You may know and work with people you cannot easily classify as male or female. You find yourself wondering, “Is that a man or a woman?” And even after working together for a while, you’re still not sure. But if someone has excellent references, is clearly talented and smart, why does it still matter whether that person is male or female?
Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something other or in-between, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth. It is not connected to sexual orientation or one's biological sex.
How should we approach gender identity in the workplace?
Why gender identity matters
We simply need to categorize one another. We feel a strong need to know are they like me or not like me? Gender is a habitual categorization, and it's one that is hard to ignore. It's also the reason we see a lot of gender-based discrimination, and why we need more gender diversity in workplaces.
My son is 13, and his best friend has asked to use the plural pronoun “they,” which is common with folks with a non-binary gender identity. At home, we talked about how hard it is to use a plural pronoun for an individual. We laughed about how hard it must be for their English-teacher parent to use a plural pronoun for his singular child. But my son tried to explain one very simple fact: They want to be called "they." It doesn't matter that I feel awkward using a plural pronoun for one person — this isn’t about me. If they want to be called "they," I will call them "they."
It really is that simple.
But you may start to wonder: Did I say the wrong thing? Did I commit gender identity discrimination unintentionally?
Why gender identity is complex
And yet, when you open your mouth to talk, it’s not so simple. As a coworker or manager or peer, you may have questions like, “Do I call you ‘she’ or ‘he?’” and “How should I talk to you, a person who is so different from me? Do we even speak the same language? Will you get my jokes? Do I need to be careful around you so I don't mess up and say the wrong thing?”
I’ve been teaching people how to talk to one another for almost 23 years. In my course "Negotiate With Confidence," you learn how to have more connected conversations with everyone in your life. Because what you say and how you say it matters. A lot. You motivate people to work with you, to meet deadlines that you set, to answer your emails, to be your ally, to share the glory of a job well done. Or not.
Assigning a gender is not always a simple task because we, as humans, are complex. When you read the list of definitions and variations below, remember that if you can easily identify yourself and put yourself into one category, you are lucky.
In belonging to a community
That's because we all want to belong — to be a part of a tribe that loves and accepts us for who we are. If you can easily identify that tribe (male and female, masculine and feminine), you can be accepted. If you don’t easily fit into a category because you're a transgender person or you've had sex-reassignment surgery, it’s much harder to find your people, and it's much more difficult to be accepted.
So what about those in between — those with a non-binary gender identity who don’t fit neatly into either of those two mainstream masculine and feminine categories? The fact that eight transgender candidates were elected to local and state positions across the country puts these variations into the national spotlight and the visibility brings hope to many and questions to many more.
Terms related to gender identity and expression
The one term that I want to start with is empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.
There are as many identities as there are people. Most people want to be treated the same as everyone else. They don't want to be singled out or identified as different. We are still curious and want to know more about one another, so the list of terms below may help you understand and appreciate our differences. When you think about it, this is a miraculous transformation in our society that is opening up and allowing for — even embracing — the richness of our diversity.
To follow are five more terms you should know.
This consists of an individual’s characteristics and behaviors (such as appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions) that may be perceived as masculine or feminine.
This is an umbrella term that can be used to describe people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from their sex assigned at birth. The term transgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy or how one is perceived in daily life.
This is a term for someone who exclusively identifies as their biological sex assigned at birth. The term cisgender is not indicative of gender expression, sexual orientation, hormonal makeup, physical anatomy or how one is perceived in daily life.
This term describes people who have, or are perceived to have, gender characteristics and/or behaviors that do not conform to traditional or societal expectations. Keep in mind that these expectations can vary across cultures and have changed over time.
5. Sexual orientation
This refers to a person’s physical or emotional attraction to people of the same and/or other gender. Straight, gay and bisexual are some ways to describe sexual orientation. It is important to note that sexual orientation is distinct from gender identity and expression. Transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight, just like non-transgender people. Sexual orientation is not connected to gender identity.
