Consider the Script: Why Gender Neutral Communication Matters for Your Brand
Updated: Aug 10
Today's most successful companies have diversity as a core tenet for strengthening office culture, innovation, and productivity.
Unfortunately, our language and cultural biases sometimes stand in the way of truly inclusive language. This post will serve as a primer to get us thinking about why gender neutral communication matters to our brands. Check out some best practices here.
Set in the competitive and high stakes world of hedge fund trading, Showtime’s series, Billions, pits Wall Street billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod against U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades. The epic power struggle is so ethically-ambiguous and twisted that identifying a hero and villain is utterly impossible.
In season two, episode one, a brilliant new character is introduced to Axe and to millions of fans who watch the show:
“Hello sir, my name is Taylor. My pronouns are ‘they, theirs, and them.’”
I was riveted. On the screen was television’s first character to openly identify as gender nonbinary. Totally comfortable in their own skin, Taylor’s inclusion on the Axe Capitol team was accepted and subtly endorsed by Axe himself.
“In no way is Taylor a tragic token genderqueer character in the midst of an identity crisis: They're a fully-fleshed out human being, one more at peace with themselves then most. And in an incredibly savvy move by the writers, the burden of coming to terms with Taylor's identity falls not on Taylor but the people around them. We get to watch their coworkers stumble through their own discomfort when they, for example, use the incorrect pronouns.”
Carolyn L. Todd, Refinery 29
This is how my favorite television series got me thinking about inclusion and gender-neutral sensitivity in relation to real world communication and brand strategy.
Let’s start with some terminology.
Like most of you reading this blog, I am not an expert on gender representation in interpersonal or media communication, so I found a few experts willing to shed some light on the topic.
E. Cram, PhD, queer studies scholar and Assistant Professor for the University of Iowa’s Department of Communication Studies, provided the following foundational concepts:
Gender is NOT binary, meaning it does not simply fit into “man”/”woman” or “male”/”female” assumptions.
Words describing gender fluctuate and change, therefore using gender neutral language is the most inclusive way to communicate.
These two principles are not news to most of us, but the fluidity of language surrounding gender identity can be daunting for both internal and external communicators.
Dr. Cram, whose pronouns are they, them, and theirs, points out that we often naturally use the word “they” in reference to a single person whose gender is unknown. They encourage strategic communicators to ponder the way potential biases are reflected in gender language, such as masculine words representing strength and power versus feminine descriptors for beauty and fragility. This leads to a conversation about scripts for interpersonal communication:
"Think of scripts like something an actor would receive for a performance; the script tells the actor how to proceed with unfolding events. In the social context, this term helps us observe how patterns of interaction are shaped by unspoken cultural norms of interaction.
Think, for example, how you have been trained to interact with a stranger who is a woman versus a man. These scripts are part of how we manage gender in our social worlds.
As the categories of gender continue to evolve (and they will if history is any indicator), the scripts for how we interact with others will also need to change."
E. Cram, PhD
If you would like a thorough and current primer on gender identity terms, check out 53 Gender Identity Terms Every Ally Should Know, compiled by Refinery 29 with the help of GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
Why Gender Representation Matters
Let’s talk about three reasons why understanding gender representation and use of gender-neutral language matters to communicators.
1. It matters to your audience.
I consulted Will Jenson, PhD, human communication professor and director of the award-winning debate team at Trinity University, San Antonio, TX.
According to Dr. Jenson, millennials are more self-focused on identity than older generations. The younger demographic is more open to the possibility that an individual is dissatisfied with their biologically assigned gender roles, and they wish to "craft their own identity." This could include gender non-binarism, trans-gender, or other fluid identity formations.
source: The Pronoun Project
If you're a data-nerd like me or just need more proof, here’s a paper showing that millennials positively view brands using gender neutral communication in their advertising: Understanding Impact of Gender Neutral Communication on Brand Image.
2. It matters for your brand’s tone, ethics, and culture.
Dr. Jenson has conversations with his university debate team about the importance of recognizing a person’s preferred pronouns to avoid disrespecting others by misgendering them. In fact, the National Debate Tournament emphasizes inclusive language in its code of conduct; debates have been lost as the result of an over-reliance on binary (male/female) language.
Promoting inclusivity and diversity are increasingly important for organizations and brands. At panel discussions at this year’s South by Southwest, Austin-based advertising agency, T3, led panel discussions about overcoming stereotypes, particularly in gender identity in the entertainment, tech, and marketing industries. They launched a call-to-action campaign entitled The Pronoun Project to encourage communicators to support personal expression and gender representation.
“Given marketing's role in supporting media and entertainment, brands have the opportunity to be leaders when it comes to broadening representation of the gender spectrum, panelists said. Some of that change might have to be spurred from inside of the industry outward.”
One of my favorite companies focusing on diversity and inclusion is Dell Technologies. Back in 2001, Dell started an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group (ERG) called Pride that now partners with the global nonprofit Out & Equal Workplace Advocates to advance workplace inclusion around the world.
According to Erik Day, Dell’s VP of North America Small Business and PRIDE ERG founder/director, Dell’s cultural code is all about diversity and empowering Dell employees to #beyourself. Gender representation is an important part of Dell's inclusive tone, ethics, and culture. Read more from Erik here: Dell Pride Beyond Borders
3. It’s the right thing to do.
Inclusion is ethically the right choice. As business owners and brand managers, we have a responsibility to use inclusive and accepting communication. We are in an ideal position to change interpersonal communication scripts for the better. Our stakeholders will appreciate it and our society will be the better for it.
Gender neutral communication 101
Straight from the experts, here are some ways that you can help facilitate gender neutral scripts in your communication efforts:
Awareness Dr. Cram advises being vigilant about culturally biased gender-binary scripts that are often the norm. By reflecting on how cultural norms are portrayed in every day language, you will become better able to identify and adjust the script.
Use gender neutral language
Ask about pronouns. Dr. Jenson encourages us to start conversations with our preferred pronouns. For example, “Hello, I’m Sherry and my preferred pronouns are she, her, and hers.” In this way, it is easy for someone else to follow suit without the pressure of initiating the conversation.
Education: Seek out resources written by members of the transgender or gender non-conforming persons.
👉🏼 The National Center for Transgender Equality is a great resource for understanding the issues facing this community.
👉🏼 Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, offers leadership development, workplace training, and networking opportunities. They offer great webinar resources.
👉🏼 GLAAD is a good organization to follow on social media for daily education and tips on inclusiveness.
Joining The Pronoun Project is a great way to expand your understanding and take a stand for inclusive change. Start conversations in your workplace. Support or lead a diversity and inclusion group. Gender identity is evolving and needs thought leadership to raise awareness.
In conclusion, I want to share with you some illuminating perspective from Billions actor, Asia Kate Dillon.
Follow this link to learn how Dillon's role on Billions was a path to discovering their identification as nonbinary:
WHO or WHAT inspires you to use gender neutral language in your communication? Let's get a conversation going about how we can work to change interpersonal scripts to be more inclusive and representative.
Sherry Wynn is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University where she received her Master's of Arts degree in Communications. She will soon retire from the United States Air Force and is a regular contributor to the Digital Millennial. Visit her on LinkedIn to connect!
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