What is this obsession with labels?Humans (and other animals) have been labelling each other implicitly and explicitly for millennia. Labels, given to us by other people, can affect our social status, success, wellbeing, mental health and other aspects of life. This blog post outlines the evolutionary basis for our assumptions, and why they may be wrong, as well as some of the advice that we put into practice at Thoughtworks to be better allies to folks who may not fit with the ‘labels’ we assume for them.
The fear of foreign,or unfamiliar (unlabelled) things has been our companion for millenia. Some scientists say that the fear of strangers is an evolutionary adaptation – in prehistoric times, it made sense for our ancestors to protect themselves from other ‘strange(r)’ groups. What separates us from other members of the animal kingdom is that we can make deliberate decisions and not be driven by instincts.
When you meet a new person, you’re likely to have expectations about who they are, and “label” them, based on things like name, age, social status, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and many others, even before you speak to them. These thoughts usually come unprompted and mostly regulated by the ‘fast’ part of the brain – the amygdala, which performs a primary role in processing emotions, decision making, and emotional responses. This is likely to include the fear of the unknown.
We also label ourselves which is directly linked to our sense of identity.
Most of us rely on prior experience and knowledge about names, physical characteristics, clothes, gestures and other things to figure out the grammatical gender of another person.
Are cultural assumptions ok?
The majority of cultures around the world have a binary gender system and put every person into either feminine or masculine categories, usually based on secondary sexual characteritics, such as body shape or facial hair if biological sex cannot be determined. In Western civilization, we are all called ‘she’ or ‘he’ before we even have an opinion about it. Our sense of identity is not taken into account. Most people are okay with this, but is it right?
In the 1950s, sexologist John Money did extensive research on intersex people and babies with ambiguous genitalia and challenged the traditional idea of two sexes based on secondary sexual characteristics. Instead, he coined the terms “gender identity” and “gender role” (as well as many other definitions related to gender and sexuality). Gender identity refers to the person’s sense of gender and gender role defines the expectations of society toward males and females. These aspects may not necessarily align with biological sex or the sex assigned at birth.
“XX or XY”
Today it’s clear that people identify as male, female, a mix of both, neither, or use a different way to describe their relationship with their gender.
One of the ways to express gender identity is through the use of the grammatical gender and, specifically in English (and few other languages), through personal pronouns, such as ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’, ‘ze’, ‘ve’ and others. A pronoun is one of the labels we discussed earlier; although grammatical, it can convey our attitude to another person. When we use the correct pronouns to address someone, we let them know that we value their gender identity and are open to change our expectations and find correct words that describe them best, rather than fit our assumptions and biases. Thoughtworks is normalising declaring pronouns in our systems and tools (image of the author's Zoom profile, and how to add pronouns to a Zoom profile)
All identities are valid. This means that: no matter what gender identity a person uses when they introduce themselves, accept it without question. As Dr J Harrison wrote in their blog: ‘if you’re a Cat in a Dog and Penguin world, being able to say you are a Cat is an unexpected delight’.
The first step to becoming a better ally to non-binary and trans people is to accept that not everyone’s relationship with gender is the same as yours. We all have different definitions in our head, conscious and unconscious of ‘what a real man/woman’ is.
Not all pronouns are obvious
You might feel that this contradicts with the Biology classes you took in school and, by extension, attacks ‘THE SCIENCE.’ But biology classes simplified a lot of things, not just definitions of sex and gender. A good example of this would be Mendelian genetics – only about a third of our genes fit actually into the rigid ‘dominant/recessive’ binary we were taught and the expression of genes depends on a ton of other factors, both genetic and not. That does not negate the fact that some genes do follow this logic but are part of a much bigger picture. I encourage you to take the same approach with gender identities and recognise that you are part of the bigger and very exciting world.
So, we’ve seen that gender is an important part of everyone’s individual identity. If we scale it to the team or company level, personal pronouns remove a variety of frictions that result in effective and enjoyable work:
Pronouns are important
- By having zero expectations for someone’s gender identity, you create a safe space for your colleagues to be themselves - we offer pronoun badges for people that would like to wear them and stickers for laptops. Let’s normalise stating pronouns.
- By avoiding gendered language you avoid microaggressions that can affect all colleagues (this includes men, women and non-binary folks) - e.g. instead of addressing people as ‘guys’ go for ‘folks’ or ‘everyone’.
- By enforcing inclusive language within a team you encourage flexible and forward-thinking – check this great source for advice on affirmative terms to describe groups of people.
- By respecting gender identities within your team or company, you have the potential to attract a more diverse workforce. And diverse teams deliver better results .
 See: Sian Beilock's article in Forbes and this paper on Maximizing the gains of diversity [...] on Sage.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.