The Year of ‘They’

With the pronoun named the word of 2019, Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr discusses gender’s changing role in the workplace and life.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

In my developmental psychology course in college, I remember reading about two psychologists who raised their baby without referencing the baby’s gender. The article assured readers that Baby X was given a gender-neutral name and all the love, attention, and developmental experiences a young child could ever need or want. The parents wanted to ensure that the child developed as a person without socially imposed expectations or limitations of gender identity. At 19 years old, I thought that wasn’t a bad idea.

The realities of parenting a daughter and a son prevailed. As I supported my own children’s development, I endorsed my daughter’s embrace of sparkles, ballet, and princesses—and later her career as a bruising soccer player. We have included her little brother in spa nights and facials, and indulged his dreams of touring football, hockey, and basketball halls of fame. I did shop for gender-neutral baby clothes, but I did not conceal their gender. I also did not announce their gender in huge gender-reveal parties like those that have been in the news recently—particularly when the reveals pack too much gusto and injure guests.

Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster recently revealed its “Word of the Year”: they. The personal pronoun they is often used by people whose gender identity is non-binary. The first time someone I care about came out as non-binary, I admit, I had to look it up and read about it. Perhaps I should have caught on more intuitively. After all, I live in Minneapolis, the land of Prince, who for a time changed his name to a symbol, and sang in I Would Die 4 U: I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.

Whether or not we understand is not the point.

What is at stake is a person fulfilling their potential. Korn Ferry research suggests that authenticity is an important component of engagement and performance. When someone has to conform, blend in, or hide a key part of who they are at work, it requires energy that could be better employed toward a goal or result. Rather, when an organization can inspire employees around a common purpose, and bring the best talent regardless of age, race, religion, or gender, that organization is more likely to be transformational. In fact, one of the six key elements of transformational organizations, according to our research, is creativity and individuality in all things.

Frankly, there are more interesting things to lead with about ourselves than our gender. We don’t refer to ourselves as a female CEO, a male nurse, a female writer, a female head of state. We are CEOs, nurses, writers, heads of state. Many couples, when asked if they want their baby to be a boy or a girl, respond that they just want a healthy baby. If we extend beyond babyhood, we might say that we don’t care whether someone is “she” or “he” or “they”—we just want them to be a healthy, happy, productive person.