When it comes to gender identity, one word can make all the difference. Often, we make assumptions about a person’s gender based on their appearance, and those assumptions could be quite wrong.
According to a guide published on National Public Radio’s website, “Gender identity is one's own internal sense of self and their gender, whether that is man, woman, neither or both. Unlike gender expression, gender identity is not outwardly visible to others.”
This is important because when we see a person based solely on their appearance, we’re making a snap judgment that may very well be incorrect. Today, people may identify with a gender not assigned to them at birth—or with no gender at all.
According to several organizations, including GLAAD, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Trans Journalists Association, Human Rights Campaign, and the American Psychological Association, there are several standards in place when referring to people’s sex and gender.
While a complete inclusive glossary can contain more than 50+ unique identifiers and key terms, each term is important. Often resistance to inclusive language manifests itself in the form of complaints that sound like,
"Why are there so many terms?" BiasSync's Chief Learning Officer & Organizational Strategist, Dr. Crystal Miller explains, "What’s most important about the distinctions is that they give context and richness to the multiple ways people have experienced, expressed, and come to understand gender. Having unique terminology supports the diversity, distinctiveness, and authentic representation."
Following is an abbreviated list of terms—a much more exhaustive one appears on NPR’s website and other sources.
Agender is an adjective that can describe a person who does not identify as any gender.
Cisgender, also known as cis, describes a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Gender is defined as a social construct of norms, behaviors, and roles that vary between societies and over time. Gender is usually categorized as male, female or nonbinary.
Gender dysphoria refers to the psychological distress that results from an incongruence between the sex assigned at one's birth and their gender identity. While not all trans people experience dysphoria, those who do may experience it at varying levels. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists gender dysphoria as a diagnosis. While some argue that this official diagnosis inappropriately “pathologizes gender incongruence, others believe that a diagnosis makes it easier for transgender people to access necessary medical treatment,” according to the various groups.
Gender-expansive can describe someone with a more flexible gender identity than might be associated with a typical gender binary. Gender expression is how a person presents gender outwardly, through their behavior, clothing, voice, or other characteristics. We recognize these cues as masculine or feminine, although what is considered masculine or feminine changes over time and can vary from culture to culture.
Gender fluid refers to an expression of or a person who does not identify with a single fixed gender.
Gender transition is a process a person may take to align their bodies with their gender identity. The process can include several steps, including telling one's friends, family, and co-workers; changing one's name and pronouns; updating legal documents; medical interventions such as hormone therapy; or surgical intervention.
Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people with differences in reproductive anatomy, chromosomes, or hormones that don't fit typical definitions of male and female.
Nonbinary is a term people use when they do not believe their genders fit neatly into the categories of man or woman. A range of terms refers to these experiences with nonbinary and genderqueer among them.
Sex is a person's biological status, is typically assigned at birth, “usually on the basis of external anatomy … [and] typically categorized as male, female or intersex,” according to the various organizations.
Sexual orientation refers to the enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or other genders, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and straight orientations.
Transgender, or trans, describes someone whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth. A transgender man, for example, is someone who was listed as female at birth but whose gender identity is male.
Along with a set of words describing sex and gender, often people identify with certain pronouns. A gay man, for example, may identify as “she” or “they.” On the other hand, a straight individual may also identify as “they.”
- Feminine: she/her/hers
- Masculine: he/him/his
- Gender Neutral: they/them/their
- Gender Neutral: ze/zir/zirs
- Gender Neutral: ze/hir/hirs
"Pronouns are basically how we identify ourselves apart from our name. It's how someone refers to you in conversation," according to Mary Emily O'Hara, a communications officer at GLAAD, "And when you're speaking to people, it's a really simple way to affirm their identity."
O’Hara also told NPR that “using the correct pronouns for trans and nonbinary youth is a way to let them know that you see them, you affirm them, you accept them and to let them know that they're loved during a time when they're really being targeted by so many discriminatory anti-trans state laws and policies. It's really just about letting someone know that you accept their identity. And it's as simple as that."
Getting the words right is about respect and accuracy, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. And you can start by offering your own. Then inquire about the person you’re introducing yourself to—for example, "My pronouns are he/him. What about you?”
Dr. Miller adds, "Disclosing pronouns is a powerful act in allyship and solidarity. Due to heteronormativity, or the assumption of traditional gender roles and sexual orientation, people often assume individuals identify with he/she pronouns based upon how they look. In disclosing pronouns upfront, we remind everyone not to make assumptions, empower others to share the terms that most closely align with their authentic self, and help to create a respectful and more inclusive environment."
Showing sensitivity toward someone’s personal choice is a big step in conquering bias, particularly when it comes to gender. Learn more about gender in the workplace, unconscious bias against LGBTQ, and how to overcome stereotypes and bias.
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