Dear Businesslady: How Do I Respect My Coworker’s Gender (and My Own)?

Advice for the trans/nonbinary and their maybe-not-quite-woke-yet colleagues

Photo credit: Gpeltier, CC0 Public Domain.

Dear Businesslady,

I’m looking for suggestions on navigating the professional world as a trans nonbinary/gender-noncomforming person. I’ve been working at the same organization for about six years, and as part of my transition toward living as my authentic self, I asked my coworkers to begin using gender-neutral pronouns (“they/them”) about six months ago. I went through HR first to ensure I was following company protocol, and I thought — naively, I guess — that it would be an easy transition since my coworkers already know that I am nonbinary. (I have even been open about how ill-fitting and awkward my assigned-at-birth pronouns felt and that it was possible I would change them at some point.) I anticipated some pushback given that my coworkers all comfortably identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, but I was not prepared for the avalanche of pushback that I’ve received.

While my colleagues are verbally supportive, they slip a lot. One coworker became defensive and downright belligerent when I reminded them, and they’re one of several coworkers who pointedly go out of their way to avoid using any pronouns at all. Others make painfully unfunny jokes. I’ve talked with employment lawyers who agree that the treatment is discriminatory, yet HR and my boss remain unwilling to intervene in any kind of meaningful way. Worse, HR has been dismissive of my concerns and the pain that this is causing me. I’m considering legal action, but I’m not sure I have the energy to go through with everything that entails — and beyond that, it’s going to cost a lot of money I don’t exactly have. (I’m accepting donations in case there are any generous, gender-equality-minded souls out there.) That said, I’m curious about any wisdom you might have about working with an employment attorney. [I don’t, alas, so I’m opening this up for crowdsourcing if readers have tips! ~B’lady]

Beyond that, since it’s clear that this position is no longer a good fit for me, I’d love advice on how to address my gender in applications and interviews, as well as general strategies for job-searching and finding a more supportive workplace (especially if there are any phrases or keywords in job postings that are red flags for a toxic environment). I would also be into ways of maintaining a healthy work/life balance for the rest of my tenure here — with the emphasis being on “life” considering how little respect my workplace overall has shown me.

Thanks much,

— Hopeful survivor of the HRpocalypse

Dear Hopeful Survivor,

I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I’m also sorry that there are probably people reading this who think you’re both manufacturing a problem and propagating bad grammar — although, to anyone entrenched in that perspective, I’d like to offer some counterarguments if you’ll bear with me.

I know it can be hard to process what it means for someone to transition from one gender to another, or to carve out space for themselves between the traditionally accepted categories of man/woman. Like, what even is gender, and what happens if we all stop adhering to the time-honored traditions of a genitally determined dichotomy? Will society as we know it collapse, leading to canine/feline cohabitation and other side effects of mass hysteria?

I don’t know! But I do know that despite the countless people who’ve devoted their entire lives and careers to solving the Mystery of Gender, no overarching consensus exists. Still, nonbinary/trans/other gender-nonconforming people do exist — and they’re in the workforce like everyone else — so I’m going to focus my energies on doing right by them.

For every person railing against gender diversity, I’m sure there are even more readers who are rolling their eyes at the prospect of having to rehash this yet again. With that in mind, I’m breaking my answer up into three parts as follows.

  • First: Why it’s worthwhile to respect your coworkers’ pronouns.
  • Then: How to actually demonstrate that respect in practice.
  • Finally, at long last: Career development tips for the letter-writer and others in a similar position.

I should add that I’m far from an expert on this subject, and that I’d welcome corrections and additions in the comments. I’m grateful to folks I’ve met on Tumblr, members of the Toast Slack group, and IRL friends for the insights that have helped shape my thinking, and for many of the links that I share below.

I get that this is new territory for many, so if you’d like to process it with someone, I’d be happy to volunteer as an email sounding board and share my own perspective — even if I don’t change your mind. Now, onward!

For the Pronoun Pedantic

First of all, the Chicago Manual of Style accepts the use of the singular “they,” especially when it’s an individual’s preferred pronoun. It’s common knowledge that such usage has a long history, and it’s perfectly clear to contemporary audiences.

