Understanding and accommodating non-binary identities within the workplace
Author: Georgie Williams
What does non-binary mean? The term, which has been more widely used in recent years, is used to refer to the identity of individuals whose gender identity falls outside the socially normalised male/female gender binary. This identity is often misunderstood. Georgie Williams explains what it means to describe oneself as non-binary, and the changes that employers can implement to accommodate this variation from the socially encouraged gender binary.
Making space for non-binary individuals within the workplace requires a fair understanding of what the term actually means - and as an increasing number of individuals begin to use this term to identify themselves, it is imperative that organisations incorporate gender variance into their diversity work.
As the term itself suggests, non-binary is an umbrella term; it means that an individual is not of the gender binary. Within non-binary there are many different genders eg genderqueer, agender, bigender, genderfluid. It is easy to assume a social pressure exists to learn what these different genders mean; however, effective allyship lies not in memorising these terms but by taking an inductive approach. This means remaining open-minded, patient and willing to develop our understanding based on what individuals with lived experience are happy to share with us about gender variance. Many of these terms may have originated in the 1990s, but the genders themselves pre-date the development of the language to articulate them.
"Intersex individuals are those born with a hormonal, chromosomal, gonadal or genital variation that occurs outside of the male and female biological norms. These natural variations occur in 1.7% of the global population... If you have met a red-headed person before, you are just as likely to have met an intersex person at some point too."
Georgie Williams, gender and sexuality consultant
There is often discussion about whether or not non-binary identities are also transgender, this is very subjective to the experience of the non-binary individual. As the non-binary author of this article, I consider myself transgender because my gender does not match the one I was assigned at birth - to me being transgender does not mean "transitioning" rather a misalignment, as suggested by the latin prefix "trans" meaning "the other side of". However, this is not universally agreed on, especially as many identities exist under the non-binary umbrella.
It is important to note that our internalisation of a gender binary is often rooted in the belief that a sex binary also exists - although it is too complex a subject to unpack in a few paragraphs, we should recognise the prevalence of intersex individuals as evidence of the sex binary concept being undermined by the science of sex. Intersex individuals are those born with a hormonal, chromosomal, gonadal or genital variation which occurs outside of the male and female biological norms. These natural variations occur in 1.7% of the global population - more than 1 in 100 of us, which is the same incidence rate as redheads. If you have met a red-headed person before, you are just as likely to have met an intersex person at some point too.
Sometimes these variations are noticed at birth but unfortunately at the current time, only five countries in the world grant intersex individuals the basic human right of bodily autonomy. For reference, these countries are Uruguay, India, Albania, Malta and Portugal. This means that for most individuals whose variations are visible, they are often subjected to traumatic and unnecessary treatments to make them appear conventionally male or female before the age of medical consent. However, not all variations are obvious at birth, and many people can grow up not knowing they are intersex at all - and what this means is that statistically, at least 1 in 100 people are assigned a gender at birth that does not correlate with their physical sex. It seems highly reductive to assume all individuals are male and female gendered when 1.7% of us are not even male or female sexed. An expansion of the number of genders that we are aware of and acknowledge in the West and in the English language is long overdue. Gender is not contingent on sex and there are more than two distinct genders.
We should also note that, although the term non-binary is increasingly used within the mainstream and itself originates from Western culture and the English language, it describes gender identities outside the predominantly Western male/female gender binary. We often assume that all cultures adhere to this gender binary - but this binary being as widespread as it is, is largely a consequence of colonialism. Even then it is not universal, and when considering making workplaces and spaces inclusive it is important to consider this matter from a cultural perspective.
For example, Indonesia is the home of a community called the Bugis - comprised of around 6 million Indonesian citizens, this ethnic group recognises a five-gender, three-sex social system. Two of these five genders are similar to our two, none of them have perfect Western equivalents and all five of these identities are crucial to Bugis culture; it is considered essential that all identities co-exist harmoniously. As the fifteenth largest economy in the world, Indonesia has increasing geo-political influence, and Bugis culture is an essential cornerstone to their national identity.
Native American communities in the modern age are in the process of reclaiming their own history of third genders. Traditionally within multiple Native American communities, gender was not determined by physical sex or even roles within sexual relationships, but by occupational skills and proficiencies. "Two-spirit" individuals were those who were proficient in particular skills and identified themselves as neither exclusively male nor female and were often afforded the same social responsibilities and opportunities as men or women or both within their society. An increasing number of Native Americans in the present day are beginning to use this term - and it would be an act of cultural insensitivity to simply refer to this identity as being "non-binary".
Identities outside the male/female binary have also existed and continue to exist in parts of Albania, Oman, North Africa, South East Asia and Latin America. Accordingly, when we talk about "non-binary" inclusion, we are also opening the door to increased cultural inclusion. Organisations with a global reach need a global approach to inclusivity - one that takes account of variations in gender, sexuality, race and culture, which are often contingent on an individual's country of origin and/or residence.
