What it means to reimagine gender at your company

There is a lot more to it than this.
There is a lot more to it than this.
Image: AP Photo/Toby Talbot
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“How should we address gender identities in our internal employee information systems?”

“What type of policies should we create for employees who are transitioning?”

“Should we add pronouns to our email signatures?”

As the chief executive officer of an organization dedicated to educating companies about evolving perceptions of gender and creating gender-inclusive environments, these are some of the common questions I get from corporate leaders. More and more, companies are rethinking their policies to be more inclusive for transgender and non-binary identified employees.

It’s encouraging to see. Companies absolutely should evolve their policies, processes, and procedures to meet the needs and experiences of employees who do not identify with the traditional gender binary. But the truth is, it’s not enough.

Perceptions of gender are changing, and rapidly. If you thought millennials had progressive views on gender, just get ready for Gen-Z to enter your workplace.

Among millennials, 12% identify as transgender or gender non-conforming (Harris Poll), and a majority see gender as a spectrum rather than a man/woman binary (Fusion Millennial poll). Among Gen-Z, 56% know someone who uses a gender neutral pronoun such as the singular use of they (J. Walter Thompson), 25% say they expect to change their gender identity at least once during their lifetime (Irregular Labs and Gucci), and 59% believe forms should include options other than “man” and “woman” (Pew).

This new reality requires a significant reimagining of gender in the workplace, one that will ultimately help ALL of your employees be more productive, creative and satisfied at work. To do that, I recommend company leaders start by understanding what gender is in the first place.

What is gender?

Often, when I talk to corporate teams about gender, their minds go to one of two places: women’s advancement or policies for transgender inclusion. These are important issues to address, but gender isn’t something that just affects women or transgender people.

Gender is something we all experience; it is the complex interrelationship between our body, how we identify, and how we present our gender to others. There’s a good chance that many of your current and future employees—regardless of their gender identity—feel that, to some degree, social norms or perceptions about gender don’t align with their own experiences and identity.

How does gender affect you?

In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ve felt this way. Think back on your life. Is there a moment you can think of when you didn’t pursue something you were passionate about because of the ideas you or others had regarding your gender? Or when you did something you weren’t actually that excited about because that’s what society expected of you?

I was talking with a CEO not long ago about the ways assumptions regarding gender can shape our lives; after a few seconds, he recalled how he loved to cook when he was young. He particularly looked forward to being in the kitchen during the holidays with his mother and aunts to help cook these family meals, but once he got a bit older he was told that it wasn’t OK for boys to be in the kitchen. While he acknowledged that he is thankful for the life he has now, he wondered what it might have felt like if he had been free to explore that passion and express his creativity through cooking. From that realization he went on to see a number of choices that he made, personally and professionally, because they fit expectations about what it means to be a man. He wondered, without these rigid stereotypes, might he have made different choices? How might his life be different today?

What does this have to do with my company?

When we reimagine gender at the workplace, we can create cultures where employees—all employees—feel freer to show up as their authentic selves. This will inevitably lead to a more creative and productive workforce, while also helping you attract millennial and Gen-Z talent to your company. How do we do that, exactly?

  • Get employees talking about gender. The most common comment I hear in corporations is that people are afraid to talk about gender. They know gender is changing, but they’re not sure how, what the terms are, or what they mean. They’re afraid to offend, to look ignorant, or to seem out of touch. The truth is, most of us simply haven’t thought much about gender—it’s so intrinsic to us that it’s difficult to see how the ideas we grew up with inform our gender and the assumptions we hold. The good news, from our experience working with organizations, is that it takes very little effort to give employees the resources needed to feel much more comfortable discussing gender.
  • Talk with employees to see if there are gender-based cultural expectations baked into the organization. Employees at one company I worked with told me that men felt they were perceived as weak if they left “early” to pick up their kids from school—but not if they were leaving to attend a child’s sporting event. At another organization, employees felt that only “hyper-masculine” characteristics were valued by management, leaving employees who didn’t exhibit those characteristics, regardless of their gender, feeling undervalued and with little hope of future growth opportunities.
  • Look at internal systems to see if there are ways employees may feel excluded in the organization. For example, are your family-leave policies equitable to all parents, regardless of gender? Do your recruitment and employee-information systems only provide two gender options? Are managers trained to support all employees and identify ways in which stereotypical understandings of gender may get in the way of effective team dynamics? Employees are looking at these things to see what truly matters to the organization.
  • Connect a reimagining of gender to your core organizational values—and your bottom line. Encourage every employee to challenge gender assumptions that may be built into your processes and products, both internal and customer-facing. For example, are you establishing an external audience based on gender (i.e. our goal is to reach women with this new body wash) when it could be more profitable to look at your audience in a different way (i.e. our goal is to reach people who identify as athletic)? When teams identify these opportunities, celebrate and share them, explaining how they impact the organization’s bottom line. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.

Many corporate leaders tend to see the current culture and rhetoric around gender as a passing fad, one they can relegate as an HR compliance issue or ignore altogether. This is a mistake. The way we understand gender as a society is fundamentally changing—and that’s good news for all of us.

Lisa Kenney, co-founder and CEO of Reimagine Gender, is a featured speaker at conferences and a consultant to organizations on the changing understandings of gender and the implications this has for families, social institutions, and corporations. You can connect with Lisa on LinkedIn.