submit it to their managers for approval."

Plurals are preferable because "he/she" is an awkward construction that often has to be perpetuated later in the sentence or paragraph. Some people also find it inadequate because it still places "he" in front of "she." Variants like "(s)he" "she/he" and "s(he)" run into similar issues. When the singular is not avoidable, consider repeating the noun instead of using pronouns.

Remember that you can also use pictures. Gender-neutral restrooms set a welcoming tone for all employees and can be indicated with icons without worrying about letters like "W's" and "M's"

Gender Fluid Pronouns in Working Relationships

Gender-neutral language in the workplace, however, goes beyond mass communication and includes micro-interactions through the day, through email, chat or personal conversations with employees who may prefer to be referenced by the pronouns "they" or another choice.

For these employees it is incumbent on you to make your best good-faith effort to engage these employees on their own terms and consistent with their own preferences. Persisting in calling someone "he" who prefers to be "they," is tantamount to not remembering their name. By showing good faith and acceptance, you will establish goodwill should you have a momentary lapse and use the wrong pronoun.

Gender-Neutral Companies Often Start With Their Job Listings

One good way to telegraph that you are fluent in gender-neutrality is in your job descriptions. Are you missing out on top talent because you couldn't take 10 minutes to turn "him" into "them"? In 2017, Glassdoor provided tips on removing gender bias from job listings.

Bloggers and news services are paying attention. In 2015, Textio.com listed the Top Ten Tech Companies with the Most Gender-Neutral Job Listings. Cited companies included Buzzfeed, Fiverr, Etsy and Wayfair.

Gender parity in the workplace will allow you to compete for the very best talent regardless of gender or orientation. Even little changes can make current and prospective employees feel more welcome and engaged.

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