Case study: Nonbinary People

Although most people are at least aware of the existence of transgender men and women, nonbinary people have yet to attain the same level of visibility and understanding. Nonbinary is an umbrella term for many people who are neither male nor female, and the needs of members of this community are slightly different than those of binary trans people (men and women), as they face distinct social challenges.

Considering the needs and preferences of nonbinary people is an important aspect of creating an inclusive corporate culture. Research shows that nonbinary people have experienced significant discrimination, including in the workplace.1 An inclusive culture enables employees to be comfortable and safe expressing their true selves, and to feel respected in the workplace. The alternative of staying “in the closet” or enduring biased insults or dismissals can impact an employee’s mental health, productivity, and job satisfaction.

People who identify somewhere on a spectrum between male and female, or outside of it entirely, may describe themselves in one or more ways including nonbinary, trans, bigender, polygender, genderqueer, genderfluid, neutrois, or agender. Some gender identities are associated with specific cultural traditions.

Nonbinary people may use alternate pronouns such as singular “they” and “them.” They may not be comfortable using gendered bathrooms (i.e., men’s and women’s). Additional issues they may face in the workplace include: gendered dress codes; gender-segregated activities; requirements to select gender markers on workplace forms; gendered language; stares; misgendering; and rude or insensitive comments.

Scenarios

Scenario 1

Fatimeh is looking forward to a fitness initiative sponsored by their company. Their manager encourages everyone to sign up online, but Fatimeh is dismayed to discover that the first question requires that they choose a “male” or “female” gender marker. Dejected, Fatimeh does not sign up. Gendered language, forms like this one, and dress codes erase nonbinary people, suggesting they do not count as valued employees.

Scenario 2

D has recently come out to their coworkers with the support of their manager, Maria. D asks Maria about access to a gender-neutral bathroom; they are not comfortable using the men’s or women’s restrooms. Maria suggests that D use the gender-neutral bathroom in the lobby. It is not as new or as clean as the gendered versions on D’s floor, and D feels uncomfortable walking down to the lobby and passing visitors, contractors, and security staff just to pee.

It’s not always easy to introduce a gender-neutral bathroom to an existing facility. It’s important to make all reasonable efforts to ensure gender-neutral facilities are available to staff and visitors, even if you aren’t aware of any nonbinary employees, as using an inferior or far-away bathroom can make someone feel ostracized, and pressure them into using gendered facilities they’re not comfortable with.

What NOT to do

If a nonbinary employee has come out or is experiencing problems at work, do not belittle, undermine, or invalidate their gender. Instead of guessing about the language a nonbinary employee uses to describe themselves, managers should simply ask. Managers should be aware that phrases suggesting that gender is a choice  —  like “identifies as” or “prefers to be called”  —  can feel dismissive to some nonbinary people. Affirmative, clear phrases like “she uses female pronouns” or “her name is Belinda” set an inclusive example for the team.

Don’t request that nonbinary employees “just ignore it” or refrain from expressing their gender in the office. Don’t override what they tell you about their identity or experience; remember that they are the ultimate authority on their own experiences. Nor should you assume that they are the only employee with similar problems or complaints; chances are there are more employees who are not comfortable outing themselves.

Don’t ask them to discuss their genitalia, as this is sexual harassment. Questions about medical transition are also invasive and unwelcome. Similarly, don’t make assumptions about their gender, pronouns, identity, or experiences.

Nonbinary people are often asked to act as dictionaries or references; this role can be a burden. Take advantage of online tools to educate yourself and make it clear that other team members should do the same.

What TO do

Acknowledge and affirm what they tell you when nonbinary employees approach you to discuss accommodations in the office. Be proactive when you make suggestions for accommodations  —  consider turning to online resources to see what other companies are doing and what other nonbinary people recommend. For example, you might consider converting bathrooms to all-gender status, or using gender-neutral pronouns in all office communications to avoid singling nonbinary employees out.

Make sure that managers, team leaders, and employees know that these accommodations apply to the whole company, not a specific individual. Some employees may be closeted, and your company may also have nonbinary clients. Inclusive policies will benefit the company in the long term, increasing employee satisfaction and productivity and reducing attrition.

Research the language and cultural norms of the nonbinary community in general as well as the specific community your employees belong to. Using welcoming, inclusive language signals that you are committed to inclusion and willing to learn. In addition, make sure that you know which pronouns your employee uses, and don’t say they’re “weird” or “too hard to learn.”

