Sex and Gender in the Workplace
For many years now the usual male/female question has been present as an option of identity on most questionnaires/forms. However, socially constructed norms around sex have certainly evolved, with individuals choosing how to identify who they are and how they relate to others. According to the Office for National Statistics these additions have carefully been considered, researched and piloted.
Since these questions are now often used when completing forms, during my first few training sessions, whilst exploring the protected characteristics, I would read out the list of questions for further clarification on how each could apply to that particular organisation. As soon as I read out sex, participants often made comments such as, “Well that’s controversial now isn’t it?!”
In the last couple of years, I regularly hear (usually inadvertently) dismissive comments towards non-binary people. With society’s increase in awareness of gender, exponentially individuals demonstrate an increase in fear and rejection of anything outside of their views on “normal”. Comments like, “Political Correctness has gone mad, anyone can call themselves what they like, I think I want to be a toaster”.
Ali Hannon is a TEDx speaker and diversity & inclusion consultant. Ali uses the pronouns They/Them and identifies as non-binary. Non-binary folks can feel like they have to prove their gender, whether they wish to or not. “I am a human first”, says Ali, but when people hear the words non-binary, the recipient’s discomfort prevents them from accepting Ali’s gender. “They have successfully learnt my name, so they can learn my pronouns!”
Discrimination comes from fear of the unknown. Fear. When our brains enter fight/flight mode, the reasoning part is unavailable. By openly and honestly discussing discrimination in a calm and interactive training environment, we strive to bring awareness to the topic, allowing participants the opportunity to slow down their fight/flight responses, and explore reasonable alternatives. Inclusive leaders do this automatically, after a period of brain training.
Sex and Gender: Why?
So why separate sex (male, female) from gender (society’s unwritten rules around what says male and what says female)? Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45. When a society is brought up with the message that: Men don’t cry, Men should “man” up, Asking for help is a weakness, we begin to see the futility and out-right danger of enforcing stereotypes.
What is the reality of “now” when it comes to understanding and accepting difference? Is our reality constructed from knowledge of sectors of the community who feel forced into a gender role, or have their gender identity denied? Or is it based on only getting half the picture and filling in the rest? When we push a new idea away from us, we invariably jump onto several rungs of Allport’s Scale of Prejudice.
The Census question on sex asks, “What is your sex? Male / Female”. This question is compulsory and has been asked on the Census since 1801. However, for the first time, the 2021 Census question was caveated with, “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth? Yes / No – enter gender identity”. This question is voluntary and only asked to people who are 16 and over.
Currently in UK law there are two sexes, male and female. This is in spite of an estimated 1 in 2000 babies being born with indeterminate sex, with the doctor and/or parents choosing Boy or Girl. With the increase in “Gender Reveal” parties held by fledgling parents, we see that Gender is a misnomer. Interestingly, with subsequent kids, the parents often give up on these parties, realising the futility of Girl and Boy, knowing their offspring are as likely to have stereotypical sex-specific traits as not.
When you add in people’s confusion and rejection of transgender people (when an individuals’ birth sex is not the sex they know they are), organisations end up feeling completely overwhelmed. Some companies have fantastic transgender policies, where it is clear on how and when to address the individual by their chosen sex. Conversely, unaware organisations make decisions based on fear rather than understanding. For example, “Which toilets should ‘they’ use? We don’t want people to feel uncomfortable”. This leads to the transgender member of staff often being asked to access the disabled toilet, a facility that has no sex stipulated, not a great option for someone who is finally living their gender-based truth. Progressive organisations with gender neutral facilities are perhaps getting it right.
Is your organisation currently doing enough to promote allyship for a range of protected characteristics? Simply requesting individuals change their zoom name to include pronouns would be a great starting point. Including, he/him, she/her, they/them shows acceptance and understanding. And perhaps watching and discussing a TEDx Talk during a team meeting. Re-visit your sex and gender policies, talk to your staff about them. Increased understanding unpicks the fear, leading to a more joined up workforce.