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Non-binary job applicants are less likely to receive interest from employers if they disclose gender-neutral pronouns on their resume, according to a recent working paper.

The findings by University of Toronto economics PhD candidate Taryn Eames came after her team submitted nearly 8,000 resumes in pairs to job postings in 15 occupations across six U.S. cities. Half of these resumes listed an applicant’s pronouns, including the gender-neutral ‘they/them,’ while the others did not. These pairs had the same education levels and years of work experience.

Almost a third (31 per cent) of resumes which did not disclose pronouns received a response from employers, according to the paper. By contrast, applicants with ‘they/them’ pronouns had a response rate of 25 per cent, something Ms. Eames referred to in the paper as “strong evidence of discrimination against applicants who disclose nonbinary ‘they/them’ pronouns.”

To Ms. Eames, the findings demonstrate a discrimination problem employers and policymakers will need to solve. “Non-binary gender identities are becoming more and more common, especially among younger generations,” she says. “These people are going to be aging into the labour force, and this is going to become a bigger and bigger topic over time.”

While discrimination on the basis of gender identity is illegal in Canada, the opaque nature of a job application makes it difficult to tell whether someone has been turned down for an opportunity because of their pronouns or their professional experience. In a 2023 research report on non-binary and transgender workplace experiences by Egale Canada, a national 2SLGBTQI organization, 74 per cent of survey participants said they hid or minimized aspects of their identity at least some of the time while hunting for a job.

Some non-binary individuals, according to Ms. Eames research, have it particularly bad. If you present as female, apply for a job in a male-dominated occupation like construction or warehousing, and also disclose gender-neutral pronouns, she says “you’re hit twice by discrimination.” Applicants from a racial or religious minority background might face a further layer of discrimination.

“For many trans folks, there’s the question with a job application of ‘do we disclose our pronouns? Will it flag the employee at that stage that we’re trans?’” says Fae Johnstone, the executive director of equity consulting firm Wisdom2Action.

According to a widely cited Pew Research Center survey from 2022, around 3 per cent of young Americans under the age of 30 identify as non-binary and around 2 per cent identify as trans. (Some people identify as both transgender and non-binary). Only about 1.3 per cent of Americans age 30 to 49 identify as non-binary, the survey found, while another 0.3 per cent identify as trans.

These dynamics are showing up in workplaces across both the United States and Canada, especially as more Gen Z employees enter the workforce. Pronoun disclosure, even by cisgender candidates, are an increasingly common feature of resumes, social media profiles and even LinkedIn pages. As Ms. Eames’ paper notes, around three-quarters of hiring managers told a Resume Builder survey in 2022 that they sometimes or often reviewed resumes with listed pronouns.

In the U.S., people who openly identify as transgender or non-binary are facing an increasing wave of hostility from policymakers. Nineteen states — including Florida, Tennessee, and Texas — have implemented a range of anti-trans policies, according to the Anti-Trans Legislative Risk Map, an interactive list of policies updated by trans journalist Erin Reed. These include allowing healthcare providers to refuse trans patients, bans on trans people using washrooms of their gender identity and refusing to update gender identity documents.

Ms. Eames’s paper only looked at U.S. employers, but she doesn’t believe the situation in Canada is much better. “We’re seeing the same sorts of conversations that are happening in the U.S. start to happen in Canada,” she says. “It would be surprising to me if there wasn’t discrimination happening here as well.”

In Canada, the New Brunswick government is requiring schools to obtain parental consent to use the preferred name or pronouns of transgender or non-binary students under 16 years old. It is a move that critics have said unfairly singles out children for discrimination. Alberta’s government went further, not only restricting pronoun or name changes, but also access to hormone treatment and surgery for gender affirmation. At the federal level, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has opposed the idea of transgender women entering women’s washrooms.

In such a political environment, attitudes around non-binary or transgender people filter down into the workplace. “What we’re seeing playing out in really specific areas like hiring is often going to be a reflection of what is happening in society,” says Sharon Nyangweso, chief executive officer of equity management consulting firm QuakeLab.

Even in situations where a hiring manager is open to hiring a non-binary employee, there may be perceived obstacles. In customer-service positions, for instance, an employer might have concerns about how they will manage situations that can arise from employing a non-binary person.

“I can absolutely picture a hiring manager who might want to hire a person who uses [they/them] pronouns, but doesn’t want to have to deal with all of the interactions that might come about with customers,” Ms. Johnstone says, “and the need to support that person through those experiences.”

Companies hoping to crack down on discriminatory practices often turn to unconscious bias training. Unfortunately, as Ms. Eames points out, research suggests the effectiveness of these programs on their own is often limited. Rather, she says, companies need to develop tools to address hiring discrimination rather than simply acknowledge its existence. Ms. Eames also points to the use of blind resumes, where hiring managers aren’t given identifying details about a candidate.

“There’s been some evidence that if people are negatively discriminating against a particular group, if you go through the process of anonymizing resumes as you’re doing your analysis, that can prevent [discrimination] from happening,” she says.

Ultimately, as Ms. Nyangweso points out, companies and non-binary applicants themselves can’t be left to handle this process on their own. She says there needs to be accountability built into hiring. Maybe that means making hiring managers account for why someone’s resume doesn’t move from the initial screening to a first round of interviews, as opposed to simply having to answer for applications that make it.

“The solutions have to be systemic,” Ms. Nyangweso says.

In the meantime, many non-binary candidates are forced to weigh the pros and cons of disclosing pronouns in their resume. On the one hand, Ms. Eames says, her research shows that disclosure might work against a non-binary candidate. However, it might also help a candidate figure out which employers will actually respect their identity before they start their first day on the job. It’s a tough decision.

“Not everyone has the luxury of being able to choose to put their pronouns on their resume,” Ms. Eames says, “which I think is a shame.”

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