You’ve probably read an article or two about how male and female candidates approach the job search differently, use different language in interviews, and have varied styles for negotiating compensation. But those articles don’t tell the whole story.
Because there are more than two genders. Gender is a spectrum, not a binary.
It’s important to recognize this distinction because binary thinking around gender can exclude a large — and overlooked — part of the workforce. There are an estimated 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States today, representing about 0.6% of the adult population. In the United Kingdom, a recent survey found that 13% of the country’s LGBTQ+ community identified as transgender. And a recent study of teenagers in Minnesota found that 2.7% identify as transgender, genderqueer, or gender fluid (more on those terms later) or are unsure of their gender identification.
Unfortunately, these individuals often face serious discrimination at work or during the hiring process. A 2018 survey of transgender and nonbinary Britains found that over 50% hide their identity at work for fear of discrimination, while a 2015 report found that transgender residents of California were three times as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the adult population. There is currently no federal law in the US protecting people from employment discrimination on the basis of their gender identity or expression.
But there is a lot employers can do to create a more inclusive and welcoming culture for all and, in doing so, boost your talent brand and send a powerful message to other candidates from underrepresented groups. The first steps are awareness, understanding, and trying to get the language right, a practice companies have widely embraced for race and ethnicity but not so much for gender.
With that in mind, here are 15 terms related to gender identity that anyone involved in hiring should add to their vocabulary. This is not an exhaustive list and many of the terms have somewhat fluid meaning (which, as you’ll see, is fitting), but it’s a good place to start.
1. Gender Identity
One of the biggest sources of confusion around gender identity comes from an oversimplification in health class: that your biological sex determines your gender. It’s not that simple. Sex and gender are not the same thing, nor are they necessarily correlated.
Your sex is assigned to you at birth, based on your genitalia. And as you’ll see when we discuss intersex individuals (see 12), sex isn’t always as black or white as is sometimes assumed.
But your gender is less surface level — it’s your lived experience of being a man, a woman, or neither, or somewhere in between. So when we talk about a person’s gender identity, we’re talking about their own deeply felt understanding of who they are. And when people feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work without fear of embarrassment or harassment, they’re happier and more productive.
2. Gender Expression
The way a person expresses their gender externally is known as gender expression. This can include the way they dress, the way they style their hair, their behavior, and even their voice. While some people express their gender in a way that is closely tied to societal expectations of male or female expression, others express in nontraditional ways or are fluid about how they express (see 10).
It’s also important to remember that if someone does not feel comfortable revealing their gender identity in public, their outward appearance and behavior may not be an indicator of their true gender identity.
3. Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation, meaning the gender(s) we’re attracted to, is separate from our own gender identity. As YouTuber Brendan Jordan describes it: “Sexuality is who you go to bed with, and gender identity is who you go to bed as.” But since sexual orientation often gets mixed up in gender identity conversations, it’s worth talking about here.
People sometimes make assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation based on their gender identity — like assuming that transgender individuals are automatically gay. But you can be a transgender woman who is attracted to other women and identifies as a lesbian, or who is attracted to men and identifies as straight, or who isn’t attracted to men or women and identifies as asexual, and so on.
Like pretty much everything related to sexual orientation and gender, it’s always best to avoid assumptions.
Queer is a sort of catch-all term used by many people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQ+) community when discussing gender identities and sexualities other than straight and cisgender (see 5).
Like many of the words on this list, queer can mean different things to different people. Since it is commonly used as a slur against the LGBTQ+ community, it’s best to avoid using it so you don’t risk a misunderstanding. However, many LGBTQ+ individuals self-identify as queer in an attempt to reclaim the word.
Cisgender, or cis, describes people whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex. So if you are biologically a woman and identify as female, or biologically a man and identify as male, you are cisgender.
Cishet is the term for people who are both cisgender and heterosexual.
Nonbinary is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity is neither solely male nor solely female. You can identify as nonbinary while also identifying with other terms on this list, like genderqueer (see 8).
Since society largely uses binary pronouns in everyday conversation, some nonbinary individuals will pick “he/him” or “she/her” pronouns for convenience, depending on which end of the gender spectrum they identify with most closely. Others will ask you to use gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them” or “ze/hir” (pronounced zee and here). You use these pronouns in the same way you’d use a gendered pronoun like “he” or “him” in a sentence.
