Respecting Identity: How to Create a Gender-Affirming Work Environment
Gender identity is a critical piece of every person’s individuality, so when companies set out to create work environments that allow employees to bring their entire selves to the office, it is vital to reject the traditional gender binary of men and women and embrace full and equitable gender diversity.
As opposed to sex, which is assigned at birth, gender is a social construct that has often provided only two options, creating a restrictive system that does not allow for a full expression of oneself. This has not always been the case, as transgender and non-binary identities can be found across cultures and history, but it has been the reigning ideology for much of the last few centuries. Thankfully, societal changes are slowly leading to a rejection of the gender binary and an acceptance of multiple gender identities, including those who identify as non-binary, transgender, gender non-conforming and more.
A Holistic Approach
Regardless of one’s gender identity and how they express it, most people must make a living, meaning employers owe it to their entire workforces to provide work settings that are supportive and accepting of all gender identities.
“Increasing understanding of one another is a pathway for us to get into a space where we are looking at our shared humanity and not being in a place where we are othering one another,” Keisha Williams, director of the workplace equality program at the Human Rights Campaign, says. “From a workplace perspective, I think the same principles would apply. And when we have a space where individuals are working from broadly the same set of information, I think it’s easier for us to move forward and be aligned in acknowledging that gender identity and gender expression are all part of the calculus of having an inclusive workplace and environment.”
Small-scale changes can’t be the primary means to accomplishing the goal of having more gender-affirming workplaces, according to Williams, who advocates for a holistic approach to the process. This means training employees at all levels of an organization, especially those in leadership, while doing an overarching review of workplace policies, including those pertaining to facilities in restrooms, dress codes and other areas where the gender binary may create exclusionary practices.
“It’s really about organizationally caring about employees and what their chosen names are, what their chosen gender pronouns are and making that part of the fabric of the organization,” Williams says.
Williams also says companies should examine their public-facing procedures, human resource systems, IT procedures and technologies to ensure they provide the ability for employees to self-identify and communicate effectively, especially since communication between colleagues is perhaps the most common area where gender expression occurs.
Some of the most effective ways of building a gender-affirming workplace is ensuring everyone at your company understands and practices correct pronoun usage. Training can come into play here, as companies should lay out and explain their policies around pronoun usage. Encouraging correct pronoun usage can be accomplished by allowing employees to include their own chosen pronouns in their email signatures and on company forms like applications while stating preferred pronouns during in-person introductions.
“Correct pronoun usage is equitable to someone’s name, or their chosen name. It’s really a fundamental way that we are acknowledged in the world. It creates a sense of safety. It creates a sense of respect,” Williams says, noting that misgendering someone should be seen in the same vein as calling someone by the wrong name.
Williams makes it clear proper pronoun usage should not just be something a small number of people in an organization take part in, nor should it be something placed on the shoulders of those who want their gender pronouns to be utilized correctly. Instead, Williams says employers need to make this a priority and take on the responsibility of training staff and implementing the changes.
Of course, individual employees can still make a difference for their fellow employees through allyship, an important tool to improve workplace culture, according to Williams.
“Organizations are going to be filled with allies and other individuals who have the ability and capacity to really hold their colleagues accountable and just work with them to try to identify certain situations where folks are being misgendered, whether purposefully or even inadvertently,” Williams says.
Unfortunately, inadvertently misgendering someone can be a common incident, according to Williams, and can occur in one-on-one and group settings. For example, saying “you guys” when addressing multiple people.
“It’s probably going to happen if you’re unfamiliar with being conscious of gender pronoun usage. There’s a certain amount of rewiring of our subconscious brain that we have to do,” Williams says. “When those mistakes do happen, own it, apologize and move forward. Definitely try to avoid making the situation about you or your guilt, or trying to put it on the other person to dissuade your guilt.”
How a company approaches its healthcare policies is a significant aspect of its ability to provide a safe work environment for employees of all gender identities. This is especially true for transgender employees. To make sure your company is providing the most inclusive healthcare services it can, Williams suggests looking at all the insurance plans your carrier offers and ensuring at least one of the plans provides transgender inclusive healthcare and specifically affirms that in plan documents. Williams also warns companies to look for broad exclusions in those plans that might become barriers to care and to ensure plans are inclusive for legal spouses and domestic partners of employees, regardless of gender.
“The ideal that I would say companies should be looking towards is if an individual goes to the doctor and the doctor says that there is a service or treatment or procedure that is medically necessary, that individual should be able to have access to that service or treatment in the same fashion as any other person,” William says, advising if your insurance plan does not meet these requirements, it should be a priority to rectify the situation and work toward making services available.
For transgender employees specifically, beyond providing equitable healthcare, companies should also establish gender transition guidelines for when and if an employee chooses to undergo their transition. These guidelines should include resources providing colleagues and supervisors with information about the transition process and the tools they need to ensure the work environment is not a hostile one for an individual who is transitioning.
“Those guidelines can really provide a roadmap for folks to be able to transition and to do so in an environment where they feel respected and not an environment where they feel uncomfortable being whoever they are,” Williams says.
In the midst of a drastically changing job market created by the so-called “Great Resignation,” companies must do all they can to provide work environments that attract top talent, making gender-affirming culture an imperative today. Aside from the benefits such a culture provides (including reduced absenteeism and greater productivity and innovation), having an inclusive and equitable workplace environment is now an expectation for many job seekers, as well as customers, investors and other stakeholders, according to Williams.
“The pathway to attracting top talent in the hiring process is doing the work beforehand so employees will be able to come to the environment and know what the company’s values are,” Williams says, noting how a company is perceived externally (whether through advertising, social media or any other medium) will play a large role in how effective it can be at recruiting and retaining talent.
In addition, Williams says the same inclusive and gender-affirming practices a company adheres to internally should extend into the recruiting and hiring process. This can be done by asking candidates about their preferred pronouns in all application materials and during each and every interview.
For corporations just starting to incorporate gender-affirming policies and/or those who have been at it for a while now, it’s important to measure progress to ensure effectiveness. Williams’ organization, the Human Rights Campaign, works to do just that through its Corporate Equality Index, a benchmarking survey in its 20th year that evaluates LGBTQ+ workplace equality and inclusion.
“[This work is] important, especially now for companies to consider this as they think about what organization they want to be and what work culture they want to produce,” Williams says.
Phil Neuffer is managing editor of ABF Journal.