As gender identities move from the bonds of binary to the freedom of fluidity, The Branding Nook’s Prachi Gupta says the brands of the future will be those that think of people as just humans – not women or men.

“Hey guys!” – This has become a normal way to address people in both personal and professional spaces. Women do not mind and, of course, men do not have any reason to.

Now, consider a situation where the address is reversed to, “Hey girls!”

Will men accept this? Or will they see it as an insult?

And the latest doing rounds is “bro”, again while addressing all. Is this the inclusivity that we keep harping on these days?

When we were in school, we learned pronouns and their usage based on gender, which was binary male/female and on a singular/plural framework. Now, in modern society, those rules of grammar seem outdated. New, complex layers have been added to people’s identity and our language has to account for that.

In 2015, the singular “they” was declared word of the year by 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society. Both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionary also include the singular “they”. Although it goes against what our fifth-grade teacher taught us, “they” as a singular pronoun is now recognised as grammatically correct. In 2017, for the first time, the Associated Press announced that journalists could use “they” as a singular pronoun. Similar initiatives are expected from brands.

The evolving language of self-expression

Language undergoes change and it becomes imperative for it to grow, expand, morph and adapt to meet the needs of the changing times. Language is an important measure of culture and it changes to express our world. The changing usage of pronouns and its acceptance that we see today is a part of that evolution. We are seeing the trend of mentioning pronouns on social media bios picking up. Individuals are already being seen moving and embracing the inclusive, gender-neutral world. If we observe, we will find he/him, she/her, they/them on social media and email signatures of people becoming a new norm. It’s a small change on self-portrayal but a big step towards inclusivity and safeguarding respect for many.

With this, people today have found the language through which they can express what they are experiencing. By publicly showcasing their social media handles and the pronouns they are comfortable with, they are able to bridge the gap between how the world sees them and how they see and feel about themselves.

Today, with woke culture evolving, we find consumers becoming more socially aware, demanding and vocal. Globally, societies are getting increasingly sensitised towards the right portrayal of gender roles and expect the same from the world of marketing and advertising as it’s a powerful agent for change. It plays a major role in shaping consumer behaviour and societal values. Many might prefer brands that take a stand on relevant issues. A diverse, equitable, inclusive culture is what today’s aware consumers aim at creating, both at home and the workplace. The same is expected from brands and corporations. Brands have to follow suit.

Influencing the new generation

A study by McKinsey stated that 48% of Gen Z value brands that don’t classify products as male or female. Such shifts in consumer perception have to become a part of brand voice and get reflected in the marketing of products, as is visible in the beauty and wellness segment, where unisex salons, fragrances and many other gender-neutral products are launched. Positive gender norms can contribute to bringing gender parity over time, thus leading to a better outcome for both society and brands from a financial and sustainable point of view. The power to change brand behaviour definitely lies with the consumer.

How brands in India are responding

Clothes that people wear form another significant measure of culture and how they express themselves. Gender-neutral or unisex is the new buzzword in the fashion industry today, which embodies inclusion. Youngsters who are questioning the norms and wanting to break free from the stereotypes prevalent in Indian society are finding great appeal in wearing gender-neutral clothes. A completely new segment in fashion has emerged with Indian brands like NorBlack NorWhite, Chola by Sohaya Misra, Bloni, Bobo, Antar-Agni, slow fashion label Moral Science, MIXX and many more offering gender-fluid collections. These collections give people the freedom to express themselves the way they like, not what the gender-specific clothes say about them.

The founder of MIXX, a gender-neutral clothing brand, says, “Our core philosophy is freedom to be, the freedom to love, the freedom to express oneself.” Such brands connect instantly.

Kanika Goyal, a Delhi-based fashion designer says, “Gender-fluid isn’t just a phase in fashion, it’s a step toward an evolution.”

Quite a few Indian celebrities are contributing actively in raising awareness of and standing strong by the LGBTQ+ community issues. Sonam Kapoor has been supporting the community for more than a decade. Ayushmann Khurrana, Celina Jaitly, Nandita Das and Manoj Bajpayee are huge advocates of LGBTQ rights. They have been part of films with a significant representation of LGBTQ characters.

In a BBC interview, British songwriter-singer Sam Smith said, “I’ve always had a little bit of a war going within my body and my mind… I’m not male or female, I think I flow somewhere in between. It’s all on the spectrum.” Such open expression by a celebrity definitely helps.

Celebrities and public figures, by way of their influence, are able to inspire many as they take steps towards showing solidarity and extending support to a particular community.

The role of corporate India

The corporate world has a significant role to play where expressions of gender identities, when laid out as a policy measure to be more inclusive and empathetic, can lead to wider positive impact on the equity of these corporate brands and society as a whole.

Corporate India is striving to be an equal opportunity employer, with some trusted conglomerates taking meaningful steps in this direction. Human resource policies are also evolving in many organisations.

For instance, Godrej Industries allows employees to select their gender when they join the company. Tata Steel’s notable measure towards using inclusive language came in the form of renaming its paternity leave policy as the new-born parent leave policy. At Publicis Sapient, a digital consulting firm, insurance benefits cover live-in partners regardless of the employee’s marital status or sexual orientation – an affirmative action by Vieshaka Dutta, the firm’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

With DEI being the new buzzword in the corporate workplace, ripples of change are being witnessed. Certain small but significant efforts made by different corporates definitely deserve a mention and applause.

