Non-binary gender inclusion in the workplace

With recent progress made for trans men and women in law and society, we risk leaving non-binary trans individuals behind.

· 8 min read
Non-binary gender inclusion in the workplace
2021 edit: I wrote this at the time as though I were not non-binary. Upon reflection, I never really stopped being non-binary. I was just trans-feminine at the time and binary categories were more convenient.

Binary trans people — self-identified trans men and trans women — have gained significant traction in having our human and civil rights recognized, though we certainly haven’t yet arrived at a final destination. We continue to face heightened levels of discrimination and we are at epidemic levels of risk for suicide and violence. It’s no bed of roses in the workplace for us either, with loopholes used by employers to avoid accusations of injustice and protections in many places being vague and requiring court interpretation. Things are changing, but much of our quest for rights is based on our desire to be recognized fully within existing, legally-supported gender categories. In our pursuit for proper rights and recognition for ourselves we risk leaving behind our non-binary transgender peers who face much of the same discrimination. There remains a significant gap in cultural understanding and acceptance of non-binary trans folks, even within our communities.

While trans men and women can now have our documents changed to reflect our gender as ‘M’ or ‘F’ in a growing number of countries, non-binary individuals are generally restricted from having their identification match their gender. In many cases it remains impossible for them to access even a binary gender marker change. In the rare case that ‘third’ gender options are available, these are — not to underplay the significance of this progress — only obtainable by intersex individuals. Similar to the obstacles binary trans people face in many jurisdictions, proof of surgery is often a requirement even if non-binary gender is recognized; surgery which non-binary trans people may not want, need, or have access to.

Being non-binary is, for them, a fact of existence. The lack of thorough legal and medical recognition makes life needlessly difficult though day-to-day social and administrative interactions are arguably the primary source of stress and anxiety. There is a great deal of anti-transgender bias, gender assumption, and outright transphobia in the world making it a hostile place for non-binary trans people to exist. Keeping oneself safe from that hostility is important but the need to attend school or work on a daily basis is a reality for most. As every adult requires an income to survive in a capitalist economy the burden on non-binary trans people is heavy when the discriminatory conduct of society at large extends into the workplace.

Some staggering statistics can be found in Gender Not Listed Here — a 2012 analysis of non-binary participants in the 2008 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, conducted in the United States:

  • 76% of non-binary participants were “out” about their gender in the workplace,
  • 19% reported job loss due to anti-transgender bias, and
  • 90% reported having experienced anti-transgender bias on the job.

It explains, “anti-transgender bias includes verbal harassment, denial of a promotion, physical and sexual violence, or having taken steps to avoid these outcomes by individuals delaying their transition or otherwise hiding who they are.” Various non-binary genders accounted for 13% of responses; 860 of 6450 participants. Policy cannot eliminate negative bias in individuals, however a firm policy can help to render it socially unacceptable and provide avenues of complaint when it rears its head in the workplace.

Businesses needn’t wait until such provisions are encoded in the law to take action. Rather, it should be viewed as desirable for businesses to build accommodations and policy to welcome transgender workers, including non-binary people. In the face of devastating levels of job loss and unemployment, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey also found that transgender people are more likely to seek high levels of educational attainment and are more educated on average than the general public. Non-binary trans respondents reported an even higher completion rate for both undergraduate and graduate studies.

The best of workplace transgender inclusion guidelines as published by mainstream LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations seem to have an eye to non-binary inclusion in their use of non-specific terms when discussing gender, but often this nuance goes unnoticed by companies adopting policy based on these recommendations. Removing explicitly gendered language from existing policy and avoiding it when drafting new policy is crucial in accommodating employees of all genders. Unfortunately, companies will often cherry-pick these guidelines and include only the bare minimum required by law in their jurisdiction. US-based attorney Natalie F. Hrubos writes on the subject, “In most workplaces, even where employers make efforts to be LGBT-competent and inclusive, the realities of gender diversity are often not understood, let alone reflected in employment policies and practices.” Policies which are legally allowable may still be harmful to transgender employees as a whole, and explicit gender references left in may negatively impact non-binary staff.

Gendered dress code is one such policy that causes undue harm to non-binary trans people who do not feel comfortable with explicitly gendered clothing. Indeed, this is not limited to non-binary people as there are many cisgender and binary trans people who also express discomfort with gendered dress codes. Western business casual and the formal side of the clothing spectrum are limiting in that gender-neutral options are overwhelmingly masculine-coded, business casual can be racially and culturally insensitive, and gender categories are explicit in the marketing, sales, and perception of business wear. For non-binary people this can mean being coerced into adhering to the category that aligns with their assigned gender at birth, or being forced into assumption of another gender category that doesn’t align with how they want to be perceived. Perception rules how trans people are treated in the workplace and society, and having autonomy over our appearances is important in being seen for who we are.

