Ladies and gentlemen: that’s all


Picture of Clotilde Besson
Clotilde Besson

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

In 2019, the Belgian Constitutional Court judged the Civil Code’s rules regarding the freedom to change one’s sex on their birth certificate to be against the principles of equality and non-discrimination, as the code did not recognise non-binary and genderfluid individuals. This case is just one of the growing number of examples highlighting a severe lack of gender recognition and pervasive androcentrism in our societies.

Preference for individuals of the male sex is theorised to originate from succession rights and laws in Europe, necessary to regulate heritage repartition. These systems cemented a preference for the ruling of men, tasked with bringing their heritage to fruition, inherently favouring a binary view of sex and gender spectrums for centuries. And yet, European societies are not the norm. The Samoan, Navajo, Sakalava or Indonesian are just some among many cultures that recognise gender fluidity and non-binarity as an inherent part of the human experience.

By imposing a binary view of society through colonisation, Western Europe’s need to know one’s sex and fit it into either the male or female box now dominates our narratives, seeping into the tools we use to carry out daily duties. But recent reconsiderations of identities as fluid question the relevance of the binary model, as we study its negative effects on mental health and group dynamics.

Indeed, while the progressive movements of the 1970s recalibrated the gender balance, the current revolution aims to deconstruct gender norms altogether. Fifty years ago, patriarchal norms were recognised as detrimental to the well-being of our societies and now the overall damage inflicted by binary diktats is well understood. As a result, the standards of EU bodies and its orbiting organisations not only erase the existence of intersex individuals, but also ignore any identity that does not belong to one of the two boxes. If the past tried to open doors to those excluded, the present tears down walls altogether and dreams of a fully inclusive society.

Western European systems perpetuate what has now become a form of oppression

Sex relates to the physical attributes of a body, while gender is the intimate perception of oneself on a spectrum of virtually as many identities as there are individuals. It is accepted that gender can be fluid and evolve throughout one’s life. As a result, gender is personal and may not always be reflected in one’s gender expression.

This confusion has led to the superfluous omnipresence of binary labels in EU social environments, from forms with mandatory titles that rarely include a third option, to excessively gendered greetings, such as ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ and ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. ‘He – or she!’ is often said with an emphasis on the latter and a hint of irony. The absence of gender-neutral bathrooms, speech idioms, jokes and so on… We tend to complicate processes for the sake of outdated inclusivity of the binary. How difficult would it be to switch to the all-encompassing ‘they’ or ‘to whom it may concern’? Objectively, there is no need to specify one’s gender, which is often mixed up with their sex, especially in group settings. By actively rejecting inclusivity, Western European systems perpetuate what has now become a form of oppression and active push-back against new, more inclusive intentions.

And this could not be more applicable to our workplaces, in which one spends a large portion of their time. In 2021, the average European working week lasted 36.4 hours and climbed as high as 40 hours in Greece. With the freedom of movement encouraging melting pots of cultures in work environments, it is our collective role to create diverse spaces in which what makes us individuals can cohabit and positively influence each other. Individuals suffer from the erasure of their individuality, affirms Harvard Medical School. Repeated misgendering of one’s identity can lead to poor mental health, lower motivation to perform and accentuate disorders. In spheres where events, discussions and negotiations are held, this means assumed titles, outdated greetings and the constant pressure to present oneself to fit expectations.

Closing doors to inclusivity will only close them to talents but also perpetuate a culture of power and oppression

So, how do we move towards more inclusive work environments in Europe?

These should feel safe and open to discussions. The fear of change and of questioning the status quo leads to harmful conduct. Instead, EU institutions must approach this evolution as progress. Diversity in workplaces has been proven to generate creativity, comfort, productivity, well-being and, in the long term, talent retention and fulfilling careers. So, we must put in place best practices to ensure issues can be raised, heard and fixed in a simple manner. The Commission’s Gender Equality Strategy is a start but not enough. It still uses the binary model for its 2020-2025 strategy. And if it promotes intersectionality, it does not seem to recognise the core issue with tackling gender discriminations through a binary lens. Our governing bodies should lead by example and should be held to high accountability and standards. Closing doors to inclusivity will only close them to talents but also perpetuate a culture of power and oppression in which individuals will not feel heard.

Perhaps the one trap to look out for is assumption. This means extending the possibility of including pronouns in signatures, badges and forms, encouraging speakers to state their titles and preferred pronouns and removing gendered formulas from emails and organisation’s vocabulary. Instead, opt for ‘person’, ‘guest’, ‘speaker’ and such.

One’s name is almost always a safe choice as well. When given to an organisation, it should never lead to the assumption of that person’s gender. Instead, address them by said first or full name until their pronouns are known.

We can easily adapt for the sake of one’s comfort

Pronouns can seem tricky to adapt to when one is faced with unfamiliar identities. And yet, it is as simple as asking. A sensible person will never get offended by being asked for their pronouns, and when in doubt, it is always best to reiterate the question rather than assuming one’s pronouns. Indeed, some individuals’ identities fluctuate, and so do their pronouns. Registry forms present the very first impression of an organisation, and yet, too many still favour the gender binary in their options, or the sour ‘prefer not to say’. At the very least, one should have the possibility to express their identity themselves in an unfilled space.

Finally, sensitivity is key. Questioning what we have been taking for granted requires us to be vulnerable. We must acknowledge that not everyone will accept change at the same speed, and every effort counts. We are bound to make mistakes, and it is our duty to forgive and offer solutions so we grow together. Trauma and discomfort will undoubtedly surface during this transition, which is why it is strongly advised to never force anyone to state any personal information that might make them uncomfortable. We can easily adapt for the sake of one’s comfort.

Individuals do not owe their organisation the duty to do the educative work. Instead, it is recommended to work with educators, resources and training programmes when looking to apply organisation-wide changes. Volunteers could also be encouraged to form a working group on diversity, inclusivity and equity.

In brief, it is our duty to collectively acknowledge our prejudices and the progress left to be made; open safe and anonymous spaces in which ideas can be shared and diversity celebrated; listen to those ready to make their voices heard; and learn together to implement sustainable change for the best of our workplaces.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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