Free to Be: Proactive Inclusion and Equity Efforts to Support Gender Identity and Expression in Professional Settings

June 15, 2021 | By Samara Reynolds and Ash Taylor-Beierl INCLUSIVITY


TAGS: best practices, diversity and inclusion, lgbtq, member voices,

Pride Month serves as an opportunity for institutions and organizations to express support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Statements of appreciation, respect, and love flood social media feeds, and while the sentiment is nice, many colleges and employers fail to take that same appreciation to the next level and seriously consider how to be strong allies and accomplices for LGBTQIA+ individuals year-round. For example, workplace gender identity inclusive policies that demonstrate respect and support are often reactive, only being codified once formal complaints have been made. This can lead to workplace cultures that is full of microaggressions and barriers, including outdated professional attire standards, misgendering, deadnaming, and more. This Pride Month, we encourage employer partners and career services professionals to take a proactive approach to making sure their spaces are tangibly inclusive to a multitude of gender identities.

Being gender-inclusive means reevaluating both your physical space and daily language to ensure that everyone can feel welcomed. When we make a conscious effort to make our spaces more inclusive, everyone benefits. Employers looking to attract talent can speak directly to the needs and desires of students and alumni who are increasingly researching an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Progress within career services means being better able to meet the needs of students with a holistic approach, and it could cause a ripple effect to change the overall landscape of their institution, and potentially the field of higher education, to be more inclusive and justice oriented. And students, most importantly, will feel more seen, safe, and appreciated than they would from any well-crafted social media post.

Using Your Words and Creating Space

The first step to creating a gender-inclusive space is to identify where oversights exist within your organization or office. Gender-inclusivity can be consistently hindered by dress code standards, communication norms, and a failure to “call in” partners and stakeholders. At Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), we recently took two major steps to increasing our gender-inclusivity.

Within the VCU Career Services office, we updated our Suit Yourself Closet, a space and resource where students can acquire gently used professional clothing for free, to be less gender normative and restrictive. Originally, the clothes and resources available were organized according to a gender binary: men’s clothes were on the left, and women’s clothes were on the right. This excluded our population of students who didn’t identify on that binary, and students who fell into neither category struggled to find items that met their needs.

In 2020, we revamped our closet to have a different organizational system. It is now separated by clothing type (e.g., shirts, pants, dresses), and is separated by more masculine cuts and more feminine cuts on a spectrum, with a new category for gender neutral items as well. The simple language adjustment from “men and women” to “masculine and feminine” represents a monumental shift for those using the Suit Yourself Closet. Not only does it make the space more welcoming, it also gives students the ability to begin their transition process or experiment with their gender identity. This shift to a nonbinary model gives students a chance to curate outfits based on how they want to be perceived and will feel most confident, rather than a predetermined identity others have set for them.

Additionally, we created professional clothing guides for students who may need assistance in building their professional wardrobes. These guides explain which foundational pieces to acquire first, what colors work best in certain industries and settings, and how to augment an outfit for different levels of formality. Like the Suit Yourself Closet, our new guides were also categorized using gender-inclusive language: masculine, feminine, gender neutral masculine presenting, and gender neutral feminine presenting. These guides are in the process of being made available to all students online so they can take exactly what they need whenever they need it.

Another important initiative VCU created and launched collaboratively in 2020 with input from a number of campus partners, including VCU Career Services, was titled Call Me By My Name. In line with VCU’s belief that “individuals have the right to use names other than their legal name, to identify with the gender they know themselves to be, and to utilize the pronouns that best fit them,” students, faculty, and staff were given the ability to more easily update their name of use simultaneously in multiple university systems, and we also pulled together resources and advice to support individuals during and after making this type of change as a member of the VCU community. Many of these resources have broad applicability in the career development and employment space. They give specific examples and suggestions for individuals navigating these spaces and also provide context for simple changes organizations and institutions can make to be more inclusive of individuals using a name or pronoun other than what they were assigned at birth. 

Recommendations and Key Next Steps

If you are feeling inspired to be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ individuals within your office, organization, and institution, here are a few actions to take and ideas to consider implementing in addition to the best practices highlighted above:

  • Adjust your office dress code and appearance expectations. Consider eliminating any restrictions related to attire and appearance to allow for personal expression. If this is not possible within your environment, consider how to make recommendations less gender normative and/or restrictive for various gender identities.
  • Find ways to make it easier for individuals to share and use their name of use and pronouns in professional settings. Provide ample opportunities for students as advisees, candidates, and/or employees to provide their name and pronouns of use via intake forms, application materials, interview conversations, and HR paperwork and systems. If you are hosting an event or conference, provide a field for name and pronouns of use as a standard option in your registration forms/portals. If someone shares their name and/or pronouns of use with you directly (including in writing), be sure to use them. If you make a mistake and either realize it yourself or are corrected by the individual or someone else, be respectful and quick to change your behavior.
  • Use less gendered and heteronormative language. When interviewing candidates, sending event invitations, celebrating life milestones, and more, make sure that you are not making assumptions about whether someone has a boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, or son/daughter based on anyone’s gender identity or expression. Instead, use language like partner, significant other, child, or family member until or unless someone has identified an important person in their life by a particular set of pronouns or specific terms.
  • Call your colleagues in. Encourage and normalize the use of pronouns within your team/organization (i.e., displaying pronouns of use in email signatures, as part of their name line in videoconferences, on your website, on office doors, on name tags, and other visible cues that allow for proactive sharing and communication). Make sure colleagues are trained to introduce themselves with pronouns and ask for pronouns. Whether related to pronouns, gender, name of use, sexual orientation, or other elements of identity, commit to correcting each other quickly and kindly when someone makes a mistake, and thank someone for doing so for you, if it happens. It is much less awkward to do this for someone else than to have to do so for yourself, especially as a student, candidate, or someone new to an organization. And just as important is ensuring correct language is used when the person being spoken about is not in the room, as when they are.

We know that words matter and creating space for people to be more authentically themselves in the workplace is an important goal. Inclusive spaces and organizations benefit everyone, allowing career services professionals to better assist their students and giving recruiting professionals and employers a better chance to hire and retain qualified, emerging talent. This Pride Month, we call on all NACE members to take tangible steps to evaluate your spaces, language, and practices. What can you do today to make your office more inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community?

Samara Reynolds is the director of Career Services at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Ash Taylor-Beierl is the assistant director of Employer and Experiential Development at Virginia Commonwealth University.