How do identities outside of the male/female social binary impact current organisational practices?
Gender is largely used as a tool for categorisation or the enforcement of particular rules or social expectations. We see gender being used to categorise individuals, for better and worse, in formal paperwork such as equal opportunities forms, hiring documentation, surveys and other self-reporting materials. Sometimes the collection of this information is unnecessary and arbitrary - and when used with the correct intentions (such as to investigate gender equality within workplaces), the reduction of gender into two separate categories can often negatively impact findings, since those who do not fit into either are often forced to choose one over the other. Regardless of intent, many individuals can feel discouraged and unsupported by being expected to complete documentation where their identity is omitted or not considered.
"The first adjustment, which can be encouraged through workplace training, is to internally address the assumption many of us have that appearance equals identity."
Georgie Williams, gender and sexuality consultant
Furthermore, gendered language in the workplace still operates not only on binaries but also on assumptions we make about individuals. "Ladies and gentlemen" is a highly binary-centric term, and even using "guys" as a collective term can make individuals who do not feel comfortable with this masculine term feel uncomfortable. I can personally attest to, despite being out in the workplace about my non-binary identity, being referred to by co-workers as "ladies" when grouped with a woman or multiple women. This is often based on how I look to people, despite the fact that I have been vocal about my identity. Although one or two incidences may not seem significant, this kind of mistake is ultimately an (often unintentional) microaggression, and multiple incidences within a work week can make employees feel excluded, unseen and disrespected.
What can be done to make non-binary individuals feel welcome and accepted in the workplace?
The first adjustment, which can be encouraged through workplace training, is to internally address the assumption many of us have that appearance equals identity. First and foremost, there is no one way to "look" non-binary, as identities and aesthetics are not one and the same. Our desire to read people quickly and make assumptions stems from human cognition - it is more efficient for our brains to categorise people based on particular cues and this is how stereotypes surrounding gender and race and other protected characteristics can originate. These stereotypes and assumptions can lead us to misread people and create difficult social situations for all involved. Understanding gender from a binary-free perspective means unmarrying particular aspects of physical appearance - such as length of hair, use of make-up, choice of clothing - from our ideas of what is appropriately male or female. Additionally, many non-binary individuals may live in environments, both immediate (family) and broader (neighbourhood, community), where not "passing" (appearing to be) cisgender puts them at risk of harm or harassment. Not all non-binary people are in a position to make their identity more visible so not assuming they are cisgender at work and recognising and honouring their appropriate pronouns can have a significantly beneficial effect on that individual's life.
"Deconstructing a lens through which we see the world around us takes time and effort, but the outcome is the creation of spaces where non-binary individuals can feel accepted, respected and able to advocate for the needs of their peers."
Georgie Williams, gender and sexuality consultant
With pronouns, the best approach is to apply the same "ask etiquette" as we do to other personal information, such as names. It would be considered inappropriate to assume someone's name based on their appearance, and pronouns are the same. Normalise asking people's pronouns when meeting someone new, and include them in email sign-offs and Zoom name tags. This behaviour not only encourages non-binary individuals to open up about their identity in the workplace, but signals to other individuals who come into contact with your organisation that you are inclusive. If in doubt, always default to they/them pronouns - contrary to popular belief, they predates you as a singular pronoun in the English language, but simply fell out of fashion. This gender neutral language means that you avoid assuming information about individuals of various genders from both Western culture and cultures beyond ours.
Being inclusive of non-binary identities is an intersectional matter; it is about respecting how gender varies in different cultures and acknowledging how our current time period is one of significant change regarding the visibility of marginal and previously unrecognised gendered groups. Deconstructing a lens through which we see the world around us takes time and effort, but the outcome is the creation of spaces where non-binary individuals can feel accepted, respected and able to advocate for the needs of their peers. This article is not an exhaustive list of the ways in which non-binary individuals' needs can and should be met in workspaces; but if you are in doubt, always defer to an inductive approach. Make sure there are opportunities for non-binary individuals in your organisations to step up and voice their opinions on matters that affect them - the greatest change occurs not when communities are spoken for, but when they are given an opportunity to speak for themselves. A little openness can go a long way in ensuring our places of work benefit from gender diversity and become an inclusive space for all.
Cisgender An individual who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, which is almost always either male or female.
Gender binary: The socially constructed idea or belief that all individuals are either male or female gendered - this construct is found most in Western countries or countries that were colonised by the West.
Intersex: An individual who is biologically not of the male or female sex. Occurrence rate in a global population is estimated at 1.7%.
Microaggression: A behaviour or statement towards a person which is insensitive, prejudiced or discriminatory - often occurring unintentionally or flippantly when said/done by the aggressor.
Pronouns: Terms which we use to refer to others - often gendered "he/him", "she/her" - sometimes neutral/unisex "they/them". (This is not an exhaustive list.)
Transgender: A term used to describe an individual whose assigned gender at birth does not match their true gender identity.