Allyship at Work: What Is Gender Identity?

By Emma Esparza

Updated November 24, 2021 | Published August 14, 2020

Updated November 24, 2021

Published August 14, 2020

Emma Esparza is a career coach at Indeed with experience as a recruiter, university career advisor and senior technical career coach. She is passionate about guiding all jobseekers in their intersectional uniqueness towards a successful job search and fulfilling career.

Related: Job Cast: LGBTQIA+ Job Search Advice: Pride at Work

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Consider for a moment the times you have been most engaged or productive at work. Think about the best days or happiest memories you’ve had at work. Such positive experiences are likely due to coworkers, tasks or projects you’ve enjoyed—but they are also likely a result of your ability to bring your authentic self to work and feel comfortable with and accepted by your colleagues.

A 2017 Gallup poll found that companies with employees who were engaged saw reduced absenteeism, lower turnover and increased productivity—in some cases leading to a 21% increase in profitability for the organization. In contrast, a recent study of LGBTQ+ workers by the Human Rights Campaign found that employee engagement declined as much as 30% in unfriendly work environments. These findings highlight the importance of creating a positive and accepting workplace for everyone on your team.

Feeling free and able to express your gender identity at work is key to being your authentic self and perhaps unlocking your full potential. The visibility and acceptance of transgender and non-binary people has grown in recent years with an estimated 1.4 million US adults identifying as transgender. However, the 2015 US Transgender Survey (USTS) of 27,715 transgender adults found that 77%—more than three quarters—of respondents who had a job in the previous year hid or delayed their true gender expression to avoid mistreatment in the workplace.

Acknowledging, respecting and celebrating unique gender identities is an important part of being an ally and fostering an inclusive workplace. Understanding what gender identity means is a great place to start. In this article, we discuss some common definitions related to gender identity along with suggestions to help you support others in your professional network who are transgender or non-binary.

What is gender identity?

Gender identity is a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification of gender which may or may not correspond with the sex assigned to them at birth. Individuals may self-identify as male, female, both or neither. Below is a non-exhaustive list of terms, words and phrases to communicate a person's experience with and relationship to gender identity:

Cisgender: Describes a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.

Gender binary: The belief that human gender only exists as male or female and individuals must be strictly gendered either/or.

Gender expression: External characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as either masculine or feminine such as dress, grooming, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions.

Gender non-conforming: A broad term referring to people who do not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category.

Gender-fluid: A gender identity that shifts over time and often encompasses non-binary identities.

Misgendering: To use the wrong pronouns for someone who does not identify with them. For example, addressing a woman who uses she/her with he/him or addressing a non-binary individual who uses they/them with he/him.

Non-binary: Describes a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories. While many also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people do.

Transgender: Describes a person whose gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth.

Transition: The process by which some people strive to align their internal gender identity with their outward appearance. Some people may socially transition, whereby they might begin dressing, using names and pronouns and/or be socially recognized as another gender. Others may undergo physical transitions in which they modify their bodies through medical interventions.

Why acknowledging gender identities in the workplace is important

While data shows how both employees and companies benefit when people can bring their authentic selves to work, it’s also true that every person deserves the opportunity to feel respected while expressing their true gender identity at work. However, those who are transgender often face more obstacles to bringing their authentic selves to the workplace.

A report published by the National Center for Transgender Equality showed that “30% of respondents who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression, such as being verbally harassed or physically or sexually assaulted at work.” In addition, 39% of respondents said they had experienced recent serious psychological distress (compared with reported 5% of the total US population).

Anecdotal accounts of those who are transgender and non-binary include reports of extreme physical and psychological discomfort when forced to inauthentically express the gender identity they were assigned at birth through name, pronouns or appearance.

6 ways to become a better ally to the transgender and non-binary community

There are many things we can do to help our transgender and non-binary colleagues feel welcome and empowered to express themselves authentically at work. Here, we outline a small sample of simple actions you can take. While some of these suggestions may require self-education and time, others are straightforward changes of habit.

Remember that the lifelong path to becoming a better ally is ever-evolving and not simply a task to “complete.” You might make mistakes along the way but it’s important and meaningful to take steps toward understanding and supporting underrepresented communities.

Related: Learning About Diversity And Inclusion

1. In professional and social settings, resist assuming or assigning people’s identity.

Consider the idea that there isn’t one single way to be or look, and while you may have a binary cisgender identity—meaning you comfortably identify with the male or female gender you were assigned at birth—many others do not. Misgendering someone by using a pronoun for them that they do not identify with can be uncomfortable, alienating and offensive when done intentionally.