Gender identity in workplace communication
Focus on the basic facts that we are all human and that we all want to be respected and accepted. The gender identity or gender expression of others should matter to you only as much as it matters to them.
That said, as a manager or coworker, you need be able to refer to each person with a pronoun. When it’s unclear, what’s the best way to find out what gender pronoun a person uses? For example, “I want to be respectful, can I ask what gender pronoun you prefer?” Other people strongly discourage the use of “prefer” and recommend that you ask what pronoun they “use.” Be respectful when you ask and most people will respond to that respect, even if you don't get the words right.
You want to build rapport with people who are different than you. Science has proven that diversity in the workplace is beneficial. Teams are more creative when they’re diverse. But let’s be real: Diversity is not easy, nor does it come naturally to us. We have to learn ways to talk to one another.
Tips for communicating
Science is clear that because of our tribal natures, we prefer to be with people who are like us. Since this article is all about finding ways to talk to people who are different than you, here are three tips from my course, "Negotiate With Confidence," to help you have more connected conversations. These are tips based on what the best negotiators in the world do to build long-lasting, sustainable relationships.
1. Get curious.
We form preconceived impressions based on hints we pick up from external cues like clothing and body language as a way to shortcut decision making and relationship building. We look at these cues to figure out with whom we’re dealing. Rather than make assumptions, ask questions. Get curious.
Ask questions about work and life: Where did you grow up? What hobbies do you have? Do you like to read or watch TV? What kind of music do you like?
I worked with a man who was a competitive triathlete and used to play professional football. When I first met him, I thought we would have nothing in common. Nothing. He was a bro, a dude, a former frat boy in college. But I had to work with him so I got curious. I asked him questions to know him better. I found a few things we could connect about. He had kids the same age as mine. His wife worked as a therapist. We talked about her work and what his kids were doing. Those commonalities allowed us to build the foundation of a pretty strong working relationship.
2. Create shared experiences.
Sometimes you just “click” with people, and sometimes it takes a shared experience to make that happen. When you band together to deal with that impossible coworker, make it through a harrowing business trip or overcome a client’s objections, you’ll find yourself in sync with the person.
Look for things you can do together. Share and create memories to build rapport, and you’ll always find things to talk about.
3. Use matching and mirroring.
The words we speak account for just seven percent of our communication. The nature of our voice makes up 38 percent. Body language makes up as much as 55 percent. Matching tone, body language, and verbal language patterns builds rapport.
Mirror the other person's speech patterns, tempo, and volume. If they speak softly and slowly, then lower the volume and tempo of your voice. Research suggests that this is the most effective way to establish rapport. It's subtle, but it makes the other person feel comfortable and understood.
Match your style to complement their style. If you’re a fun-loving jokester and you’re meeting with a person who doesn’t laugh at your jokes, you won’t build rapport by continuing to make jokes.
Gender identity in the workplace: The bottom line
Gender identities and the different roles we all play are complicated. You may not have known a transgender man or woman or gender non-conforming man or woman before working with one, and you don't want to offend them or commit any kind of gender-based discrimination.
The fact is that masculinity and femininity are social constructs, but gender identity discrimination is still alive in all too many workplaces. It's important that we all understand how to communicate with people of all gender roles including gender non-conforming persons — including those who've taken sex reassignment hormones to become more masculine or feminine or have undergone sex reassignment surgery to become male and female.
And while a sex-change operation or gender reassignment efforts may make people's masculinity and femininity more apparent, it's still important you don't assume.
1. What is gender identity or expression?
Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something other or in-between, regardless of the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender expression encompasses an individual’s characteristics and behaviors (such as appearance, dress, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions) that may be perceived as masculine or feminine.
2. What are all the genders and what do they mean?
There is no finite list of genders. Along with male and female, some people identify as:
3. What kind of genders are there?
Again, there are many types of genders.
In addition to the terms above, people use labels such as cisgender and transgender. Cisgender refers to people who were born the gender with which they identify, while transgender refers to people who are born a different gender than the one with which they identify.