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As I entered the work force, the “women’s liberation movement," as it was called then, was taking hold, with more women intent on pursuing a career outside the home, and organizations struggling to deal with the changes expected of them. Some of us for the first time had to consider issues of gender balance, equity, and gendered language. New words such as “chair” (instead of “chairman”) or “Ms.” were championed.

Those issues are still ongoing. And now, with increased visibility and acceptance of transgender and gender-non-conforming people, workplaces are facing a new learning curve.

I understood Ms. and chair, and couldn’t quite understand people who were thrown into a tizzy over the suggestion they use those words. But now I find myself uncertain about terminology myself, and perhaps you are as well. “Cisgender” may not be a familiar term, let alone pronouns like “xe” and “ze.” University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson has become a folk hero in some circles for resisting the use of gender-neutral pronouns. For the unfamiliar, it can be a difficult issue to navigate, and workplace advice – and policy – is clearly needed.

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I was therefore delighted to see Queen’s University education professor Lee Airton, founder of TheyIsMyPronoun.com, had a book that could help, Gender: Your Guide. Airton offers a warm, inviting guide to a complicated area, and discusses their own transition in university from female to non-binary.

Before I take us into the workplace, I’ll start at that moment at birth when the pronouncement is made – “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!” Gender has always been thought of as a simple binary that was determined by the appearance of the newborn’s genitalia. Once you were proclaimed male or female, that was it, for life.

But they – which is the pronoun Lee Airton uses – notes that gender is not as simple as we believe. From that moment at birth, we essentially are schooled in how to be male or female. And some people diverge, finding they want to have a different gender identity.

We need to understand this, and be sympathetic to the colleague who has decided to take the momentous step of transitioning. I had previously read Dana Pizzuti’s Transitioning in the Workplace: A Guidebook and her description of electrolysis – a depilation, or hair-removal process – was as excruciating as some torture scenes I have read in fiction. Emotionally, it also can be rocky. So the second lesson I’ve taken from Airton and Ms. Pizzuti is that transitioning is also a process that takes time, and supportive colleagues must understand that.

The third lesson is around language. It is expected we will make mistakes. If we are genuine and generous, that will probably be forgiven. Lee Airton lays out the pronoun landscape in academic detail, and explores the debate around the use of the pronoun “they.” I remember people rebelling against its usage in the singular form years ago, but the book cites an example that you probably would use automatically: “FedEx came but I don’t know where they left the package.” If you could use it in that context, when gender is uncertain, why not embrace it now, for a colleague? In fact, linguist Bronwyn Bjorkman points out in the book only one-third of the world’s languages have gendered pronouns and the use of the singular “they” can be traced back to Middle English.

Ms. Pizzuti, a senior vice-president at Rigel Pharmaceuticals, said in an interview the most important thing managers can do is provide support and make the individual transitioning feel important. As for your cisgender employees, she says, have transgender people speak to them so they can see transgender people are like everyone else, "but we had to solve a gender-identity problem.” It’s a new challenge, but management is about new challenges.

Cannonballs

  • Research shows the optimal tenure for a corporate CEO according to financial and share-price performance return is 4.8 years, after which the executives are less open to outside opinions and more risk averse. Interestingly, university presidents usually ask for another term at that juncture, and routinely get it. Universities are not corporations, but a top job in one has similarities to the other, so university boards might want to be more wary of automatically signing on to another five-year hitch.
  • If you want a process to go faster, the temptation is to focus on the “straightaways.” But blogger Seth Godin says you get far more productivity if you focus on your “loading” and “unloading” instead: “How many meetings does it take to get something approved for delivery or development? How many false starts are there? When work is done, does it sit for a long time before it gets used?” You don’t win races based on your top speed.
  • Never ruin an apology with an excuse,” Benjamin Franklin said.

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