He, She, They: Workplaces Adjust As Gender Identity Norms Change

It’s a pivotal time for LGBTQ people in the workplace. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in cases testing whether people in that community are protected by the country’s workplace anti-discrimination laws.

That’s happening at a time when more workplaces are adapting to an increasing number of people openly identifying as gender nonbinary — that is, they don’t consider themselves categorically male or female, and favor gender-neutral pronouns like “them,” instead of “he” or “she.”

Some employers are including those preferences on email signatures and name tags. But workers and employers are also navigating changing social norms around gender that can be confusing, and shifting workplace culture away from traditional gender identifiers can also be tricky.

This is something Joshua Byron has thought about a great deal. As a child, Byron realized dressing up as Princess Leia was unconventional for a boy. It wasn’t until young adulthood that Byron first encountered the concept that someone could identify as something other than male or female. For Byron, the idea of being gender neutral — or part one, part the other — felt like it fit.

Byron, 24, came out as such to his inner circle of friends three years ago, requesting to be referred to as “they,” not as “he.” But they didn’t feel comfortable doing so at work.

“I had a very supportive friend group, and then I would go to work and not think about that part of myself,” Byron says.

That changed two years ago, after Byron applied for a teaching job in New York, and a reference outed them as nonbinary.

The new employer had no problem with it and hired Byron. But being out at work meant fielding endless questions from colleagues: Is this really a thing? How can a plural pronoun refer to one person? Byron feels caught in the middle of a culture war.

“I think people feel really intense about it … like this is breaking some rule,” Byron says.

This kind of scenario is playing out in many workplaces, especially as surveys show more people are identifying as gender nonbinary.

“Employers are going to be faced with an increasing percentage of employees over time who have nonbinary identities,” because there is greater prevalence of gender ambiguity among young people, says Jody Herman, a public policy scholar at the Williams Institute at UCLA law school, which researches sexual orientation and gender identity.

There is still not a lot of research quantifying this population, especially since there are so many diverse terms around gender identity. Two years ago, Herman’s study found 27% of youth in California aged 12 to 17 said their peers would identify them as gender nonconforming. Other studies show a much smaller prevalence of people who identify themselves as transgender or gender nonbinary.

Some employers are already shifting policies. United Airlines gives customers the option to identify as nonbinary when booking tickets. Retirement company TIAA instructed employees to introduce themselves to clients with their preferred pronouns.

The law firm Baker McKenzie earlier this year set its staffing targets to 40% men, 40% women and 20% flexible — including nonbinary people.

Anna Brown, the firm’s director of global diversity and inclusion, says the policy was designed to reflect the shifting demographics. “These are prospective policies. And as we go forward, we know we have nonbinary colleagues,” she says.

But New York psychotherapist Laura Jacobs, who counsels many transgender and nonbinary individuals, says that kind of openness is still new and somewhat rare. “How to handle nonbinary people is still something that I don’t think most employers really have a sense for how to handle,” Jacobs says.

Employment forms, for example, often include only male or female options. References from old jobs might have known someone before the person assumed a different name or identity. And often, employer health insurance requires a person to choose.

“You had to be binary in order to get care and that that was enforced by the medical community, the legal community and so on,” says Jacobs, who identifies as both transgender and nonbinary.

But on a day-to-day basis, some of the persistent challenge comes from coworker questions: “Everybody wonders what’s in our pants,” Jacobs says.

Nowhere does this feel more personal than the bathroom.

For transgender populations, bathrooms are places associated with uncomfortable staring, harassment and even violence. They’ve also been at the center of political controversy. Three years ago, North Carolina passed a law requiring people to use bathrooms corresponding to their assigned gender at birth. That law was struck down.

But Mark Marsen says bathrooms remain a hot-button issue for employers and for coworkers who don’t feel comfortable sharing bathrooms with transgender people. Marsen is director of human resources at Allies For Health + Wellbeing, a community health clinic. He recently participated in an online discussion with other HR executives about making the workplace gender neutral.

“A good 60% — at least — of the conversation was about bathrooms,” Marsen says.

At the time, Marsen says, he was re-thinking his company’s restroom policies. Marsen realized a bathroom is just a bathroom. He ended up re-labeling them simply, “restroom” and “restroom with urinals.”

For Joshua Byron, bathrooms are a central emotional issue.

For Byron, things like restrooms and dress codes become litmus tests for how their manager might react — how strictly masculinity might be enforced. It makes Byron wonder: “Will it be a thing that there is argument or stress over?”

But changing long-held gender paradigms isn’t easy. The terms used by nonbinary people can be difficult to understand.

In fact, it can still be confusing even for people who identify as nonbinary, like Mich Dopiro. Dopiro recently stumbled over pronouns for someone they just met.

“I don’t think they took offense, but it was an embarrassing moment for myself,” says Dopiro, 25, who works as a teacher in Seattle. Among middle school students, gender norms have already changed . One student recently called Dopiro by the wrong pronoun, then apologized.

“They felt like, ‘Oh this is something that I grew up with that I should know not to mess up,’ ” Dopiro says.

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