27 September 2023

Break the binary at work

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Lori Nishiura Mackenzie* discusses how to understand and use gender-inclusive language.

While you may think you’re creating a sense of belonging for all, the words you use could be sending a different message.

Understanding and practicing gender-inclusive language can help you align your impact with your intention.

In this post, I’ll cover some essential concepts for understanding gender and gender identity that can help you be a more inclusive colleague.

Becoming skilled at gender-inclusive language is a learning journey more than a destination.

Gender is a field that continues to evolve from lived experiences and academic study.

The list of concepts I share here is not complete.

Gender concepts are much more expansive and ever-evolving.

The list is also not complete because some of the meanings may sound like a definition, but the lived experience is much more nuanced and personal than I can offer in this post.

To learn more about gender identity, the negative impacts of gender-exclusive language, and strategies for using gender-inclusive language, check out my LinkedIn Learning course, Using Gender Inclusive Language.


Gender refers to socio-cultural norms, identities, and behaviours.

Gender is more complex than this simple definition, but here’s a starting point.

Gender has two components, gender identity and gender expression.

I’ll discuss gender identity first.

Gender Identity

Gender identity refers to how a person identifies.

Gender identity is broad and can include identifying as a man and identifying as a woman.

Gender identity also includes transgender and gender nonbinary.

Transgender is an umbrella term for individuals whose gender identity differs from that typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth and can include a range of gender identities.

When a person’s birth sex assignment matches their self-identified gender, this is called cisgender.

Other individuals do not identify with gender as binary altogether and may self-identify as genderqueer, non-binary, genderfluid, bigender, pangender, a-gender, and/or two-spirit.

The acronym TGNC or transgender nonconforming is an umbrella term that refers to transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

A cisperson can be a ciswoman or a cisman.

This means you identify your gender with the biological sex indicators you had at birth.

Gender expression

Gender expression is how a person publicly expresses or presents their gender.

This can include behaviours and outward appearances such as dress, hair, makeup, body language, and voice.

One’s gender expression may or may not match one’s gender identity, or maybe more expansive than simplified or stereotypical definitions.

Sometimes a person may not feel safe to match their gender expression to their gender identity.

Gendered Language

We often use gendered language without realizing it.

Even though English does not have gendered nouns (as is the case in Spanish, Russian and German, for example), we use many words in a gendered way.

For example, we use some words predominately for people we perceive as men and others, for those we perceive as women.

Try this experiment: for each of these words, see who comes to mind:






Then see if you can guess which words are more likely to be associated with “woman” and which with “man.”

Three ways to practice gender-inclusive allyship

That was a lot to take in.

Here are a few ideas I’ve developed to help me navigate this important and changing area.

  1. As an ally, use as expansive a term for gender as you can.

For example, instead of using woman or man, try using the terms identify as a woman and identify as a man.

When you are speaking about more than one person, try terms like folks, people, or everyone.

  1. Be supportive.

If a person identifies or expresses themselves in a way that is new to you, or if you do not understand the nuance or breadth, do not try to classify them or to explain what you’ve learned in this course.

  1. Move away from assumptions.

Do not assume that because you know some terms that you also know folks.

Remember that gender includes a person’s lived experience.

Do not assume you know what that is.

Sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are complex and nuanced.

Instead of looking for a definitive answer, I have instead committed to continue to learn and be inclusive.

I invite you to join me on this journey.

*Lori Nishiura Mackenzie is co-founder of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and lead strategist, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

This article first appeared at linkedin.com.

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