A recent survey by seniorliving.org asked parents several questions related to their parenting practices, including which sensitive topics they don’t want to talk about with their children. Guess which topic they dreaded the most? It wasn’t gun violence, sex, drugs or discrimination. It was gender identity.
My experience with corporations suggests that parents aren’t alone in their desire to avoid the topic of gender. It’s not surprising, because perceptions of gender are changing rapidly. A few years ago, the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group set out to see if these changing perceptions were a fad, but they discovered that gen-Z youth aged 13 to 20 see gender in significantly different ways than previous generations.
For companies and parents alike, this new reality can be, well, confusing. Gender feels like a landmine in many corporations, but today, it’s not an option to ignore it. Corporations that address gender effectively will reap tremendous benefits, both culturally and financially.
Start by understanding what gender is . . .
Gender is complicated, but it doesn’t need to be confusing. When I work with companies, I start by helping them establish a foundation of gender literacy. This starts with the understanding that gender and sex–while related–are not the same things. Sex is something that is assigned at birth, and our society tends to presume a person’s gender is based on that sex. But not everybody identifies with the gender-related ideas and assumptions that society imposes on their assigned sex, and this is particularly true for gen-Z and millennials (your current and future employees and customers) who embrace a more expansive and evolving sense of gender identity and expression. Companies can start the conversation by learning to speak the language.
. . . And what gender isn’t
I see a few ways that companies typically “address” the topic of gender. One is by grouping gender under the women’s issues umbrella–alongside topics like representation and pay equity. The other is by grouping gender as part of the LGBTQ conversation and assuming the company has “covered” gender if it has designed policies to meet the needs of transgender employees.
These are critical issues to address, but gender is not limited to women’s empowerment. It shouldn’t be something that you relegate to HR and employee resource groups or conflate with conversations about sexual orientation. Gender should be a core consideration for business leaders because it affects every aspect of the business and every employee at the company.
Consider how gender intersects with each part of your organization
What gender options do you give in recruitment systems? If you’re still giving only two options, you may be alienating potential talent. How do gender bias and stereotypes translate to market research information (that you use for product development)? If you’re crafting focus group questions based on outdated assumptions about gender, the findings may be faulty.
Are your customer-facing employees aware of how to communicate with customers who use non-binary gender language for themselves? If not, prepare to lose customers. How do ideas about gender influence marketing, packaging, messaging, and point of sale? If you market a product exclusively to young girls, for example, you may be missing out on a potential market segment and leaving money on the table. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner said that he “eliminated the old delineation of gender” across the company’s brands after learning that 30% of My Little Pony viewers worldwide were boys.
By bringing a “gender lens” to every aspect of your organization, you can be more strategic and intentional about creating products, processes, and policies that reflect the inclusive, expansive reality of gender today.
Acknowledge that gender affects everyone, no matter what your views on it are
When it comes to gender, no two experiences are the same. But societal norms around gender affects us in some way, and in a lot of instances restricts us from being our full selves. This can hamper creativity and innovation.
It’s time to provide people in our organizations with a richer, more nuanced understanding of gender. Companies need to encourage a culture where interests, styles, emotions, and careers are not limited by gender. Organizational leaders need to provide employees with ways to navigate gender in their specific disciplines successfully, in ways that will ultimately support the company’s bottom line. To bridge the generational divide on gender, those of us who were raised with a more limited view of gender need to stop avoiding the topic and take this as an opportunity to explore gender with new eyes. Our companies, our children, and our society will be better for it.
Lisa Kenney is the executive director of Gender Spectrum, a national nonprofit dedicated to creating gender-inclusive environments for all.