While it may take some getting used to, using the right pronouns can go a long way toward making people feel comfortable, so be sure to make the effort when someone tells you their pronouns. If you’re not sure which to use, it’s OK to ask, “What are your correct pronouns?” And if you’re worried the question will sound out of left field, start by telling the person your pronouns before asking about theirs.
Genderqueer is another term used by some people who identify as neither just male or just female, but as both, neither, or some combination. It differs from nonbinary more in connotation than in meaning, since it sprung from queer activism in and around the 1990s and is closely tied to the movement for nonbinary gender identities to be recognized and legitimized.
Transgender individuals have a gender identity that is not aligned with the sex they were assigned at birth. A transgender person may have already transitioned (see 15) to their personal gender identity or be in the process of transitioning, though some may not transition at all or may delay transitioning for a variety of reasons.
Transgender is often shortened simply to trans. However, the word “tranny” is a slur, so make sure that your antiharassment policy is clear about your company’s stance on discriminatory terms like this.
While some transgender individuals also identify as nonbinary and use “they/them” pronouns, most identify as either male or female. Be sure to use the person’s correct pronouns to avoid misgendering them (again, it’s OK to ask about pronouns if you’re unsure).
10. Gender nonconforming
A gender nonconforming person is someone whose gender expression does not adhere to what is considered “normal” for their gender. You can be cisgender and still be gender noncomforming. For example, some cisgender women prefer to cut their hair in a masculine style and wear men’s shirts.
Genderfluid individuals have a gender identity that isn’t fixed but varies over time. The way they express their gender will likely change to reflect how they identify from one day to the next. They may, for example, present as masculine one day, feminine the next, and neither the day after that.
In terms of pronouns, some genderfluid people go by “they/them,” others prefer to be called by their current correct gender pronoun, some stick to one gendered pronoun or the other, and some don’t mind. Ask if you’re unsure, and if someone tells you their preference, try to stick to it.
Intersex is another umbrella term, this time used to describe individuals whose biological sex varies in some way from our binary understanding of men’s and women’s bodies. This can encompass a person’s anatomy, reproductive system, and/or the pattern of their chromosomes. For example, an intersex individual may have an internal anatomy that is more typical to men, but external genitalia that is more typical to women.
Given this ambiguity, doctors will make a judgment call when assigning intersex individuals a sex at birth. This assigned sex may differ from their true gender identity. But intersex and nonbinary are not interchangeable terms, since many intersex people identify as male or female.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, one in 100 births don’t conform to standard definitions of boys and girls. Many people point to this statistic as proof that our binary thinking about sex and gender ultimately excludes the experiences of countless people.
13. Agender / Gender-Neutral
Agender individuals identify as not having a gender. Some use the term gender-neutral instead, and both terms fall under the nonbinary umbrella (since these individuals can’t be categorized as just male or female).
People who identify as agender may present in different ways. Some prefer to dress androgynously (between male and female), though many don’t. You don’t have to be androgynous to be agender and vice versa.
14. Gender Questioning
Understanding and coming to terms with your own gender can be a complicated process, especially considering the binary world we live in. That’s why some individuals will go through a period of gender questioning where they explore their gender identity and consider how they want to express it.
15. Gender Transition
Transitioning is the process by which a transgender person can begin to live their life in a way that matches their gender identity, rather than their birth sex. It may involve medical interventions like hormone therapy or surgery, but often it does not. Other steps in the transitioning process can include legally changing your name, asking people to use your correct pronouns, and dressing in a way that aligns with your gender identity.
This process can happen at any age, and as society becomes more accepting of trans issues, many older trans individuals are feeling comfortable about transitioning. If your company’s health benefits cover medical interventions like hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, be sure to let candidates and employees know about it as financial concerns are often a major factor in a trans person’s decision to transition or not.
Expand your mind-set, but don’t be afraid to make mistakes
After being taught in school that there are only two genders, it can be challenging to hear how broad the gender spectrum really is.
As you focus on building a more inclusive culture at your company, don’t worry if you occasionally get terms mixed up or forget what a word means. Recognizing that you’ve still got more to learn is part of the process. Acknowledge your slip-ups, extend the same level of respect to everyone, and be open to hearing more about the lived experiences of others whose genders vary from your own.
*Photo by The Gender Spectrum Collection
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