The tools to talk about gender

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12 January 2018 by John Shortell
Advice to help you have confident conversations about gender from NEU (ATL section) equalities officer, John Shortell.

In among all the recent debate about gender and gender identity, one thing that has become clear is that a lot of people do not have the tools to talk about gender.


Language is constantly evolving and can be confusing. What is important is that we do not let the fear of getting it wrong stop us talking about issues. To create truly inclusive environments for staff, students, parents and carers, the key is using respectful language that does not offend or exclude.

The following terms are not exhaustive or absolute, but this list will help you feel more confident having conversations about gender. There may be some disagreement about the terms and how they are used, so the best advice is to trust the person using the term and their definition, and to welcome the conversation.


Sex is assigned at birth and is usually based on the appearance of external anatomy. People are medically classified as male, female or intersex. ‘Sex’ and ‘gender’ are used interchangeably, but there are important differences between the two.


Gender describes social and cultural differences, as opposed to biological ones. Gender is assumed from the assigned sex at birth. Gender is determined by social roles, behaviours and characteristics usually associated with males and females and uses scales of masculinity and femininity. Gendered behaviours and the way people perceive gender vary from culture to culture.

Gender identity

Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of their own gender and does not always correspond to the sex assigned at birth. A person’s gender identity could be male, female or something else. Everyone has a gender identity and expresses it differently.

Gender expression/presentation

Gender expression/presentation describes how a person communicates their gender to others, for example through clothing or body language. A person’s gender expression does not always correspond with their sex or gender identity.

Gender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is when someone experiences a mismatch between their sex and their gender identity. People who experience gender dysphoria are not mentally ill. Discomfort and distress can come from hiding their identity, prejudice and discrimination, and/or not being supported.


Intersex describes people who may be born with a mix of male and female biological traits that do not fit with societal assumptions about what constitutes a male or female. Not all intersex people identify as transgender.


Transgender/trans is an umbrella term used to describe a person whose gender identity is not the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people could describe themselves as third gender, transman, transwoman, trans masculine or trans feminine. Always use the term a person uses to describe themselves.

A trans person can be gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian or any other sexual orientation. You cannot tell if a person is trans just by looking at them.


Transitioning describes the steps a trans person may take to live in the gender they identify with. Every person’s transition is unique and will involve different things. There is a lot of focus on medical transitions, but not all trans people want or can access hormone therapy and surgeries.

Transition may involve purely social aspects such as telling friends, family and colleagues, dressing differently, and changing names, pronouns and/or official documents. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to transition. A person’s transition is private, so it is inappropriate to ask questions about trans people’s bodies.


Transsexual is an older term used to describe someone who had transitioned to live in a different gender than they were assigned at birth. This term is still used but many people prefer the terms trans or transgender, as some people believe the term is overly clinical and associated with physiological disorders. 


Non-binary is one term people use to describe genders that do not fall into the binary categories of man/woman or male/female. Non-binary people may feel they are not exclusively male or female and embody elements of both. Other terms that may be used are gender-queer, gender-fluid, nongender, or agender.


Cisgender/cis describes a person whose sex and gender identity align. For example, someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a female could describe themselves as cisgender.


Pronouns used correctly are one of the easiest ways to show respect for someone’s identity. Some people use ‘he’ and ‘she’, while some prefer gender-neutral pronouns like ‘they’. You can ask ‘what are your preferred pronouns?’. Also, always use the name a trans person is using, not any previous names they have used prior to transition.


Misgendering means using a pronoun, title or gender to refer to someone as a gender that is not theirs. The best way to get it right is to listen to transgender people speaking for themselves.

It can be difficult to start using new language, but small steps make a big difference.


Using the correct language will have an impact on trans people’s sense of belonging and mental health, and can help reduce feelings of dysphoria. It is okay to make mistakes; apologise and move on. If you do not know something, ask respectful questions in private.

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