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and when people transition in the workplace, sometimes managers or team members may inadvertently use their old name or pronouns. Nonbinary employees generally understand that this is not malicious, but when they are put in the spotlight, it can feel uncomfortable. Team members should be encouraged to catch themselves and move on  —  and managers can also help them do so. For example, if a team member says “I enjoyed working with Fatimeh on her project” during an evaluation, a manager can say “yes, they do great work.” If a manager observes a team member repeatedly using the wrong name and/or pronouns, she can pull the team member aside for a reminder about the company’s inclusive values and appropriate behavior.

Ask where nonbinary employees would like you to use their pronouns  —  some employees may prefer that you use neutral or binary pronouns in public or to clients if they aren’t out around the office. When referring to a nonbinary employee’s physical presentation, in reference to dress code for example, consider using the term “androgynous” to avoid unnecessary gender labeling.

Before sharing information about your nonbinary employees, obtain consent and discuss how that information will be used. Employees may be comfortable sharing information with other team members but not across the company, for example.

Be proactive and follow up with them. This is a great way to show your investment in their well-being, and can help you discover issues you might not otherwise know about.

Summary

Nonbinary employees have valuable skills to bring to the workplace and will be more productive and less likely to leave a company if they feel included and valued as employees. Their insight can be particularly helpful for user interface design, which can be surprisingly gendered in nature. Leaders who take the time to get to know their nonbinary team members will be in a better position to accommodate them and help build a welcoming reputation for the company, which will help it attract talent.

Glossary

This glossary is by no means exhaustive, and, along with this document, it is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all reference, but may help to gain a basic understanding of some terms and concepts.

Agender: Having no gender or no concept of gender.

Bigender: Also “polygender,” having two or more genders simultaneously or in series (may overlap with gender fluidity).

Dead name: Someone’s name prior to transition. If you know it, do not use it or share it (deadnaming), and do not refer to it as their “real” name. Consider designing company forms and documentation to eliminate explicit references to legal names and gender unless absolutely necessary  —  for example, payroll forms need an employee’s current legal name, internal memos do not. The company should make it clear that deadnaming is not condoned and is against the company’s inclusive culture.

Gender binary: The system of classifying all people as either male or female, including the infrastructure to support this classification (binary gendered restrooms, dress codes, pronouns, etc.).

Gender dysphoria: The symptoms of “having the wrong body,” usually fixating on primary or secondary sex characteristics such as genitalia, breast development, facial and body hair, bone structure, vocal range, etc. Gender dysphoria is experienced by many (but not all) trans people, is linked to suicide and mental illness, and is exacerbated by actions like misgendering or deadnaming.

Gender expression: The physical presentation of a person as classified within the gender binary. Clothing, makeup, facial hair, grooming, perfume and/or deodorant, body language, speech patterns, and more combine to give an impression of femininity, masculinity, or androgyny. This is not the same thing as gender identity.

Gender identity: Someone’s gender. Although the phrase “gender identity” is commonly used in discussion and legislation, simply “gender” should be used preferentially, as “identity” has dismissive connotations.

Genderfluid: Having non-static gender; a genderfluid person may be a different gender from one day to the next.

Genderqueer: This and other terms including the word “queer” should not be used unless explicitly requested, as they are associated with anti-trans and anti-LGBQA violence, and some people consider them to be slurs.

Misgendering: Using gendered pronouns, language, or other markers that are not consistent with a person’s gender. Although misgendering most often consists of using the wrong pronouns, it can also mean using inappropriate gendered terms (dude, lady, etc.) or prescribing an incorrect gendered division (such as gender-segregated sports teams, bathrooms, business events, etc.).

Nonbinary: Existing outside of the gender binary, being neither male nor female.

Transgender: An umbrella term for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. For some, this can lead to gender dysphoria and a need for medical and/or surgical transition. Left unsupported, transgender people have one of the highest suicide rates of any population. However, with adequate care and supportive environments, transgender people are able to live successful lives. Do not use the words “transsexual” or “tranny” to refer to transgender people as these are offensive.

Transition: The process of moving from publicly presenting as one gender to another. While there is no standard path, it may involve therapy, hormone replacement, and surgeries so someone’s outward appearance matches their internal feelings.


  1. A 2011 survey showed that transgender and nonbinary respondents attended college or gained a college degree or higher at 1.74 times the rate of the general population (47 percent versus 27 percent), but experienced twice the rate of unemployment and and four times the rate of extreme poverty ($10,000 annually or less) compared to the general population. The survey also found that 90 percent experienced some form of anti-transgender bias on the job, and 26 percent lost a job due to bias.

    Harrison, J., Grant, J., and Herman, J.L. (2011). “Gender Not Listed Here: Genderqueers, Gender Rebels, and OtherWise in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” LGBQT Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School 2. Retrieved April 2016 from: http://www.thetaskforce.org/static_html/downloads/reports/reports/gender_not_listed_here.pdf