Being Non-Binary in a Binary world

Being Non-Binary in a Binary world

… and why we should think about gender in our interactions with clients, customers and colleagues

A regular British LGBT Awards Diversity Hero Top 10, Theresa Farrenson (They/Them) gives their experiences and perspectives following Non-Binary People’s Day this week
Customer Experience & Integration Lead at Aon

Non-Binary People’s Day, 14th July, is precisely between International Men’s Day and International Women’s Day.

Although I have come to adopt the term non-binary relatively late in my life, I want to emphasise that I did not decide I was non-binary. For me, it is more like I have finally found a term that encapsulates how I have always felt I did not quite fit. I’ve never had gender dysphoria although, granted, as I child I often wanted to be a man – but this was more about all the jobs I was told I could not do as a woman. I just never felt I fit the “female” mould.

Although non-binary or ‘third-gender’ people have been recognised in many cultures throughout history – including Mesopotamia, the progenitor of written history. It seems that we’ve forgotten this rich history in the UK and non-binary is thought to be a ‘new-fangled’ term. I’m slightly embarrassed it took me so long to discover the term myself.


More than just the pronoun

When reflecting on my experience of being non-binary, it’s more than just asking people to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to me (although this is the bit that many struggle with). There are more practical implications. Clothes shopping is depressing: I express masculine, so my choices are to either buy men’s clothing, that won’t fit well because I don’t have a male shape, or scour the internet for women’s clothes that have neutral styling. The fashion industry seems to think non-binary = androgynous = slim-hipped. That is not me.

One of the few privileges of being born female is that it is not unusual in the Western world to see women wearing trousers and suits to work. Therefore, how I choose to dress at work is culturally acceptable. But imagine if I were born male and wanted to express a more feminine style, wearing makeup or a dress to work. Would this be acceptable? Would it be considered ‘professional’? Clothes and shoe shopping would undoubtedly be just as tricky.

This inevitably leads me to the gender neutral toilets* discussion (*bathrooms for the US readers). Put simply, everyone should be able to use public facilities safely and with dignity, without fear of abuse or harm. Sadly, when the only options are male or female, this can too frequently be a no-win situation for non-binary folk.

As early as 6 years old children associate intelligence with being male and ‘niceness’ with being female.

Fawcett Society, 2019

Gender Norms

But there’s strong evidence to suggest that our gender norms and stereotypes are not good for any of us. From the moment we are born, we are set on a path determined by what is between our legs. As parents we unconsciously condition our children, which is reinforced through schools and colleges and by media and marketing. As the statistics in the image below shows: As early as age six, children associate intelligence with being male, this translates into the courses we study and the job roles we end up in. This leads to the figure of only 8% of STEM apprentices being women, surely contributing to the gender pay gap. Yet the horrifying statistics on male suicide shows us that men are also suffering from the stresses of conforming to the male stereotypes. Men are more likely to die from their own hand than any other method. The year on year increases in in eating disorders and plastic surgery and other “tweakments” are evidence that the idealised image of “male” and “female” is becoming ever more unattainable.

I propose that we should examine gender norms and stereotypes and work on breaking them down. I think we’d all be happier and healthier. This isn’t to say that we should all be non-binary, but that we should recognise how damaging and limiting the gender roles are – and take conscious action to address them.



Which brings me to my next point: the impact of gender-coded language. Studies have shown that the use of masculine gender-coded language in job descriptions will cause women to self-select out of applying. This results in a high percentage of male applicants and thus a higher likelihood of hiring a man. This bias is seldom intentional and is often down to the gender of the person who wrote the job description. Surely it would be better to have a more balanced job description and widen the applicant pool as much as possible? There are lots of websites that offer a Gender Decoder – where you can paste your text and it will identify the percentage of masculine coded words versus feminine coded words, I’ve offered a couple of options in the Resources section.



But why limit this to your organisation’s interaction with talent? Why not give the same conscious consideration to your interactions with clients, customers and suppliers? Look at your forms and your websites – Are you accidentally not talking to only 50% of the population?

Finally, if you need to collect a person’s gender on your web or paper forms, please offer a gender neutral option. Don’t forget that “title” (Mr, Mrs etc) is also identifying a person’s gender. Either offer “Mx” (most common gender neutral term) or allow it to be an optional field. “Prefer not to say” is not a suitable alternative – you’re assuming I prefer not to tell you my gender. I’m actually very comfortable with telling you my gender, you have simply not offered me an option that allows me to tell you. “Other” is a poor option too – I have received emails to “Other Farrenson”. Suffice it to say that this clumsiness discourages me to give them my business!

Useful Resources

Gender Coded and Inclusive Language

“Evidence That Gendered Wording in Job Advertisements Exists and Sustains Gender Inequality”, Danielle Gaucher, Justin Friesen, and Aaron C. Kay 2011

Impact on Families