Work + Growth

Nonbinary at Work

  • The legal world is resistant to change—how are nonbinary people supposed to navigate the office?
  • Do what is most comfortable while balancing the possibly negative effects: Should you send an email to the entire office? What should you wear?
  • Firms can help by avoiding gendering things unnecessarily and normalizing conversations around pronoun usage for everyone, not just nonbinary people

We all know the legal world is traditional and highly resistant to change.

Just the idea of having to accommodate women lawyers who need to take maternity leave and use dedicated lactation rooms took a while to sink in, but it eventually did. With more exposure, the same thing will happen with lawyers who identify as nonbinary—but it hasn’t yet, and it’s going to take time. So how is a lawyer who identifies as nonbinary supposed to navigate the office right now?

Your Comfort Is Most Important

The idea of coming out as nonbinary to colleagues is highly anxiety-inducing for most people. If they didn’t start the job using they/them pronouns, do they send an email and make a big announcement? Do they only come out to their immediate team, or everyone? What about HR paperwork? Most forms offer only two choices—male or female—and no other options. Do they gently correct the partners who misgender them just as they would anyone else? If people ask questions, how many of them should they answer?

The deceptively simple answer is to take whatever actions are most comfortable for you, and only those actions. Of course, there are complications with that stance, since you must deal with other people. Not coming out at work at all is an option for anyone who worries that there will be negative consequences—you are not required to do anything that will harm your career or standing in the firm. But for some people, simply hearing themselves be misgendered every day is something they can’t live with for long, so it doesn’t feel like a choice.

What to Wear

It’s often tricky enough to figure out what’s appropriate to wear at work when your gender identity is male or female—but being nonbinary at a law office adds more layers to the challenge. Again, your comfort is the most important thing, as long as you are sure to dress within firm guidelines. You generally can’t go wrong with a neat, dark-colored pant suit, or a crisp button-down and smart slacks on less formal days.

But then there’s court, where the rules—written and unwritten—are even more strict, and mostly run along gender lines. In addition, an effective lawyer doesn’t want to call attention to themselves or their clothing, losing respect or drawing the ire of the judge. All attention should be on their client and the facts of the case, not anyone’s fashion choices. The safest choice is to err on the conservative side, and let plainness and sameness be your friend. You may occasionally switch your mode of dress between feminine and masculine on your personal time or even in an unusually open-minded office, but that is not recommended when appearing in court, as it may be distracting and end up affecting how a judge treats you. That dark, basic pantsuit is once again your best bet, since both men and women can easily wear them.

How Firms Can Help

Employers can make life easier for everyone by taking a few steps to stop separating so many things by gender unnecessarily. For instance, does your office have single-stall bathrooms that are labeled by gender? Those labels are unnecessary. How does HR handle nonbinary people? There is usually paperwork in place to handle a change from one gender to another, but nothing allowing people to choose any other option besides male or female. The problem is complicated by the fact that across-the-board government recognition of more than just the two genders has not yet been achieved.

Has your firm enacted any policies to open the conversation around gender: Do people add pronouns to their email signatures? Has anyone asked you your preferred pronouns? Have you noticed an option other than “M” or “F” on HR forms?

A person’s gender identity is a personal matter that is usually assumed and not discussed, but nonbinary people must discuss it if they want to avoid being misgendered. It can be awkward to request your office use “they/them” pronouns when no one else has to worry about telling people what pronouns they prefer. On the human level, the simple act of cisgendered people opting to include their preferred pronouns in their email signatures or simply stating their preferences during introductions makes nonbinary people feel less othered. Normalizing the conversation around pronouns is the first step to fostering a culture of inclusion.