More importantly, any true grammar enthusiast should respect the power of a house style guide. If you can learn how to use an en dash, whether or not to deploy a serial comma, and what terms get capitalized, then you can remember to use “they,” or switch from “he” to “she,” or whatever your colleague is asking of you. Respecting your coworkers is a mandate that supersedes any other consideration — you don’t have to like it, but them’s the rules.

Respecting your coworkers is a mandate that supersedes any other consideration.

You have to ask yourself: what is the point of pushing back against a request like this? Ultimately it’s no different from adapting to a new last name due to marriage, or realizing you’ve been mispronouncing someone’s first name wrong for months. Would you dig in your heels and claim that their efforts to correct you are somehow their problem? Would you tease them about their “weird” name, as if they should find that hilarious? Sure, there are probably people out there who’d take that approach, but those people are bound and determined to create a toxic office culture.

Even if you’re super committed to the concept of a biologically ordained gender binary, you don’t have to express those beliefs to your colleagues. You acquiesce to all of the other esoteric local rules that your workplace enforces (including, you know, showing up to work at all instead of leading a life of luxurious leisure). Your job is to contribute, and you’re not contributing productively to your organization if you’re causing harm to those around you.

Remember: you don’t have to understand something in order to respect it. (For example: Giant squid! Gravity! Or magnets!)

I’d also argue that all gender identity is complicated, and that cis people just get a lot more leeway when figuring out their own particular performance of it. I suspect that at least some of the resistance out there to “nontraditional” gender positions is a form of… I don’t know, jealousy? It evokes the mentality of “I had to walk uphill in the snow both ways to get to school, so you should suffer like I did” — even though that mindset tends to ignore the fact that the good ol’ days were often anything but. “Back in my day people with vaginas were called women and they unilaterally earned less money than men did, goshdangit. That was good enough for my grandmother and it should be good enough for you.” If you can just opt out of the entire system, then what’s stopping people from abandoning the man/woman labels in droves? And if that happens…well, see above re: the potential societal aftershocks. But while that’s an interesting question to ponder — or discuss over beers with friends who are interested in the dialogue — it’s beside the point.

Oh, and while I’d hope the “just be kind” argument was convincing enough, I should also note that it is a violation of federal law to discriminate against employees based on gender status. So while that’s harder to enforce in states that don’t have local protections (which…congrats?), I think it can be taken as a sign that the so-called sticklers are on the wrong side of history here.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, What It Means… Practically

So hey, you’re a cis person who has a trans/gender-nonconforming coworker! You’re not an asshole which means you’re totally on board with making them feel comfortable. Definitely the first step in that is to draw attention to Their Whole Deal as often as possible, right? To show how cool you are with it?

Hmm. Yeah, or not.

Like I’ve been saying, gender performance is complicated. It’s also not really something we talk about in the workplace, and I’m in favor of keeping it that way. Think of how weird it would be to say, “Hey, nice beard, Ed! Really makes you seem like more of a man.” Or “Charlotte! Lookin’ quite feminine today in that lipstick!” (In case it’s not clear, these are examples of bizarre things you should never say to your coworkers. If they seem perfectly normal to you, please stop.)

You’re allowed one sheepish comment like, “Hey, I’m new at this ‘calling-you-Mark’ thing, and I’m really hoping I don’t slip up.” But beyond that, just let people live.

That means treating everyone equally and maintaining a strict embargo against any discussion of genital equipment. (Added bonus: this is a good strategy for all professional scenarios, regardless of your coworkers’ gender identity!) If you’re a manager, it means not subjecting trans/gender-nonconforming staff to extra scrutiny, dress-code-wise or otherwise. It means finding everyone a bathroom they can comfortably use, and for everyone else, it means being comfortable with your coworkers’ presence in communal bathrooms — to the extent that anyone’s ever chill about having to poop within earshot of any other human being.

It means rolling with changes in your colleagues’ names, preferred pronouns, appearance, and so on. Don’t comment on the emergence or disappearance of secondary sex characteristics, and don’t assume that they’re planning on transitioning to a presentation that aligns with your mental image of Woman or Man.

If you’re really, really, unnerved by the prospect of being cubicle-mates with a trans or gender-nonconforming person, you might feel awkward about all this! That awkwardness is your own, to deal with as you would any Coworker Issue that isn’t actually a work problem.

