Beyond “Mom & Dad:” Using a Gender Inclusive Approach to Family Engagement

We are fast approaching that time of year when we begin welcoming and onboarding new students and their families. In the world of family engagement, this can mean that we are deep in planning out our communication strategies or are planning events like family orientation and family weekend. As we continue planning and implementing our initiatives, it’s important to take a pause to ensure that our approach is inclusive and welcoming to all members of our community. One way to do this is to utilize gender inclusive strategies in how we communicate to families and how we implement events. 

Here are five initial strategies that we used to help make our approach more inclusive.

1. Take time for some learning and development: 

Gender identity is a complex topic, and it’s ok to not be an expert or have all the answers. If this topic feels intimidating at all or if you don’t know where to start, begin exploring resources available to you. Does your campus offer online resources, programs, or training sessions related to gender identity? Is there an office specifically dedicated to supporting members of the campus community in terms of gender identity? Are there campus partners that you can collaborate with? Many campuses offer a wide variety of resources, and if all else fails, there’s always Google. 

2. Avoid making assumptions: 

We can never really know what someone’s gender identity is unless they share it with us. Sometimes, especially when things get busy, it can be easy for us to slip into making assumptions about someone’s gender identity based on their name or how we perceive their appearance. Unfortunately, this assumption can often be wrong. Mis-gendering someone (referring to them using a word or pronoun that does not reflect their gender identity) can make them feel excluded and unwelcome. Instead of making assumptions, use gender inclusive language when interacting with families unless they have shared their identity with you.

3. Use inclusive language 

Whether it be written or verbal communication, avoid using language that is gendered. It can be easy to use expressions like “ladies and gentlemen” or “Moms and dads” when addressing groups. There are more gender identities than just male or female. Using gender neutral, or gender inclusive terms, can go a long way in making sure everyone is welcome. Consider using greetings such as “hello everyone” or “Greetings families and supporters”” to make sure that everyone is included. As family engagement professionals, we are often sending out communication or addressing large crowds at events like family orientation or family weekend and using gender inclusive language can go a long way in making all families feel connected and like they belong.

4. Consider pronouns 

We use pronouns all the time to refer to ourselves and to other people (some common pronoun examples include he/him, she/her, they/them). We don’t know the pronouns that a person uses unless they tell us, so a general approach to avoid mis-gendering someone is to use “they” or “them.” Using someone’s name and not using a pronoun is also an option. If you use name badges, providing stickers or a write-in option for pronouns can provide an optional way for participants to share their pronouns (just avoid making this mandatory in case you have participants that aren’t comfortable sharing).

5. Think about physical spaces

The spaces that we use for programs and events are an important aspect of building a gender inclusive family engagement strategy. One critical aspect of space is the availability of gender inclusive restrooms. This can be tough because the facilities that we use for programming are often out of our control. If possible, use a space within a building that has access to gender inclusive restrooms. If this isn’t a possibility, then trying to use a space with a single stall restroom (often referred to as a family restroom) can at least provide a private restroom option.

Using these strategies can be a helpful starting point for making family engagement initiatives more inclusive, especially in a time where many universities are facing tough obstacles in creating campus environments that are inclusive of all gender identities. Even making a few adjustments to family engagement communication and programs can have a big impact in building partnerships with parents and families.

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