Dignity and respect should not be the preserve of the majority

Sheila Fahy

Today is International Pronouns Day, a day to educate others that a personal pronoun should be determined by the individual. Whether a person wants to be referred to as “he”, “she”, “they” or otherwise will depend on how the individual identifies, not traditional cues. The issue particularly affects transgender and non-binary individuals, and has led to the growing practice, which started in the academic and charity sectors, of including the pronoun by which they want to be identified in email signatures.

Imagine an employee who identifies as gender fluid or non-binary and asks her colleagues to use the pronouns “she” and “her”. The work colleagues refuse to do so, deliberately misgender her, and subject the individual to abusive jokes and insults. To compound matters, the employer is not particularly supportive, and there are challenges surrounding which toilet facilities to use.

This scenario is not fictional; it formed the basis of a discrimination claim to the employment tribunal in Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover earlier this year. Taylor’s employer argued that gender fluid/non-binary were outside the definition of gender reassignment under the Equality Act. Not so, held the employment tribunal; gender can be a spectrum, particularly when an individual transitions from the gender assigned at birth. Taylor was awarded aggravated damages because of the “egregious” way she was treated and the insensitive stance taken by the employer in defending the litigation.

Employer take-away

Whilst the case is only first instance, and the issue may affect a small number of employees, it nevertheless highlights that dignity and respect should not be the preserve of the majority. And it is for this reason that the education piece is so important. Employers should consider the following:

  • include a section on gender identity within Diversity and Inclusion training when discussing other protected characteristics;
  • employees should have access to a guide on appropriate language across all protected characteristics, which include terms on the gender and sexuality spectrum;
  • recruitment, promotion and equality materials should have gender inclusive language, allowing for non-binary gender categorisation;
  • line managers may need additional support when an individual is transitioning or their team includes gender fluid/non-binary employees; and
  • seek assistance from organisations like Stonewall, which have a wealth of materials to support HR, line managers and individuals. For example, Stonewall have written an excellent article on International Pronouns Day, which gives practical steps for those who want to start including pronouns in email signatures. https://www.stonewall.org.uk/about-us/news/international-pronouns-day

Even where employers take a considered and respectful approach to these issues, people make mistakes and may inadvertently misgender a colleague. A speedy and genuine apology is what is required in these circumstances. It’s a point that we make in our diversity and inclusion training: an apology is one of the most powerful and effective ways to show respect when mistakes are made.