Gender inclusion in the workplace starts with they

In 2019, Merriam-Webster – America’s oldest dictionary – declared the word “they” its word of the year and added a new definition: used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.

Despite what some language skeptics might think, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in English goes way back, even before the time of Shakespeare.

The rise of “they”

“I attended a conference for pronouns for non-binary people in 2019; what they found was there are over 50 gender pronouns that are actively in use in English,” says Jade Pichette, manager of Programs, Pride at Work Canada. “15 years ago “they/them” was just an option for non-binary pronouns, but it wasn’t the most common. Now we have reached a tipping point which is very exciting.”

Pichette, who would like to be addressed as they/them professionally, says they also sees the emergence of Mx as a non-binary title at work. Pichette also clarifies that just because someone uses “they”, it doesn’t necessarily mean they identifies with transgender because “they/them” doesn’t assign a specific gender to a person. They adds that most trans people still use he/him or she/her, though there is a growing number of non-binary people who are increasingly adopting “they”.

“I work with a lot of large employers. Many of them have staff who openly use they/them pronouns. It has been made part of the communication procedure and policy – you will actually see pronouns in the email signatures quite consistently. Those who are working in the inclusion and diversity space will put pronouns in their LinkedIn accounts. Increasingly it is becoming the standard. Another thing I started noticing is younger people will put their pronouns on their resumes,” Pichette says.

Pichette welcomes the change in pronouns to properly recognize non-binary people at work. They adds that the conversation should also extend to the broader changes that need to happen at the workplace.

“In Canada, about 40 per cent of trans people are considered low income. In comparison, this means trans people are five times more likely to be in poverty than people who aren’t,” they says. “Trans people are less likely to have stable employment. The main form of employment for many trans women is still sex work because there is no access to employment elsewhere. Quite often trans people are experiencing subtle discrimination at work – they are told they are an unconventional hire, despite they have the education and the experience.”

A more inclusive workplace

According to the Transitioning Employers report published in 2020, on which Pichette was an author, many organizations surveyed stated that they did not believe they have any trans people in their work environment. However, some trans people simply do not come out for fear of discrimination or negative employment outcomes.

Jade Pichette says that many employers have staff who openly use they/them pronouns. | Photo courtesy of Jade Pichette

“Some of the ones that I know who have come out at the most senior corporate levels, they are not necessarily openly talking about it,” Pichette says. “The one space that I see trans people who are honoured and respected is the non-profit sector; they are pushing a lot of these conversations forward.”

To make the workplace more gender-inclusive, Pichette says companies need to update their workplace harassment policies, as some of them were created before the legislation on gender identity rights came about.

“For example, consistently misgendering someone under the law is considered harassment. Many wouldn’t consider that to be, but legally it is,” says Pichette.

They adds that companies should also have a trans inclusion policy that addresses an employee that is transitioning at work. The gender clothing policies should be obsolete and people should be able to wear whatever is considered professional.

Companies also need better data collection procedures and systems according to Pichette, as most employee benefits and insurance plans are gendered, though some insurers have rolled out gender-inclusive plans that speak to the experience of trans employees.

“When we did our research in 2018 to look at the experience of LGBTQ2S+ as job seekers, the top thing that people care about is what policy a company has. If you don’t have an inclusive environment, your employees leave,” says Pichette.

With their experience at Pride at Work Canada, Pichette says that positive changes are happening now for the community.

“We are making progress. Sometimes it is slow and sometimes it is hard, but the progress is happening. I have been an educator in this field; the thing I would like to say to trans and non-binary folks, there is support out there, whether it is your employment journey or your connection to other people,” they says.

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