At ADP India, a payroll processing firm, signature templates contain a line item for inserting personal pronouns. Although optional, employees are encouraged to express their individuality through a mention of their personal pronouns.

GE India has gender-neutral restrooms across campus. They have an LGBTQ+-focused recruitment consultant as their talent acquisition partner to enable inclusivity.

At Aristocrat, the transition to inclusivity is visible as masculine pronouns, which were used earlier when looking for a candidate, were replaced with gender-neutral ones. General usage words like “manpower” are now “headcount” or “resource”. Gender-neutral language like this definitely gives a positive boost to the identity of trans-people.

Pride Circle, a Bengaluru-based diversity and inclusion organisation, has been continually working with different organisations to train people there to follow the best practices that can make their offices inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees. A few are Mastercard, UBS, Tata Steel, Wipro, Infosys, ThoughtWorks etc, and the number is increasing.

In 2019, Pride Circle organised India’s first ever LGBTI job fair, where more than 450 candidates participated for around 250 jobs at 35 different companies. Some of the biggest corporations like Goldman Sachs, Ford, Uber, Accenture, Intel, Godrej and VIP Industries were the sponsors and recruiters. Beyond just symbolic gestures during Pride month, these are some on-ground, tangible steps by corporates that create true value for the LGBTQ+ community, leading to long-term real impact.

The first-ever India Workplace Equality Index was launched in December 2020 and in the same year, 65 firms participated, of which only 13 could not meet the minimum threshold criteria, while 21 organisations hit the top category. This speaks of change taking place, although it may be a slow process.

Conglomerates as changemakers influence other corporates and trigger societal changes. We can find a host of organisations that have come up in different cities of India, run by devoted, purpose-driven individuals, making great strides in this area, which requires critical attention. Along with the aforementioned Pride Circle, a few other organisations deserving of mention are the Association for Transgender Health in India (ATHI), World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) and Thane Queer Collective, among others. There are even online parent support groups like Sweekar, The Rainbow Parents and others.

Dr Amit Sen, a psychiatrist who runs Delhi’s Children First which offers clinical and counselling services, says, “I can see a clear cultural shift and an acceptance (within a younger age group) of a spectrum of gender identities. However, what we are witnessing is only in small pockets and the stigma still runs deep.”

His wife, also a child and adolescent psychologist, counsels gender non-conforming youngsters at Delhi’s Children First.

Creating a culture of inclusivity

Change has to be initiated right from school level, where the mindset of children moves from curiosity to dignity towards every community. Tagore International School in New Delhi very finely exemplifies this. Dr Vedika Saxena, a TEDx speaker and project director at the school says, “We use inclusive language (policeperson not policeman), ensure everyone feels safe to speak freely without any teacher hushing them, have a curriculum that is free of gender stereotypes, and have trained counsellors. We want to raise empathetic and informed students.”

Here too, even toy brands like Barbie are playing an important role of being silent changemakers by depicting gender neutrality through their dolls with LGBTQ+ identity and thus providing positive learnings to kids in their developing years. Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author devoted to the diversity of gender identity and sexual expression, expressed, “I think that these dolls send a message to outsiders that these identities are becoming more and more a normalised society."

The forces of change are getting active and visible all around. During Pride month in 2018, Burnt Roti magazine, which provides open media space to South Asians to voice diverse issues that affect them, featured on its cover 10 female and non-binary stars hailing from different professions like radio host, designer, poet, filmmaker, punk-pop star and the like. They felt that such representation of the non-binary community was important as many of them undergo the pain of how this identity and they/them pronouns are looked at and mocked.

Visual artist and educator Soofiya Andry, who identifies as non-binary, brought up a very pertinent point at that time when she said, “Being on the cover will hopefully help reaffirm to people that they are accepted and existing isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s beautiful.”

Today, representation through movies, books and OTT shows is also helping non-binary people find a voice. Then, of course, access to the internet and numerous support groups available online have opened safe zones for these people to connect, communicate and share their experiences.

In a recent development, Instagram users will be able to mention their pronouns as this Facebook-owned social media platform has now added an extra field to profile bios. Currently, the new feature is available only in a few countries, with plans to cover others like India soon.

Pronoun sensitivity as the first step to wider inclusive change

Brands and consumers are inextricably linked, each influencing the other and both together shaping culture and society.

Brands of the future will be the ones which will think of people as just humans, not women and men. Success for brands rests on (unique) individuals and the role of brands should be to satisfy an individual rather than a gender, as focusing on the former would enhance the product while the latter would not.

On the consumer/individual front, the easiest way to bring pronouns into our everyday culture is to start with yourself. While introducing yourself, along with name, include your gender pronouns too. If you carry a singular and visible gender identity, you are one of the privileged and this introduction will be your acknowledgement of this privilege. At the same time, this will be a positive way to show support and respect for the minority you work with. Each individual deserves the respect of being referred to in a way that aligns with how they see themselves and choose to be seen. After all, sex is assigned at birth whereas gender is a social construct and located in the mind.

To many, this difference may be insignificant. But it’s a very important distinction indeed and hopefully, one day, it will all become commonplace and completely normalised.