We all have coworkers we’re incompatible with, and yet we collaborate with them regardless because that’s what it means to have a job. I’d love for you to come around to the idea that everyone deserves to live within a gender identity that works for them — but if that’s a bridge too far, then approach a genderqueer colleague like you would someone who talks about their kids too much, or who’s a thousand percent more into sports than you are, or who always smells vaguely like a basement for some reason.

If you’re super-keen on being accepting and helping make your office a safe space, well then yay! This should be easy, then. Just be congenially low-key, follow your coworker’s lead, and — crucially — do your part to call out any misgendering or other microaggressions that happen within earshot. (And if your workplace appears to be populated entirely by cis/ gender-conforming people, don’t worry: you can still shut down any gross jokes or comments, by which I mean, you should. Intolerance doesn’t magically become okay if there’s no one around who feels personally affronted by it.)

It’s a Rich Man’s Game No Matter What They Call It

So, about job-searching while nonbinary (or some variation thereof). You’re probably going to have to deal with occasional widened eyes at interviews, maybe even outright bigotry, and perhaps even the kind of “oh I thought we were cool but I guess not?” late-breaking betrayal like HRpocalypse is experiencing. I wish that weren’t true but I don’t want to sugar-coat it.

At the same time, while I’m force-feeding bitter pills, let’s not pretend that hiring managers don’t make snap judgments about all kinds of problematic things. Resumes get shitcanned for names that sound “ethnic” or degrees from particular schools. Interviewees get rejected because their handshakes were too firm, or not firm enough, or because they remind a key decision-maker of their ex. The professional realm is a microcosm of the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, religiously intolerant, weight-policing, ableist, frequently crappy world we all inhabit. And yet despite all the prejudices lurking in the minds of our fellow humans, people who aren’t straight white Christian men still manage to find jobs (even if the odds are unquestionably stacked against them). There are myriad studies out there showing the benefits of diversity, so I have hope that tolerance will continue to flourish during our lifetime.

But while we’re waiting for that glorious day, here’s how to deal with the current reality.

One thing to keep in mind is that job interviews are highly performative for everyone, regardless of gender identity. They involve dressing up in clothes you wouldn’t wear on a typical workday (let alone in “real life”), presenting yourself in a determinedly polished manner, and otherwise representing your best attempt at Neutral Professionalism. Some folks can get away with bending the rules and being unapologetically themselves — like if they’re a highly sought-after candidate with seniority, or especially if they have a healthy savings account that minimizes the impact of a jobless stretch. But not everyone has that privilege.

Of course, begrudgingly acquiescing to interview conventions by wearing a suit or dying your blue hair brown is not at all equivalent to intentionally misgendering yourself. It’s completely reasonable to draw a hard line on having your identity respected — maybe even necessary if you’re severely triggered by things like incorrect pronouns (and if that’s you, feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs).

On the other hand, in a culture that frowns on displays of individuality during the pre-hire phase, at this point you’ll likely be best served by going along with whatever assumptions people make — provided you can stomach the thought of seeming cis and your overall look aligns reasonably well with a factory-model gender. The details of your birth certificate and medical history aren’t any of your office’s concern, and it’s hard to imagine how it would help you to bring it up (unless you’re applying for a job with an advocacy group or somewhere your personal perspectives would be an asset).

Raise accommodations issues at the offer stage. Once an employer decides they want you, they’ll be more inclined to let you leave early on Thursdays or buy you a reinforced chair or whatever it is that you need. That’s the method I’d advocate here. It’s possible that the interview itself will give your prospective colleagues some indication that your gender identity is unconventional, but if your name/appearance is ambiguous — and you can handle the prospect of someone using the wrong pronouns in the course of a scheduling email — wait until you’ve got the job before confirming that everyone will be okay with your upcoming transition, preferred pronouns, or whatever your gender identity requires. Not because you have anything to hide, but because it saves you the burden of explaining your entire endealment to a bunch of strangers who probably weren’t going to hire you anyway. (And because explanation is a burden, I think you’re fully within your rights to remain in the closet indefinitely if you decide that’s best for your bank account and overall safety. We all keep aspects of our lives private from coworkers, and — can’t stress this enough! — your specific gender situation is not your employer’s business. We can celebrate the bravery of those who are openly trans or nonbinary without shaming those who aren’t able to make that leap.)

