At work, Chris Rosario sticks to trousers and button-down shirts.
But on the weekends, his look is different. Flowing dresses, bold prints and vibrant colors accompany his thick beard.
The 33-year-old content manager was born “he.” But today he describes himself as gender queer, living and dressing as neither male nor female, but somewhere along the spectrum between them.
“At work I’m typically in more male dress,” Rosario said. “It’s not that I’m hiding. The individuals I’m close to and work with know who I am and see pictures of my weekend outfits.”
Helping Rosario and his co-workers with those conversations is his employer, IBM, one of a number of companies pushing into uncharted territory — making their workplaces inclusive and welcoming for people who don’t define themselves as male or female, and don’t use “Mr.” or “Ms.,” “he” or “she,” but instead consider themselves a “they.”
There are a number of terms for people who describe themselves as identifying as neither male nor female, identify as both, or reject gender labels entirely: gender fluid, gender neutral, gender queer or gender nonconforming.
About 3% of people between the ages of 18 and 35 identify as gender neutral, according to a 2017 Harris Poll commissioned by GLADD, an LGBTQ advocacy group. Advocates expect that percentage to increase as younger generations who are more open about gender identity enter the workforce.
Indeed, a Pew Research report earlier this year found that in Generation Z, 35% of those between the ages of 13 and 21 in 2018 said they know someone who identifies with gender-neutral pronouns. And 59% said forms and online profiles should offer people another way to identify other than “man” or “woman.”
Redefining a workplace as some employees redefine themselves has meant challenges on both sides of the desk. For nonbinary workers, it’s explaining who you are to your bosses and colleagues and getting them to understand it, accept it and use the right pronoun. For employers, it’s making the office an environment that is accepting of nonbinary employees and in turn, changing workplace dress codes, the company directory, personnel manuals and longstanding forms that require employees to check off boxes identifying them as “male” or “female.”
For years, corporate America has worked to create safe and friendly workplaces for their LGBTQIA — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, and now LGBTQIA with the addition of intersex and asexual — employees. That has included adding same-sex partners to health plans and covering gender transition surgery. Earlier this month, more than 200 companies showed their support for employees by urging the U.S. Supreme Court to decide that federal civil rights laws protect gay and transgender workers from job discrimination.
But with increased attention on people who do not identify as either sex, employers are again calling consultants and advocacy groups in search of guidance and advice.
“We’re at a particular moment where there’s more conversation around nonbinary people,” said Beck Bailey, director of the Workplace Equality Program at the Human Rights Campaign. “We live in an incredibly gendered society … and companies are really exploring their strong commitments to diversity and inclusion.”
At IBM Cloud, Rosario talks to employees about the company’s policy of allowing employees to list their pronouns — he/his/him, she/her/hers or for gender neutral workers, they/them/theirs — in the company’s human resources system and in the company directory. IBM also published a white paper on gender transition in a global workplace, a best-practices guide for companies to help their transitioning employees.
Rosario is part of a volunteer mentoring group that pairs managers with LGBTQIA employees to promote a greater understanding of issues. “It provides a safe space to educate themselves so they can cast that down to their team,” he said.
One of the trickiest parts? Which pronouns to use: The answer is “they” for the subject, “them” for the object and “theirs” for the possessive.
What is known as the pronoun go-round, in which people introduce themselves and the pronouns they use at meetings and conferences is more common in the nonprofit and academic worlds. The go-round and specifying pronouns in email signatures are still relatively new and evolving practices in the private sector, advocates say. They can also be difficult to master, since it’s not the grammar taught in elementary school.
“Soon this will take off and be much more widespread in the mainstream,” said Deena Fidas, managing director of global stakeholder engagement at Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a San-Francisco-based nonprofit group. “A lot of this work is how you make a house a home,” she said. “These types of practices go beyond benefits and personnel manuals.”
But like most movements for change, there is a learning curve.
Fidas said it has taken time for transgender people to make strides in the workplace, and she anticipates a similar path for nonbinary people. “At this moment in time, almost two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies have changed their plans to provide coverage for people going through a gender transition,” she said. “That took five to eight years of training, best-practice sharing, dialogue and education.”
Recognizing pronouns is just a part of the work companies must do to create a gender neutral-friendly workplace, according to Jen Manion, an associate professor of history at Amherst College, who has written extensively about gender and sexuality.
“Human resources practices are usually very binary,” Manion said, explaining that most employee forms and records require employees to check “male” or “female.” “There’s not even a place for you to exist in the (HR) system.”
At the same time, gender-neutral bathrooms are a bigger step forward than meetings in which people go around the room stating the pronouns they use, she said
Groups such as Out & Equal and the Human Rights Campaign act as educators to field questions companies may have about the needs of nonbinary workers and how to make their offices welcoming and supportive environments for them.
“Right now in corporate America, a nonbinary person may have to do double and triple duty as an educator, advocate and finding support,” Fidas said. “These conversations about nonbinary employees are about need, more reactive than proactive, she added. “We might be at an inflection point where companies are trying to figure out how to do this better.”
IBM prides itself on being among the leaders working on the issue, according to Maria Menendez, a technical executive for IBM Cloud and the local head of IBM’s LGBTQ resource group.
The company has long allowed employees to include their pronouns in their email signatures and recently created a system where people can log their pronouns and nonbinary identification in HR forms and the company directory. “This is so important for people who are working at and joining IBM,” she said. “I want them to know that from day one this is a safe and welcoming environment where they can bring their whole self.”
More than two years ago when Avery Matthew came out at work as nonbinary, the then-senior recruiting manager distributed a handout to colleagues at the Loop-based Brilliant Staffing. On the sheet were several questions and answers about what nonbinary means and also a list of what not to ask Matthew, who has worked for the firm for more than seven years. One question not to ask on the handout: “Are you planning to have surgery or change your body?”
“It’s obviously an emotional time when you’re transitioning,” Matthew said. “You feel vulnerable.”
Matthew said the company was supportive and Matthew’s manager sent out an email explaining their coming out. But when their boss asked Matthew to speak to the staff of about 80, Matthew declined and instead met with employees in small groups.
For Matthew’s boss, Kathy Spearing, what she called “over-communicating” helped. “Avery sat down and explained their journey,” said Spearing, president of Brilliant Staffing, who was Matthew’s manager at the time. “It allowed the opportunity for questions and answers for everyone. If anyone wasn’t comfortable, they could ask Avery one-on-one.”
Matthew said while most people are accepting, some colleagues still stumble over the appropriate pronoun to use. “After two years, we should be able to know these things.” Matthew said. “It becomes emotionally exhausting to have to correct people.”
Another challenge: The company doesn’t have space for gender-neutral bathrooms, so Matthew uses both. But Matthew would prefer having there be a bathroom to walk into without worrying about people’s reactions.
Advocates say these are the difficulties nonbinary people face daily in the workplace that other people take for granted. Gender, advocates point out, is an assumption based on aesthetics.
Out & Equal, the advocacy group, has a guide for employers explaining how to address nonbinary employees, including an explanation of what nonbinary is, and a pronoun primer. It also explains language employees can use to be more inclusive — such as using the term “you all,” or “y’all” to address a meeting instead of “guys” or “ladies and gentlemen.”
“We are constantly putting people in boxes that they may not identify with,” Matthew said. “Whenever you’re assuming who someone is, you may not be right. You need to allow them to tell you who they are.”