This may seem small to those cisgender people who do not grapple with public perceptions of their gender, but like binary trans people, non-binary people often express that they feel intense discomfort or social dysphoria over the act of misgendering. The act of misgendering a trans person can cause undue cognitive load at best and be a trigger for distress at worst. Many non-binary individuals express exhaustion in being continually misgendered. Yet, workplace policy is often lacking direction on respect for staff pronouns and forms of address.

The same applies to use of a new name for a transitioning employee. Using the correct name, pronouns, and form of address is implicit for cisgender people in society at large, but transgender people are often treated as though respect for their gender is optional. Non-binary employees using pronouns other than “he” or “she” face additional resistance based on spurious grammatical arguments. It is up to Human Resources and management within a company to ensure all staff are respecting each other’s gender, and provide avenues of complaint and suitable consequences when failure to do so becomes habitual.

It is common for identity management and Human Resources databases to store a gender marker alongside a prefix or title. In many cases gender is stored for demographic purposes to review a company’s progress toward an equality target. These systems are frequently limited to binary gender options and a fixed list of titles. Often there are no provisions for HR systems to separately store both a preferred name and a legal name, and in the majority of cases legal name is disclosed to others via population of IT accounts and email. A lack of foresight by product designers and staff implementing tools at a company can result in alienation of transgender staff and unintended disclosure of personal details. If gendered prefixes are a must, consider adding “Mx.” to your options. If storing gender in a database consider storing sets of pronouns — including, but not limited to “they”/”them”/”their” — instead or as well. While assumptions may suffice for the majority of staff, it could be useful to encourage people to avoid assumptions by listing the pronouns used by each staff member in the company directory.

Bathroom access is a critical area of policy that is often navigated with difficulty or ignored. Anti-transgender scare tactics about the dangers of transgender bathroom access are common in the popular press right now, typically focusing on trans women though non-binary people are often faced with having no options themselves. A 2013 study entitled Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People’s Lives found that 54% of respondents reported avoiding public restrooms, leading to health problems including dehydration, urinary tract infections, kidney infection, and other kidney-related problems. Given this data there are essentially only two reasonable options to accommodate non-binary trans people:

  1. Make all restroom spaces all-gender or unisex – this is the most realistic long-term solution, yet is the one that faces the most resistance from cisgender people. Simply changing the signs is not enough in most cases as public and workplace bathrooms tend to be designed poorly for safety, privacy, and comfort. Addition of floor-to-ceiling partitions without cracks between panels is a common recommendation for all restrooms — binary or otherwise — alongside inclusion of sanitary waste disposal bins in all bathroom stalls.
  2. Re-purpose some existing restrooms to be all-gender or unisex – this is a common interim solution that is feasible in many offices with little contention, though it is not unproblematic. So long as gendered restrooms remain customary, space must be created for all genders. Creating a third restroom to accommodate everyone who is not exclusively male or female is still othering of individuals with specific gender identities under that heading. There are some considerations to be aware of, however:
  3. A unisex or all-gender restroom is not specifically for trans people. Care must be taken to ensure trans people are not forced to use these restrooms or discriminated against in other restrooms. It is our choice which restroom we choose to access.
  4. If the single-use bathrooms being re-purposed are already designated and designed explicitly for use by physically disabled staff with no other facilities available, it can cause those employees additional stress at the workplace. Ensure that people who are marginalized on one axis are not unduly harmed for the sake of other marginalized people.
  5. Placing all-gender or unisex restrooms in remote and difficult to reach locations may still constitute discrimination. Employees who need to access these facilities should not be burdened by significantly longer distances, climbs, or constraints to access that are not faced by users of men’s and women’s gendered facilities.
  6. If these spaces include multiple stalls they should be adjusted with improved privacy partitions and sanitary waste disposal bins.

These guidelines apply as well to other gendered facilities in the workplace such as change rooms and showers. For the safety and health of all employees, ensure restrooms are a safe place, free from judgement and gender-based policing.

Few of the above policy recommendations need be written narrowly for the non-binary segment. Policies written to be free from binary gender assumption and prescriptivism help all genders to feel welcome and accepted. Any such policy and practice should extend to customers, clients, volunteers, and consultants as well. Companies should take care to avoid gender assumption on websites, mailers, and forms. Discrimination is not something that should only be attended to when dealing with staff and ignored for contractors and clients. Anti-discrimination policies must be supported in all areas of the business.

The gender binary has been an assumption in most Western cultures for so long that deconstructing that assumption understandably shakes the foundations and rattles the floorboards of many people’s worldviews. But, non-binary people are here, have always been here under various names and identities, and after so long without visibility or a voice will be making themselves known at a growing rate. Now that eyes and ears are opening, individuals and institutions need to adapt to the world as it actually is rather than as the mainstream assumed.

If you are in the UK, please consider signing this petition to allow trans people to self-define their legal gender as well as this petition to legally recognize non-binary gender.

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