Over the past few years, we’ve seen a large uptick in the amount of career programs and networking groups for women. All kinds of fields are making an inspiring push to be more inclusive — everywhere from business and tech to art, writing, and agriculture.
These initiatives are massively important (and long overdue), but they often leave out some of our most vulnerable people. Specifically, the movement of “Women In…” often fails to take into account those who are transgender, non-binary, or otherwise marginalized because of their gender identity.
Some organizations are beginning to take steps to be more inclusive by outlining in their mission statement that they welcome both women and non-binary people. However, this approach only scratches the surface of the needs for inclusion of diverse genders. While it’s certainly a good start, I’m here to discuss why the language of “Women and Non-Binary” can be problematic and how we can do better.
If your goal is to uplift marginalized genders, stating that your opportunity is open to “Women and Non-Binary people” has two important pitfalls:
Pitfall #1: Including non-binary people in feminine coded spaces perpetuates the misconception that all non-binary people identify with aspects of femininity.
Non-binary people have a variety of identities. They can feel masculine, feminine, neither, both, fluid — the list goes on. This means that equating non-binary people with women may work for some individuals, but leaves out many more.
While it’s admirable that so many organizations are seeking to be more inclusive of non-binary people, this language has the opposite effect, lumping people into the binary that they are trying to escape in the first place.
This problem is magnified when a group states that they include non-binary people but has a female coded name like “Women In ___”. While it’s admirable that so many organizations are seeking to be more inclusive of non-binary people, this language has the opposite effect, lumping people into the binary that they are trying to escape in the first place.
It’s true that this concern doesn’t apply to all non-binary people — some feel comfortable or even affirmed by being included with femininity. However, for every non-binary person who is comfortable navigating a “women’s” space, there is another on the sidelines who feels excluded. At best, this leads to people suppressing parts of their identity to access the support networks they need. At worst, it leads to non-binary people being isolated and quitting their career entirely.
Pitfall #2: Focusing only on non-binary people and women leaves out trans men, who are often overlooked and need just as much support.
Trans men are in a uniquely difficult situation when it comes to diversity initiatives. Trans men have often experienced years of discrimination and disadvantages due to society perceiving them as female, but once they come out as male, they can no longer access the career support they need. While some trans men may eventually experience aspects of male privilege, many others don’t “pass” as male and are often still effectively treated as women in the workplace.
This means that despite their male identity, trans men still frequently encounter discrimination and bias. However, trans men often can’t access support to overcome these problems because resources are primarily targeted towards those who identify as women.
This dilemma leaves trans men at an impasse where they’re excluded from opportunities for equity on both sides. While trans men may experience similar roadblocks to cis women, their identities are fundamentally different. Trans men need to be able to access career support without having to suppress their male identities, which requires us to expand our language around initiatives designed to uplift marginalized genders.
The solution to these problems is surprisingly straightforward: just change your language!
Before I dive into the details on how to do that, I want to be give an important disclaimer: If the goal of your initiative is only to include women, that’s acceptable as long as you aren’t limiting the opportunity to cis women. There is a need for women to have their own safe spaces, just as there’s a need for non-binary people, POC, and other minority groups to have places to discuss their specific experiences.
If the goal of your initiative is only to include women, that’s acceptable as long as you aren’t limiting the opportunity to cis women.
However, if your goals are to appeal to people of all marginalized genders, then make sure that your language signals that appropriately. To do this, I advocate for sticking to the following rules:
Rule #1: Remove gendered terms from your group’s name.
For example, Instead of “Women In Games”, you could say “Diverse Genders In Games” or “Marginalized Genders In Games”. This rule also applies to names that don’t explicitly say “Women” but are still coded feminine. For example, a transmasculine person may not feel comfortable attending a group called Code Cuties, but might feel more welcome if it was called Code Picnic. Updating your organization’s name to remove gendered connotations not only makes trans and non-binary people feel more welcome, but can also be more inviting to cis women who don’t like to be identified by their “cuteness” or femininity.
(Side note: if anyone out there is actually running an event called Code Cuties, please let me know — I would love to come.)
Rule #2: Avoid language that lumps non-binary people in with a binary gender.
Instead of “We’re looking for proposals from women and non-binary people,” you could say “We’re looking for proposals from creators with underrepresented genders. This includes cis women, trans women, trans men, non-binary people, and those who are otherwise marginalized.”
Rule #3: Be specific about who is included in your mission statement.
Being specific in your mission statement makes it clear to marginalized people that they’re welcome and safe in your environment. As a trans or gender variant person, seeing someone explicitly state that you’re included can alleviate a huge amount of worry about participating in a social situation. If your initiative is solely for women, be clear that this includes trans women. If your initiative is for all marginalized genders, be clear that everyone is welcome including non-binary people, trans men, and those who may be questioning their gender.
Rule #4: Use inclusive language when communicating with group members.
Great! You’ve followed rules 1–3 and have a variety of awesome gender-variant people in your organization. Now, in order to keep them there, you’ll need to think critically about the language you use when interacting with your network.
On a basic level, be mindful of everyone’s pronouns, and take time to speak carefully to avoid mistakes. Encourage everyone, especially cis people, to share their pronouns when introducing themselves (though don’t force anyone to do this if they’re not comfortable). If you run an online community like a Slack or Discord, make it a standard to include pronoun tags next to everyone’s username.
Continue to follow rule #1 by ensuring the language you use isn’t gendered — instead of “Hey Ladies”, try fun alternatives like “Everyone”, “Folx”, or “Y’all”.
Following the rules above won’t magically make your space perfectly inclusive, but it will go a long way. These rules are a vital starting point to help people with diverse genders feel more comfortable in your space — and once they do, they’ll recruit their friends, and those people will recruit their friends, and so on, until you have a critical mass of amazing humans.