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One of the common mistakes I see companies make on gender is (relatively) easy to fix

Many companies still present questions about gender in binary terms. Here’s how they can adapt their thinking to be more inclusive.

One of the common mistakes I see companies make on gender is (relatively) easy to fix
[Source photo: tomap49/iStock]
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Do you ask employees or customers to indicate their gender, and then include “male” and “female” as options?

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If so, you’re not alone. As someone who advises companies on creating inclusive environments that aren’t limited by the gender binary, I see this mistake frequently. It’s a mistake because “male” and “female” actually aren’t genders at all; they’re sex designations. “Women” and “men” are genders. With our understanding of gender in the midst of a transformation, companies that continue to make this error risk alienating current and potential customers and employees.

First, let’s talk about that transformation. Millennials have significantly different views of gender than the generations before them—and Gen Z’s views are even more expansive. Studies have shown that the majority of both groups believe that gender should be seen as a spectrum and the binary is outdated. Irregular Labs found that 23% of Gen Z plans to change their gender identity at least once in their lifetime.

Simply put, companies must learn the fundamentals of gender and adapt their approach if they want to continue to attract customers and employees for years to come.

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Gender and sex are not the same thing

On a surface level, this mistake—using sex identifiers when you’re talking about gender—is not very hard to fix. Replace “male” with “man” and “female” with “woman.” Generally speaking, we determine a baby’s sex (male, female) when they are born based on a quick look at their genitalia, while gender is more about how we see, identify, and express ourselves. Someone may have been designated as female for their sex on their birth certificate and identify their gender as a man; in this case, their gender is “man,” not “male” or “female.”

It’s also important to remember that “man” and “woman” are not the only two genders, and companies need to think about how to move beyond this binary thinking. (It’s worth noting that sex, like gender, is not a binary; estimates are that 1-1.7% of the human population has an intersex trait.) A report from Pew found that the majorities of both millennials and Gen Zers believe that forms should include options beyond “man” and “woman.” From job applications to customer profiles to market research surveys, you’ll want to be sure that you’re being as inclusive as possible. You can find more guidance here on that for forms specifically, including which fields to offer.

But . . . compliance!

One of the most common questions I get from the companies I work with, specifically in regards to employee forms, is: But what about compliance? Federal reporting requires us to report gender, and they’re still using sex designations and providing only two options. Well, first of all, that certainly needs to change! Government reporting should be updated to represent the diversity of gender identity.

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In the meantime, it’s not all that hard for your company to do the work—see some tips here. Additionally, we recommend gathering both employee sex and gender data for reporting purposes and other instances where your company can meaningfully use this information, such as uncovering patterns in recruitment offers versus acceptances through the lens of gender and sex. The important thing is that you’re not letting compliance drive your strategy on gender. Compliance can come later; inclusivity should come first, keeping your employees’ experiences top of mind.

When a binary mindset limits innovation

We now understand the importance of using gender rather than sex designations, and being sure that we’re not limiting this to the binary. But here’s another question to consider, particularly for customer-facing activity: Do you even need to know someone’s gender in the first place? And how are you using this information? This comes into play often with market research—nearly every researcher will ask about gender, and use this as a guiding principle in defining audience insights. But what if there are other ways to define your audience, outside of gender, that can ultimately be more nuanced and effective?

Freeing yourself from the binary and gender-based marketing or product development can lead to innovation. Consider toy brands like Hasbro, which no longer segments or targets toys by gender, the inclusive marketing of White Claw hard seltzer to all people, or Apple products, which focus on appealing to audiences outside of traditional gendered norms or tones.

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Digging deeper

Updating the terms you’re using is a (somewhat) easy fix. But at the root of this “mistake” is a deeper challenge: Many company leaders don’t have the tools or frameworks to truly understand the gender transformation that’s taking place. Gender is complex, and the language we use to talk about it is changing quickly. For those of us who grew up in a binary world, it can be a lot to wrap your head around. So know that you’re not alone if this all feels confusing.

That’s all the more reason why leaders—including and especially CEOs—must invest the time to learn about gender and how we can and must reimagine it across companies, rather than dismiss it as a passing fad or a niche issue that only affects a handful of employees. The alternative? Risking irrelevancy for the next generation of customers and employees.

Lisa Kenney is the CEO of Reimagine Gender, which specializes in consulting and training on gender-related matters.