I have some confessions to make.

Confession #1: I have often felt flummoxed, exasperated or frustrated when I try to address issues of gender, sometimes to the point of rolling my eyes and bonking my head on the table. It has not always come naturally to me to talk about this subject, in large part because it can be so confounding to challenge ideas and concepts that feel normal. Upon reflection, it probably felt so difficult because I didn’t have the information or context that now emboldens me to speak out.

In the end, my frustration taught me an important lesson: talking about gender issues matters. And the waywe talk about these issues matters. A lot.

Which brings me to Confession #2:It’s a pet peeve of mine when people misuse the terms “gender” and “sex.” Not because I take offense or because (Confession #3) I am a little bit of a grammar snob, but because in a world where intercultural communication becomes more complex and more nuanced every day—and where a diverse and inclusive workplace can boost business performance—it is so important that we say what we actually mean. In order to really practice inclusion and strengthen diverse work teams, we need our language to reflect an inclusive attitude.

With that in mind, I’d like to clarify what these terms mean. “Sex” refers to a person’s anatomy and the reproductive functions associated with their anatomy. Dictionary.com defines sex as “Either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated with reference to the reproductive functions.” When a child is born, they are assigned a sex of “male” or “female” based on internal and external sexual organs. Note that sex also includes intersex individuals—those who are born with chromosomes, sex hormones and/or genitals that do not align with typical definitions of male and female.

Gender” is a more abstract term that describes how masculine or feminine a person feels and/or presents themselves. Gender’s Dictionary.com definition makes this difference clear: “Either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated by social and cultural roles and behavior.”

But because culture (and/or subculture) determines what is perceived as masculine or feminine, anyonemay dress or behave in distinctly masculine or feminine ways. And, many people are in fact their own unique blend of the two, including non-binary, transgender, gender queer, and gender non-conforming people. So, like any other aspect of culture, gender exists on a spectrum, and there is a range of possibilities between the two bookends.

If you are reading this post, you probably already know that diverse work teams are more productive… if(and this is a big if) employees feel valued, engaged and included. You can help cultivate this kind of environment by using the appropriate language surrounding sex and gender, and encouraging everyone to be inclusive of different sexual and gender identities.

One way to do this is to have all employees include their pronouns in email signatures. This means that people who identify as male or masculine, for example, would simply add “he/him/his,” perhaps underneath his name, in the standardized text of an email signature. Those with other gender identities generally use either feminine pronouns (“she/her/hers”) or gender-neutral pronouns (I could write another entire post about this, but the most common and familiar ones are “they/them/theirs”). This may sound like a silly gesture, but it is an easy way that the majority of people—those who identify more strongly with masculinity or femininity—can help make non-binary folks feel included without asking potentially intrusive questions about their gender in a public setting.

Other simple methods for fostering an inclusive work environment are to print gender-neutral bathroom signs (such as the one accompanying this post, offered by ADA Sign Depot), or to keep posters in common work areas that define key words like the ones we have discussed in this post: “sex,” “gender,” “intersex,” etc. These actions are likely to not only strengthen relationships and build trust, but also lower turnaround and, by helping everyone in a diverse workforce feel included, ultimately increase productivity.

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