Social purpose

Unravelling gender linguistics

Companies need better information about their transgender employees in order to create a more inclusive environment

Do you know what it means to declare oneself as non-binary? The difference between being transsexual and transgender? Or the distinction between being gender-fluid and bi-gendered? If you do, congratulations.

You have passed the sexual language etiquette test and can progress to the next phase (maybe understanding the difference between being androgynous and hermaphrodite). If not, then welcome to the evolved and evolving world of gender linguistics and in particular to what has been labelled the last great sexual taboo of our times. Consider this.

According to the blog, an estimated three million of Britain’s 65 million people define themselves as transgender people, to some degree. In the US (population: 300 million), the answer is a comparably implausible 700,000, according to an August 2015 article on

Given the known numbers and the likelihood that they will be underestimates, the provision that British society makes for transgender people compares poorly with other societal groupings

And in the world, the transgender population could number as many as 35 million, according to a calculation based upon the 1:200-250 ratio devised by Lynn Conway, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, on Australian website (Conway, who was born and raised as a boy, was one of the very first transsexual women to undergo hormonal reassignment treatment in 1967. She was fired by IBM a year later for being transsexual.)

It’s clear that nobody really knows the total, not least because being openly transgender is still outlawed in some countries.

Yet, given the known numbers and the likelihood that they will be underestimates, the provision that British society makes for transgender people compares poorly with other societal groupings.

Conway notes that her estimated rate of one in 200 to 250 for global intense male to female transsexualism contrasts with the one-in-5,000 worldwide prevalence of the condition of muscular dystrophy, the one-in-1,000 rate for people with multiple sclerosis and the one-in-350 rate for blindness. Arguments will rage about whether such comparisons are accurate or even valid but, as Conway notes, all these stated conditions have profound impacts on people’s lives.

What does all this mean for communicators? Well, first of all, it is a politically-sensitive minefield of definitions. As with the battles for racial equality and gender equality, definitions are considered an important battlefield, particularly because in this case, transgender is considered a state of mind, rather than a matter of bodily fact.

Take these strictures, from the abcnews website article. Transgender is to be used as an adjective, rather than as a noun; the term ‘transgendered’ is banned and ‘tranny’ is considered an offensive slur. Referring to somebody as ‘biologically’ or ‘genetically’ male or female is also discouraged in favour of ‘assigned’ or ‘designated’ at birth.

Gender identity should only be used to denote an ‘internal’ identity, not somebody’s appearance, while the term ‘transsexual’ should not be used about someone without their permission. The term ‘trans’ should only be used in context while ‘cross-dresser’ is preferred to ‘transvestite’.

Referring to somebody as ‘biologically’ or ‘genetically’ male or female is also discouraged in favour of ‘assigned’ or ‘designated’ at birth

Gender identity disorder – where a person feels he or she is not meant to be the identity they were assigned at birth – is now considered an outdated phrase and has been replaced by ‘gender dysphoria’. ‘Sex changes’ are now called ‘transitions’ while the term ‘preoperative’ male or female to describe a person’s assigned gender before such a move is now frowned upon.

And perhaps most significantly, given the media attention that transgender issues are starting to receive, it’s important for communicators to recognise that being transgender is not dependent on having a medical transition and not everybody takes the same steps.

If understanding all that produces a weary confusion, then consider this 2014 feature in The Guardian. ‘I am non-binary transgender, which means that I identify as neither man nor a woman,’ started an author under the pseudonym of Allie George. ‘Some days, I feel more masculine, while other days I am feminine. Sometimes, I feel completely genderless.’ The article produced a wide range of comments, ranging from empathy and gratitude for George’s braveness to lack of understanding and outright opposition.

Amir Kabel, the former diversity and inclusion manager at Vodafone who is now head of diversity and inclusion at interim and executive search agency Green Park and features in the Daily Telegraph’s Top 50 LGBT Executives in Business list, sees all this emphasis on the correct language as thoroughly justified. ‘The PR industry is very influential in getting people to think differently through different media outlets just by the language it uses,’ he says.

Kabel also believes that the influence of Britain’s traditional media can be a barrier to inclusion, noting that this would also provide an opportunity to change attitudes ‘pretty quickly’ if the media started to change its thinking.

However, he also believes that many businesses are simply paying lip service to this issue to promote their political correctness and compliance with initiatives, rather than tackling bias and discrimination in the workplace head on.

There are exceptions, however. Atlassian, the team collaboration software group that floated on the stock market last year, issued its first diversity and inclusion report in March, breaking new ground by breaking down the number of its employees who declare themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI).

The firm said 11 per cent of its employees denote LGBTI as their sexual orientation, while three per cent offer it as their gender identity, noting that the two categories are ‘not mutually exclusive’.

Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s head of diversity, says ‘a simple lack of education’ is the biggest issue her function currently faces. ‘People usually have good intentions,’ she  says, ‘but if they don’t understand how to empathise with someone with a different perspective, they  may not be aware of how their actions or words can  affect others.’

Interestingly, America’s tech industry is driving the diversity agenda to head off criticism that the sector is too white and male. Airbnb and Pinterest also have heads of diversity, while in December, Twitter hired Jeffrey Siminoff, an LGBT advocate who previously worked at Apple, as vice-president of diversity and inclusion, and is a founding member of Out Leadership, a global LGBT leadership organisation.

The UK is catching up on this issue too, with The Royal Bank of Scotland sponsoring next month’s LGBT Awards, dubbed Britain’s ‘Gay Oscars,’ where banks Barclays, Citi and Goldman Sachs, law firm Clifford Chance, computing group IBM, consultants Accenture and supermarket group Asda are up for gongs. Some groups feel the pendulum has not swung far enough, however.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights recently stated that the UK government must do more to tackle serious breaches of LGBT rights. Inga Beale, the openly bisexual chief executive of Lloyd’s of London, told this month’s Stonewall Workplace Conference that LGBT inclusion is ‘still a work in progress in Britain’.

A Lloyd’s survey of 40 human resources executives in the insurance market found that five of the organisations had policies on gender reassignment that go beyond the legal requirement. Some had LGBT workplace groups. Insurance broker Aon hosted the launch of the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.

Campaigners acknowledge that there is a long way to go. The arrangements at public toilets, for example, remain a highly visible barrier to transgender workplace equality. In America, a South Carolina bill that would force transgender people to use a public bathroom of their original assigned gender has prompted widespread protest.

This is an issue for society that is only likely to become more pressing, however. Communicators need to learn the language and prepare themselves for the last taboo of 21st Century Britain to be banished.