A good way to avoid making assumptions is to use people’s names and gender-neutral language and pronouns. For example, instead of addressing someone in writing or verbally as Mrs., Ms., Miss or Mr., simply use their name. When communicating with a group of people, use language like “you all,” “folks,” or “friends” rather than “ladies and gentlemen” or “you guys.”

It’s best to avoid explicitly asking someone what their correct gender pronoun is. Use nonbinary pronouns like “them” and “they” until you know someone’s correct pronouns. For instance, instead of saying “he gave a great presentation,” you could say “they gave a great presentation.”

2. Normalize people’s identity experience.

Using the correct pronouns for someone is extremely important. For those who are transgender or non-binary, it could be the difference between feeling welcome or not. Someone might proactively tell you their correct pronouns or you may see it in their email signature as “they/them/theirs,” “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his” or something different. In that case, take note of their preference and be sure to use the correct pronoun when addressing them.

You could also consider including your pronouns in your email signature. This gesture is meaningful because it helps normalize the communication of pronouns and can make someone who is transgender or non-binary feel more comfortable sharing their correct gender pronouns with you.

3. Be sensitive to how behavior shapes workplace experience.

Recognizing, respecting and celebrating our unique identities in the workplace can be as subtle as normalizing the existence of different experiences. This shouldn’t be confused with taking actions that overcompensate or draw unwanted attention which could do more harm than good. It’s simply the act of accepting the range of experiences we have as humans and behaving in a way that allows all of your colleagues to come to work and function normally.

If the HR department at your company has issued formal gender identity and transition guidelines, consider reading them to get a better idea of the obstacles those who are transgender and non-binary may face to being their authentic selves at work. You might find a greater capacity to empathize with their experience and a better understanding of just how important it is to help our trans and non-binary colleagues feel safe and welcome in the workplace.

Related: How to Talk About Race, Gender and Social Issues at Work

4. Practice sincere acceptance.

It’s also important to genuinely accept that people who identify as transgender and non-binary actually exist and are not an abstract idea. Trans and non-binary people often bear the burden of having others question the validity of their identity. Not only is this inappropriate in the workplace, but it lacks compassion for and consideration of individual human experiences that are necessary to build a healthy and inclusive professional environment. Practicing sincere acceptance of your trans and non-binary colleagues or professional contacts is part of being a respectful coworker.

Read more: What is Respect in the Workplace?

5. Recognize microaggressions.

Microaggressions can be defined as everyday indignities or insults that underrepresented communities, including transgender and non-binary, experience in their day-to-day interactions. Microaggressions can be obvious or subtle, intentional or unintentional and can have lasting effects on individuals over time. For instance, misgendering a colleague or making a crude joke about the trans or non-binary community would both be considered microaggressions.

It’s important to understand that being the recipient of a microaggression can feel alienating and stressful. Part of being an ally in the workplace is speaking up when you witness the oppression of a colleague or community.

However, if you aren’t trans or non-binary, it may be challenging for you to notice when it happens—or the receiving individual may not feel comfortable with you confronting the microaggression in the moment. If you think you’ve witnessed a microaggression but aren’t sure, consider talking to a trusted coworker, manager or HR representative about the situation (especially if they were present when the comment was made).

There are multiple ways to address a microaggression against a colleague when you witness it, and while the appropriate response will depend on the particular situation, an assertive approach (calm discussion and education) might be useful in most contexts at work.

Once you’ve confirmed the act of a microaggression, it could be as easy as saying, “You misgendered [name of the person]. Remember to use [their correct pronoun].” Alternatively, it could be constructive to take the individual aside and calmly educate them on how the comment or action may have been discriminatorily charged. For example, “I’m sure you didn’t know at the time, but what you said earlier was offensive and transphobic because…”

Read more: How to Handle Microaggressions in the Workplace

6. Identify your implicit biases and attitudes.

We often carry hidden biases from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. These biases affect our perceptions of social groups and shape our judgments about people’s character, abilities and potential—sometimes unintentionally. Consider taking steps to learn more about unconscious bias to help you build self-awareness, confront your personal biases and work to ensure that your actions in the workplace aren’t harming others.

Related: 23 Films, Podcasts and Books to Be A Better Ally at Work

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