Expert: Discussions of Gender Becoming More Common in the Workplace

Discussions of gender are everywhere. Many organizations are struggling to navigate the ever-changing landscape in the workplace.

In a recent webinar, “Reimagining Gender: Is your Organization Ready to Navigate This New Reality,” produced by this publication and sister brand, Best and Brightest Companies To Work For®, Lisa Kenney, CEO, Reimagine Gender, spoke about best practices surrounding gender in the workplace.

Kenney is the former executive director of Gender Spectrum and has decades of corporate leadership experience. Kenney has worked with Fortune 500 companies and brands of all sizes to help them understand gender and implement changes across the organization. She is a frequent speaker at conferences, including SXSW, co-author of “The Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens” and has authored numerous articles on the subject.

“There is so much confusion about gender,” Kenney said. “Understandably so, coming from our own experience. If you are coming here with confusion, you are not alone. There is so much of what happens around gender, because the language is changing so frequently, that we stay silent.”

Gender is evolving rapidly today, but before we dive into that, let’s look at generations:
• Gen Z – Born 1996-2020, currently aged 11-25
• Millennials – Born 1981-1996, currently aged 26-40
• Gen X – Born 1965-1980, currently aged 41-56
• Baby Boomers – Born 1946-1964, currently aged 57-75

“It’s important to look at generations, because our own gender and upbringing story shapes our personal narrative,” Kenney said.

Gender is evolving. In a global study Kenney references:
• 56% of Gen Zs know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun (they/them)
• 12% of Millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming
• 23% of Gen Zs expect to change their gender identity at least once during their lifetime

Conversations are changing quickly and dramatically when discussing identity. How does this impact your organizational practices?
In a study conducted by McKinsey, 39% of all demographics surveyed say they have chosen not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion.

Gallup polls show:
• 88% of Gen Zs believe it’s important that recruiters ask their pronouns.
• 25% of Gen Zs say they would decline a job offer if the recruiter failed to use an applicant’s pronoun.

Gen Zs and Millennials, to an extent, are saying they want to see indications that their company is inclusive and a workplace they will feel comfortable in.

“For companies, understanding and addressing gender isn’t just about being inclusive. It’s smart business,” Kenney said.

Opportunities exist for companies to grow and evolve. When talking about the organization, it goes well beyond HR to research, marketing and product development. Companies need to create cultures that work for all employees.

In the past, employees had to adapt to the corporation. Today, employees’ expectations are that the company will adjust to fit the people they want to attract to their organization.

The names used to convey gender typically fall into these categories, according to Kenney:
• Binary
• Non-binary
• Ungendered

The meaning associated with an identity can vary among individuals using the same term. A person’s gender identity can correspond to, or differ from, the sex they were assigned at birth. Social gender includes roles and expectations and how society uses those to try to enforce conformity to current gender norms.

Social gender is the combination of how one wants to be seen to the world, because it is how you see yourself and also how the world sees you. How we perceive someone’s gender has to do with us, not them. Social cues — mannerisms, clothes, hair — show how the patterns in culture help give you a sense of how to determine someone’s gender, but the challenge is that patterns don’t hold up as they used to, as culture has changed during generations as gender evolves.

Kenney notes we are all more than our gender: we are also our race, ethnicity, class, faith community, sense of geographic place, family history, personal characteristics, etc. … Our gender is personal, because, while we share some of these aspects of self with others, how these identities, influences and characteristics come together is unique and personal to each of us. Due to all of these variables, it is difficult to know how to support people, unless you ask them.

Kenney suggests answering the following questions as a tool to understanding your own story:

What’s your first memory of gender defining or impacting your life?

Growing up, did you think of yourself as a boy, a girl, both, neither or in some other way? How did you come to that recognition? When?

What messages did you receive from those around you about gender? Did those messages make sense to you?

How were kids who did not fit into expectations about gender treated by others (teachers, family, faith community, etc.)? By you?

How have your race, ethnicity, faith, class, community influenced your gender?

How would you describe your gender, taking into account all three dimensions?

How has your understanding of gender influenced your personal life? Your professional life?

Applications & Best Practices in Organizations
What we are seeing in organizations today: four general organizational considerations:
1. Respect personal perspectives in a diverse team, while establishing clear organizational expectations.
2. Support employees with resources to understand and implement best practices in their role at the organization.
3. Provide consistent messaging and implementation across the organization.
4. Communicate clear processes and policies. Determine gender-related metrics across the organization and communicate what is working and where more work is needed.

Kenney suggests, “Organizations need to create an atmosphere where all views are accepted, including expectations in terms of behavior and how we are going to interact respectfully with one another. Set expectations for respectful interactions amongst employees. Remember wherever you are is okay and communicate “the why” it is important for the organization and what progress looks like.”

Organizational considerations:
• Asking for gender when it’s not needed
• Pronouns — employees can include when they want to, but should not be required
• Ensure employees are key stakeholders and have a common framework and language for gender and how gender relates to company success
• Gender affects everyone and should be considered on its own and not under LGBTQ+ umbrella or women’s initiatives
• Utilize a gender lens in your organization; what do you see? Examine the ways gender impacts your people, processes and systems — try not to go in with judgement on where you are. Just start to understand, so you can move forward with intentionality.

Kenney also shared her views on a variety of questions:

Corp! Magazine: Is it appropriate to address a group of people with “you guys?”
Kenney: An occasional “guys” is no problem and I do this, but try to incorporate “everyone” or “folks.”

Corp!: How important is it to understand LGBTQ+ and what each means? It can be confusing for those who want to be respectful of others.
Kenney: There is a trend toward not identifying — they just don’t choose to share. It is important to understand and want to learn about people outside your own experience, so you can learn about human experience. It is important to come with learners’ minds and be open to other people’s experience.
It is also important to learn basics and open up the conversation. Companies need to create a safe space for staff to feel comfortable asking questions and having dialogue.

Corp!: How can we train team members to separate their beliefs or how they were raised, from behaviors to help the team be more inclusive or open as it relates to gender?
Kenney: It is critical to respect where people are coming from. Leaders need to set expectations of how the team will interact with one another. Provide information so people have understanding, then talk about what respect looks like — aside from gender — in the workplace. Then we focus on behavior, expectations, and not any underlying beliefs. I think that can create a welcoming and respectful place where all can be their authentic selves.

Corp!: During the recruiting process, is it okay to ask for pronouns, without it being discriminatory?
Kenney: Yes. Whenever you are speaking with potential prospects, it is simply saying ‘I want to be respectful, what name and pronoun would you like me to use in our conversation?’ This is helpful if someone uses a nickname, because we are not making assumptions. It won’t be discriminatory when it is a standard practice.

There is so much to learn, but we are all learning together and being open to the conversation is the first step.