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One of the Most Common Mistakes Organizations Make On Gender — and it’s (Relatively) Easy to Fix!

Last year, a popular brand sent an email during Pride Month to let customers know about a new development to celebrate diversity and authentic expression. The brand wanted to honor the fact that its members exist across the gender spectrum. The email explained that customers could now identify their gender in their profile as male, female or non-binary. 

While the intent behind this email was honorable, the mistake was significant: in an email about gender, this company confused sex identifying terms (male, female) when they meant to use gender identity terms (man, woman). 

This is a common mistake that many organizations make. From health intakes to political canvassing to employee applications to blog posts, organizations large and small continue to interchange sex and gender identifying terms. Not only is this inaccurate, but it has the very real potential of alienating supporters, customers, employees and other members of your community. It’s an instant signal that the organization hasn’t taken the time to truly understand gender. As younger generations adopt increasingly expansive views of gender, there’s no time like the present to address these issues and even reflect on why you are asking about gender in the first place, and whether it's necessary.  

The good news? Some of these changes are pretty simple to make, and you can begin to implement them today. 

Understand the difference between sex and gender

Before you do anything, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of what gender is (and isn’t) in the first place. Generally, we determine a newborn’s sex as either male or female based on a cursory look at the baby’s genitals. Based on that assumption of sex, we anticipate they will develop certain biological traits, such as hormone levels and specific characteristics appearing around puberty. Sex is a spectrum across all human beings. 

Gender, on the other hand, is created by people within societies. That is why we see such different expectations and identities from one culture to the next. These constructions of gender evolve over time. Gender is composed of three dimensions — body, identity and social, each of which is a spectrum independent of, but related to one another. For example, you may be designated as male on your birth certificate, identify as a man and wear a dress. The fact that you identify as a man and wear clothing typically associated in western culture as clothing designed for women, doesn’t mean you are transgender, or non-binary, only that at least some of the time you like to wear a dress. For a more thorough discussion of gender we have created this primer to get you started. (It’s also worth noting that sex is also a spectrum as opposed to a binary. It is estimated that Intersex people constitute 1-1.7% of the population.) 

Use gender terms, not sex terms 

Once you understand this difference, evaluate where sex designations may be appearing throughout your organization, and ask whether you’re actually talking about gender. Some common places to look: 

  • The names of programs — e.g. “Female Leadership Committee” 
  • Job application forms 
  • Customer profiles
  • In blog posts and op-eds — e.g. “We need more female founders.”
  • Volunteer sign-ups 

As a first step, if the original intent was to communicate gender, see if you can address this by simply replacing “male” with “man” and “female” with “woman.” This is the simple part, and it’s something that you can start doing right away. But then we’ll want to dig deeper.

But what about compliance? 

On the employee side, one question we often get is around compliance. Government reporting still asks for employee data in the binary and using sex designations. This needs to evolve — companies can meaningfully use this data for reporting and other purposes by asking employees for gender; in fact, it is optimal to gather both employee sex and gender data — so please talk to your local policymakers about it. If you are a policymaker, reach out and let’s talk!

Don’t limit to the binary 

The company that sent that email on Pride Day was right that we should have more than two options when we talk about gender in forms, profiles and elsewhere. Pew research found that the majority of millennials and Gen Z believe that forms should include options beyond “man” and “woman.” When looking at forms specifically, we recommend the following — though note that this language is constantly evolving and not every list will always be right for everyone. 

Which most closely describes your gender? 

Note: When possible, you may want to allow people to choose more than one option, since some people identify as multiple genders. 

  • Woman
  • Man
  • Transgender woman
  • Transgender man
  • Non-binary
  • Agender/I don’t identify with any gender
  • Gender not listed. My gender is _______
  • Prefer not to state

Of course, forms are only one place where gender identity language shows up. If you’re looking at articles or language on your website, evaluate whether you can make your wording more inclusive to account for people across different genders (e.g. “women and nonbinary people”), or if you even need to be talking about gender in the first place.

Why do you ask?

This brings us to our final point — the part where we really challenge you to reimagine gender. In addition to evaluating the terms you use and how you can be more inclusive, ask yourself: why are we asking about gender? What are we going to do with this information? 

When you lead with that question, you may start to realize that you’re bringing gender into the conversation when it’s really unnecessary. If your goal is to figure out how to refer to someone, like a new volunteer or a customer, it may be more appropriate to ask them their pronouns rather than their gender. More on that here

It's a journey

As you can see, when it comes to gender, some changes are relatively simple to make while others require us to question our assumptions and rethink our approach. Many of us have grown up in a binary world, so this really is a journey to arrive at a new place of understanding. Reimagine Gender was created exactly for that reason — to be your partner in that journey. Please reach out if you’d like to set up a conversation or a training.