All students should feel safe and supported during their time in higher education, no matter how they identify. Here’s how your institution can build an inclusive environment for students of all genders.
A gender-diverse environment is defined as a space of fair representation and treatment of both men and women, often with the goal of supporting and championing women to reach a state of equality.
While the fight for women’s rights remains critical, a gender-diverse environment must not only protect cis-gendered individuals, but also those who identify outside of gender binaries.
Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe an individual whose gender identity does not align with the gender they were assigned at birth.
This individual might choose to identify as the opposite gender they were assigned, as a transgender man or woman, or not identify as either exclusively masculine or feminine, and therefore as non-binary such as genderfluid, agender, gender queer etc.
A report by The Williams Institute highlights the trends seen at colleges and universities to “typically reflect and reinforce societal genderism in practices, policies and norms”.
“Cisnormativity and genderism are evident in multiple domains within the higher education microsystem, from physical structures to official records to policies to curricula to classroom practices (Bilodeau, 2005) – and, over time, may create chronic stress for gender minorities actively navigating their identity within such restrictive and potentially alienating structures.”
As awareness of the experiences and issues of transgender and non-binary people increases, more young people than ever are gaining the confidence to live an authentic life according to their chosen gender identity.
As a result, higher education institutions must act to create a more inclusive environment for this growing demographic, and to move away from cisnormative and gendered practices.
Higher education institutions must ensure their transgender and non-binary students feel both safe and supported.
Having a group or hub where transgender and non-binary students can turn to for guidance, or simply to feel welcomed within a community, can have a significant impact on their experience while at university.
Universities should host an LGBTQI+ group as part of their student union, such as the Students’ Union LGBT and Friends Society at the University of Essex, which runs a buddy scheme specifically to provide one-on-one support to LGBTQI+ students.
However, transgender and non-binary students should not have to rely on dedicated LGBTQI+ communities to feel welcomed while at university.
Support and acceptance of transgender and non-binary students should be widespread throughout the institution and be a key focus within its core values.
Not only does this require a zero-tolerance stance on targeted hate towards any member of the community in response to their gender identity, but also meaningful and visible steps in support of this community.
For example, educating staff and students on the role pronouns and gender–inclusive language can play in securing and supporting a person’s gender identity.
Choosing to be addressed as she/her, he/him, they/them is an important step for those who are transgender and non-binary and respecting these pronouns can have even greater positive impact.
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that “at the beginning of class (or anytime there are introductions), students can introduce themselves with their preferred name only (no need to share given names), gender pronouns (optional), and other introductory info”.
No one should be forced to share any personal information if they do not feel comfortable, but they should be given the option to alert others to their gender identity if they wish.
The APA also recommend using gender neutral language, as it’s a great way to “disassociate someone’s gender and pronouns with their appearance (since gender identity and pronouns are not based on appearance)”.
It’s important that the support you show transgender and non-binary students is driven by the desire to be an ally to the entire community; speaking out for injustice and being proactive in your efforts to dismantle prejudice.
Actions include encouraging faculty to diversify their reading lists so that the work of transgender and non-binary academics is given a platform, and continuously reflecting on and dismantling any barriers that may exist in the employment and promotion of transgender and non-binary staff.
In working to dismantle barriers facing the entire transgender and non-binary community, your institution is indirectly helping to secure the future of transgender and non-binary students for years to come.
For further guidance on how you can support gender diversity among your staff at higher education institutions, please see the latest report in our diversity series: Prioritising gender diversity in the workplace at higher education institutions.