Still, what if you’re unwilling or unable to play along with the customary Man/Woman filing system? I guess the silver lining is a lower chance of getting hired by a cadre of intolerant jerks, because they’ll find ways to reject you — and while I know we all have to eat/pay rent/et cetera, you won’t thrive if you’re working somewhere that denies your basic humanity.

You won’t thrive if you’re working somewhere that denies your basic humanity.

For the recognizably gender-nonconforming, there are a couple options. The first is to just show up at interviews, let people make whatever surprised faces they make, and see what happens. (If you don’t get a call back, you can chalk it up to discrimination and feel righteously angry about it — or you can soothe yourself by remembering that “no call back” is the most probable outcome for any job interview, even if you’re Cis McWhitedude. Either way, you move on to the next application and repeat as necessary.) The second is to flag your identity at the outset: putting something like “pronouns: they/them” on your resume, or clarifying your pronouns if you kept your birth name after ditching your birth gender. Depending on the role, you might even sneak it into your cover letter — for jobs with orgs that serve queer communities or other marginalized groups, it wouldn’t be out-of-place to mention your firsthand experiences with cultural reprobation. For a subtler form of signaling, make sure your resume includes any volunteer experience you have that relates to LGBTQ+ issues.

Now, here’s the advice I promised for identifying supportive workplaces. As you’re perusing job ads, keep an eye out for anything that suggests insularity. While it’ll be context-dependent, I’d give extra scrutiny to any orgs that use potentially dogwhistley keywords like Small, Family, Traditional, Community, or any faith-based terminology (not that all religious groups are close-minded, of course, but the inclusive ones make their views pretty obvious). And speaking of obvious, I’d recommend seeking out offices that are actively courting gender-diverse candidates. It’s not unheard-of for postings to include blurbs about the organization’s commitment to nondiscriminatory hiring. Lip service? Maybe. But if a place specifically says “we consider all qualified applicants for employment without regard to sexual orientation, transgender status, [or] gender identity” (to quote the first result that came up when I searched “transgender” on, why not give them a chance to put their hiring money where their progressive-rhetoric mouth is? You should also remain attentive during all your interactions with a prospective employer, especially if you’re invited to an interview. What’s the vibe you’re getting, and does it feel welcoming? There’s nothing wrong with taking a job you know is a bad fit because you need the income, but you want a long-term position to be among like-minded people if at all possible.

More globally, I think as a society we should start moving away from the notion that tolerance is something that only marginalized people should care about. White people shouldn’t cheerfully work among racists, straight cis people shouldn’t be okay with antigay rhetoric or gender discrimination, and so on. During the post-offer, sussing-out-the-org phase, ask what policies are in place to address bias and promote diversity, how queer-friendly the leadership is, and so on. I’d encourage everyone to do this, regardless of whether or not they’d be personally affected by the answer, because change happens slowly and this is one way to accelerate it a bit. If a hiring manager realizes their best candidates always bail after hearing their lackluster approach to inclusivity, then maybe their desperate need for a competent IT manager will be the thing that finally prompts some meaningful progress.

We should start moving away from the notion that tolerance is something that only marginalized people should care about.

That seems like a good note to end on, even though there’s still so much more to say. And yikes, I didn’t even tackle the question of how to handle your remaining tenure at your current, unsupportive job! Fortunately (if that word can be used in the context of such an unfortunate situation), I dealt with something similar in a previous column so I’m hoping that’s useful to you.

Dear Businesslady: How Do I Avoid Getting Burned?

Billfold readers, friends, countrypeople, please chime in with any other advice you have to offer.

I’m especially interested in hearing from trans and gender-nonconforming folks who are willing to share feedback based on their own experiences — even if that feedback is “damn, Businesslady, you really shouldn’t’ve said [that thing].” After all, learning from mistakes is a vital part of professional development, and I’m not exempt from that here or at my day job. Let’s keep that in mind as we continue talking things through together.

— Businesslady

Questions? Email me!

Previous columns can be found here, the deep archives are here, and there’s a trove of previously unpublished material in my book.

Businesslady is in her early 30s and a successful professional despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. She currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet. She is the author of the “fun-yet-smart” career guide Is This Working?, which you should totally read.

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