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D&I Clinic: Stuck in neutral?

Q. We’re concerned about using gender neutral as a term – isn’t a sense of individuality essential to creating a culture of belonging?

A. There can be a lot of subjectivity when it comes to talking about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which is why definitions are required so that we can have a productive conversation. When we talk about individuality in the sense of gender equality, we need to define this as providing people with the freedom for gender expression.

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Gender neutrality can often be read or heard in a way that assumes something might be taken away from someone. There have been cases where gender neutrality has often inferred certain dress codes; for example, trousers for women.

This can impact some groups such as practising Muslim women, who may wish to adhere to a religious dress code. Therefore while ‘gender neutrality’ as a term and concept could benefit some, it could take away from others. 

Freedom for gender expression provides greater clarity, in that it adds to a culture. It means you can express yourself in any way you want to in a way that could incorporate or go beyond your gender. It becomes about you as an individual.

But a sense of individuality is only successful when it is paired with inclusion, ensuring that when anyone expresses themselves as they wish to, they are operating with the freedom and sense they will be included.

As with many elements of the DEI agenda, we know that gender expression is a vastly complex landscape. We bring experts and culture-makers (contributors) into our clients' organisations as well as our own to help build cultural confidence through the lens of lived and professional experience.

For example, one of our network members, Sabah Choudrey, helped us understand the ‘genderbread’ person, which helps to break down the concept of gender into bite-sized chunks and think about identity as well as expression. Taking the time and space to discuss and learn about complex topics is vital. 

Beyond this, it might be unpopular to say, but I believe we need to look at what a culture of belonging is really about. It’s laudable to see so many people and culture leaders striving for it, but often we see that aiming for a sense of belonging puts the onus on the individual to belong, rather than on the organisation to help them feel like they can belong if they want to. 

The ‘if they want to’ part is important here. We are observing that not everyone wants or actively seeks to belong to their organisation, particularly within younger generations and underrepresented groups.

Many want better boundaries and for work to play a different or specific role for them, which is why we need to become more mindful of what we really mean by belonging. 

A strong and inclusive culture has to allow for choice, which really is the basis of everything. When we work with organisations to measure inclusion using our measurement model, we point more towards equitable policies and practices, behavioural conditions and testing the cultural norms within an organisation. It’s the careful combination and refinement of these that creates progress. 


Simone Marquis is a 2021 HR Most Influential thinker and managing director of D&I consultancy The Unmistakables