Edit : I updated the section on inclusive language to include the term “FINTA”.
I originally wrote this piece for our documentation at Gorillas in order to advocate for a more inclusive workplace. After having mentioned it on Twitter and been requested it a few times, I decided to publish it. I hope this helps!
Table of contents
It helps trying to see gender as some sort of a spectrum rather than a binary thing. Most people live somewhere on the edges of that spectrum, as men and women, usually on the side that correlates with their assigned sex at birth. A lot of people however live somewhere on that spectrum. That’s gender identity, the personal sense of one’s own gender. Then, there is gender expression, which is how one decides to show their gender identity to the world (via mannerisms, interests, physical appearance…).
Gender and sex are somewhat related, but do not hold a one-to-one equivalency. Both words should not be used interchangeably. The right word should be picked depending on context, and most often it should be “gender”.
People who are not cis—that is, who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—have existed for the longest time. It is not a recent invention or a product of our time. We have many historical evidences that trans people have been part of society, one way or another, for basically ever. It’s important to understand what it means not to perpetuate prejudices against this under-represented group of people.
Generally speaking, we tend to use non-binary as an umbrella term for anyone who’s not a woman or a man (regardless of whether they transitioned). It’s a pretty generic term. Some people use it but others might prefer something more specific to describe who they are. For instance, some people are agender (as in, they have no gender), other are gender-fluid, bigender, non-binary trans…
It might sound like a lot of jargon, and even a little silly sometimes, but we have to remember that words are what we need to make things real and concrete. The rise of such somewhat convoluted terminology is not an attempt to confuse or frustrate people but an effort to try to best understand one’s gender identity.
- Gender identity is the personal sense of one’s own gender. Gender expression is how one decides to express their gender identity to the world (via mannerisms, interests, physical appearance…).
- Cis means to identify with the gender one is assigned at birth. For instance, a woman is said cis if she is born female and identify as a woman.
- Some trans people, especially after having gone through transition, identify as man or woman. They don’t owe anyone the trans prefix. They’re men and woman just as others.
- “Non-binary” is an umbrella term for people who are not men or women. There are many variations and specific terms within it for people to describe more precisely what their gender is.
- The term preferred whether it sits before name or gender is not as helpful as it is often intended, as preference implies it’s somewhat okay not to respect it. It’s never okay not to respect someone’s usual name, gender or pronouns.
- Avoid using custom, other or X to describe a trans’ person’s gender as these terms can feel quite alienating. Refer to the section on collecting gender for more information.
Let’s briefly talk about pronouns because pronouns are important. They are how many languages convey a sense of gender. English being a great language, it has a neutral pronoun they/them. It is encouraged to use it when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or undescribed.
Some people might prefer others using these pronouns when referring to them to avoid conveying one gender or the other—it’s neutral that way. Kindly respect that. It’s not a whim, it’s how to establish one’s sense of self and being respected for who one is. It matters, even when they’re not around to hear it.
Not all non-binary people use they/them pronouns. Not all men/women use he/she pronouns. It depends on one’s gender expression.
You can help trans and non-binary people by setting your pronouns on Slack (and other personal profiles) even if you are cis (as in, you use the pronouns going with the sex assigned at birth). This normalizes the respect of people’s pronouns and shifts the focus away from trans and non-binary people by avoiding them being the only ones talking about pronouns.
- Do not assume someone’s gender based on how they look or what their name is.
- Respect people’s pronouns. When misgendering someone, kindly apologize and move on.
- Default to they/them as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to people’s who gender is unknown or undescribed.
- Don’t ask openly trans people intimate questions about their anatomy.
- In gendered language such as French or German, prefer inclusive writing to avoid defaulting to masculine language.
Collecting gender information
Generally speaking, the advice about gender is not to collect it if you don’t need it, and if you do need it, explicitly mention why, so people know how best to fill it. For instance, being non-binary in a country which does not recognize it as a legal gender identity can be challenging. So if you need the gender as defined on official documents, it’s good to mention that next to the field.
If you collect the gender for internal statistics, and gender gap/bias analysis, then it’s also good to mention it. In such case, you can be a bit more permissive with the options. Ideally, a free text option is best, but it’s harder to process, so we can provide multiple choices instead.
- Woman (better than female, which is more of a biological term)
- Man (better than male)
- Non-binary (umbrella term for trans identities)
- Prefer not to say (if possible)
Something a little more fleshed out (and therefore more respectful) would be:
- Two-spirit (a gender specific to Native American traditions)
It is better to avoid the words custom, other or X, as all can feel a little alienating to trans people.
- Prefer not to say
Another important thing to mention is the availability of such information. Some people might not be comfortable openly disclosing themselves as trans, yet they might want to be recognized as such in some contexts.
For that reason, it is always a good idea to specify who has access to that information in order to avoid inadvertently outing people. Having something as simple as “Your gender will be visible to all employees” or “Your gender will be restricted to People Operations team and will be treated as confidential information” is good, for example.
There is a lot of discussion about the best way to phrase “people who do not identify as cisgender men.” There are a couple of options which range from sub-optimal to downright terrible, and I thought it might be helpful to walk through some of them.
- Women: Pretty exclusive as it doesn’t include trans men and non-binary people. Fine to use when you want to say just that: women (cis and trans alike), but not good enough if you want to address everyone who’s not a cis man.
- Women & non-binary: Better, but still doesn’t account for trans men. It also treats non-binary people as “women lite”, which might or might not be the case depending on the person. It can also feel awkward for AMAB non-binary people.
- Non men: Generally not bad, as this gets pretty close to the goal, which is to address everyone who’s not a cis man. Still, it erases trans men, which is something that already happens to often.
- Womyn: This term has been co-opted by the trans-exclusive radical feminism movement to explicitly single out trans women, so this is awful.
- Womxn: Slightly better, but might be considered an attempt at implying that trans women are not real women by going out of one’s way not to just say “women”, so also no. And again, doesn’t account for trans men anyway.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, it depends a lot on what we’re trying to say of course. Yet, a pretty inclusive expression would be “under-represented genders” or “marginalized genders”, as it covers everyone who’s not a cis man. It doesn’t quite roll on the tongue, but at least it’s all encompassing and doesn’t exclusive or erase any group.
There is also the German acronym FINTA which stands for “Frauen, Intergeschlechtliche, Nicht-binäre, Trans und Agender” and translates into “Female, Intersex, Non-binary, Trans and Agender.” This is a pretty great and inclusive term, although it’s not exactly obvious from the get go (since it’s an acronym). Nevertheless, it is my preferred term in circles where it can be established and further used.