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When it comes to inclusivity at work, the language we use is of critical importance. Here’s why.

By Alyson Nyiri, CHRL

There’s no doubt about it: feminism has arrived in the workplace. Gender, sex and sexuality are part of our new lexicon. Discussions within an organization about people and talent need to integrate current thinking about gender, sex and sexualities.

The impacts are being felt in all areas, but especially in recruitment, where attitudes and biases about who we “see” as appropriate for certain roles within our industries are being challenged. Existing and forthcoming laws are narrowing the wage gap, but HR must continue to broaden the foundational concepts of gender, sex and sexualities to create better workplaces.

Language is critical to social movements. Defining terms is a powerful act of social negotiation; people in positions of power and high status have been most successful in defining terms and boundaries. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements illustrate this with women defining sexual harassment and demanding that it stop.

HR is a multidisciplinary field. It has borrowed concepts from economics, science, sociology, political science, psychology and neuroscience. Each discipline has helped the HR field address discrimination and harassment, domestic violence, the rights of the LGBTQ community, the advancement of women in STEM and leadership, policies against racism and clarified definitions of male/female, sex and gender.

9780190658540Psychology has been one of the greatest contributors to HR management. A new book, Gender, Sex, & Sexualities: Psychological Perspectives, offers a comprehensive presentation of the foundational terms of gender, sex and sexualities. Sex categorization is one of the prime social categories used for describing people in many societies. Sorting and ranking people according to their sex category has long been a linchpin of social organization.

“The range and variability of such sex categories tells us that they are socially constituted…The content of such categories is quite malleable across time and space; sometimes the boundaries of such categories are rigidly demarcated and sometimes they are pretty fuzzy,” writes Marecek. “Sex categories are continually under negotiation – in one-to-one relationships, in workplace policies, in medical and psychiatric diagnostic systems and in legal statutes.”

As Marecek writes, sex categories emerge everywhere around the world. In the U.S. Census, respondents are still instructed to “Check ONE box: Male or Female” (and will be through at least 2020). And yet the attributes and characteristics that interest psychologists – such as identity, roles, behaviours, interests, skills, cognitive abilities, desires – do not categorically distinguish people assigned to different sex categories; they emerge probabilistically and contingently across development and transgenerationally as a function of many events.

“It is an error to infer from research utilizing binaries (female/male sex categories, X/Y chromosomes) that brains or behaviours are binary,” chapter 11 argues. “These effects do not produce a ‘male’ brain or a ‘female’ brain…Each child has a human brain with the potential to generate behaviours that, in the child’s culture, may be considered more typical of one gender than of the other genders. That is, the binary nature of sex chromosomes or gonads does not scale up binary brains.”

Using sex category as a proxy for characteristics of a person can be hard to consciously control and is even harder with respect to implicit biases (unconscious associations between sex categories and psychological attributes). And yet making the effort not to jump to conclusions is vital to maximizing performance and equity.

When evaluating performance, for example, the authors recommend (1) to disaggregate/aggregate by gender/sex only if HR has a relevant question and action plan based on results; and (2) to avoid using a single value to represent a category: using a single value “pulls” for stereotyping (using a group-wise centroid to stand for all group members) instead of characterizing many aspects of category members and overlap and similarities between categories.

People in positions of power and high status have been most successful in defining terms and boundaries.

Even when self-reported sex categories are used as a research tool and statistically significant, large differences between sex categories are observed, performance is characterized by overlapping distributions. That is, even were we to stipulate that a “sex difference” is “real,” guessing a person’s sex category from performance is highly error prone. The book recommends:

“In practice, then, it is not only unfair but also fundamentally unsound, inefficient and unwise to use sex categories as a proxy for anything bearing on job performance. HR professionals would do well to know that the scientific literature, including scientific research on ‘sex differences,’ does not support discrimination (or, more insidiously, having differential expectations) on the basis of sex categories.”

Finally, the authors encourage HR professionals to learn more about the research on gender stereotypes and their influence on workplace judgements and actions. Research by Biernat and Sesko demonstrates that gendered beliefs lead to differential outcomes for women and men. 

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