Embracing Pronoun Equality

Social-organizational psychologist and leadership development expert Mekayla Castro shares her views on how to stop excluding or distressing non-binary talent.

As soon as two years from now Gen Z will make up 25 percent of the workforce. It’s a percentage that is only going to grow. If employers want to attract and secure this talent, they need to take their views and perspectives seriously.

One area worth noting is that Gen Z is the generation most likely to identify as gender fluid. In some surveys as many as 25 percent of Gen Z-ers are expected to change their gender identity at least once in their lifetime.

Reflecting these broader societal changes, questions around gender identity will become increasingly prevalent in the modern workplace. If so, what can CHROs do to address this issue? This is not just an issue of economics, but equal access and ethics.

It’s a basic principle of our human nature. We are fundamentally social and have a basic need for belonging and to matter to others, at work, and within society. Pronoun choice reflects a person’s sense of who they are, their identity. For psychological and physical health, individuals need their identities to be welcomed and validated by others, reinforcing a sense of belonging and mattering.

The unique challenges and barriers that nonbinary applicants face

Recently, it emerged that job seekers who choose to include “they/them” pronouns on resumes are less likely to be contacted by employers. Considering the ongoing labor shortage and fierce competition for top talent, this seems counterproductive as organizations may overlook outstanding potential hires when screening out applicants who include “they/them” pronouns on their resumes. Removing bias from your recruitment and hiring processes should be a responsibility every organization should uphold.

It’s also crucial to recognize that being misgendered during the application process is a significant concern for nonbinary applicants. People often make assumptions about gender based on one’s name and/or visible appearance. As a result, nonbinary applicants might face situations where they are misgendered. This places them in a position where they need to decide whether to correct the individual through self-disclosure or withhold their correct pronouns. If they haven’t received clear signals that they are in a gender identity-affirming environment, then it can make self-disclosure challenging and risky.

Even when nonbinary individuals are not directly misgendered, they still face the decision of whether, how, and when to disclose their pronouns during the application process. While all applicants face the reality of managing impressions throughout the hiring process, nonbinary applicants face the added pressure and stress of whether to share a core part of their identity that is currently marginalized and facing increased threat in our socio-political climate.

The importance of perspective-taking

There’s a significant likelihood that the average person might not be aware of the unique challenges and barriers that nonbinary applicants encounter. We don’t necessarily know or understand how other people experience the world.

However, failing to acknowledge these unique challenges can make it harder to create a recruiting experience that is inclusive and supportive of gender non-conforming individuals. Educating people on the psychological experience of anyone facing threats to their identity can greatly facilitate progress throughout your entire organization on this issue.

Based on my experience, specialized training content dedicated to gender inclusion and pronouns helps increase awareness of the psychological experience of identity threats. Even though the number of individuals identifying as nonbinary is increasing, many people have not had direct interactions or relationships with nonbinary individuals.

Two-fifths of people know someone who is non-binary, Pew Research finds. This lack of direct exposure results in a lack of awareness and understanding about the experiences faced by their nonbinary direct reports, peers, or leaders. This highlights the importance of training content that can help shed light on the complexity of gender diversity.

Debiasing processes, raising awareness, and providing relevant content, then, can all move the needle in addressing the pronoun exclusion hiring issue. However, there’s a further approach that can really help, which is building empathy through perspective-taking. This approach allows individuals to gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be the target of misgendering in a workplace.

In a Learning and Development (L&D) context, this can be done utilizing a range of immersive technologies such as virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR), augmented reality (AR), and 360-degree video. All leverage the power of “presence” to establish a genuinely experiential learning environment. By immersing users in these technologies, they can engage with scenarios from multiple sensory perspectives, creating a sense of beingpresent in the moment.

Organizations are turning to immersive tech for activating and sustaining behavior change

Experiencing presence also means you are open to feeling the emotions you would if it were happening directly to you. In the pronoun context, people can get more proximate to the perspective of someone navigating the process of disclosing their nonbinary gender identity to colleagues. This immersive experience allows them to see and feel firsthand the reactions and treatment, including potential misgendering, that nonbinary individuals may encounter.

Being on the receiving end of such experiences through immersive technology can foster a sense of empathy as people experience what it’s like to have a core and valued aspect of their identity being invalidated. Immersive technology has gained traction for corporate learning precisely because it enables people to connect more deeply with the cognitive, emotional, and physical impact of having one’s identity devalued or discounted.

For example, immersive technology can play a crucial role in fostering greater understanding and empathy when it comes to the pronoun question. After all, last year “He/they” was the most frequently used custom pronoun on LinkedIn, followed by “They/she.”

One of the immersive learning modules we offer, for example, follows Jordan, a junior employee who has just come out as non-binary in the workplace. Marvin, one of their colleagues who they partner closely with, is struggling to understand how to correctly use pronouns.

Marvin often makes Jordan feel uncomfortable by deadnaming and misgendering them. Users experience this scenario from both perspectives, learning what it’s like to have their identity disregarded from Jordan’s perspective, and then what it’s like to take accountability for one’s actions from Marvin’s perspective.

My belief is that everyone could benefit from taking a course that fosters gender inclusion through empathy building. Whether you are an HR professional, in senior management, or a frontline team member, everyone has a responsibility to help create an inclusive workplace. This commitment to inclusion is a valuable step toward a more equitable and collaborative workplace culture that so many of us—especially Gen Z and those just behind them—want to thrive in.

Dr Mekayla Castro
Dr Mekayla Castro is Head of Curriculum at immersive learning leader Praxis Labs