Abe Blackburn: humans don’t work in binaries and operating as though they do only results in exclusion
Abe Blackburn: humans don’t work in binaries and operating as though they do only results in exclusion
A view from Abe Blackburn

The industry has a problem with binaries

Businesses need to start challenging workplace binaries in order to truly create an inclusive space for their employees.

Technology is built on ones and zeroes. This binary code is the building block for any digital activity.

Less suitably, we find binaries being used in society at large. Codifying the world into two "types" is embedded in our language, our laws and our culture. This rarely reflects the reality of our lived experiences: humans don’t work in binaries, and operating as though they do results only in exclusion.

Advertising thinks of itself as a progressive industry both internally and in the work it produces. This LGBT+ History Month, we’ll see agencies and brands across the world talk about how they have made safe spaces for a spectrum of identities.

Gender remains a budding topic in this space. Building on efforts to include women in all levels of a workspace, trans and non-binary people are the next frontier for gender diversity. The majority of work on this front tends to come from employees who have had to teach the business how to accommodate their needs.

Businesses need to take responsibility for the labour of including their employees. They need to create an environment that empowers employees, not one that asks employees to solve institutional problems at a personal level.

I came out as non-binary in my professional life years after doing so personally, because I knew there would be groundwork needed to create a truly gender inclusive space. Yet I work for one of the most progressive agencies I’ve come across and one always working to improve. So if you’re reading this and thinking "we’ve got this sorted" – spoiler alert – you do not. Here is my perspective on how businesses can start to undo binary thinking in their organsisations so their trans and non-binary employees can thrive.

Understand that your business needs to work on this

Reading this article is a first step; thank you for getting to this point. There is definitely work to be done in your business. We all operate in a binary system, one most don’t even notice until someone points it out. This is society-wide and no business escapes it.

Educate yourself

Begin by understanding the impact that ignoring the needs of non-binary and trans people has on all your employees and their families. Beyond the usual tropes of not being able to “bring your whole self” to work, this also has a dramatic impact on their productivity, well-being and mental health. Being misgendered, knowingly or not, is a draining and damaging experience to endure daily.

This must be led from the top. Executives need to work together with HR so people can be confident that leaders understand their needs and see it as a business fundamental.

Pronouns are a starting point only

Understanding the importance of what pronouns are and what they mean cannot be overstated. Pronouns are the tip of the iceberg for supporting non-binary and trans employees. Displaying pronouns should be required in internal comms and proudly visible externally. Start with Archie Bongiovanni’s easy to read guide to pronouns. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can read up on the topic and equip yourself (and others) with the fundamental knowledge you need to proceed.

The solution, of course, goes far beyond pronouns. Inclusive language needs to be reviewed across the business. Does your HR policy say maternity leave or parental leave? Are employees covered for trans-affirming surgery? If operating in countries with anti-LGBT+ laws, what policies are in place to mitigate this? Knowing the answers to these questions is a really important first step for making positive changes.

Don’t rely solely on employees

Your employees shouldn’t be burdened with the responsibility to educate. Businesses can support the community by hiring people who have dedicated their careers to improving workplaces for non-binary and trans people. This means the business can set out a roadmap of resources and assistance to support their employees, rather than the opposite.

Spread the word

Marketers have power to create change beyond their organisations – they can lead brands and partners to be better. They can make gender diversity visible to consumers. As a bonus, it’s a way to build trust when partners can see that inclusive action is embedded within.

It’s not as simple as "one and done", but each step in the right direction helps. I urge anyone reading this to find the binaries in their business and break them apart. Implement changes, educate people, and make diversity training routine until it becomes second nature.

The mark of success? People in the business will start to come out. Trust me, they’re there.

Abe Blackburn (they/them) is director of tech at The Social Element