Nicole Merhill and Sherri Charleston

Nicole Merhill (left) and Sherri Charleston discuss an expanded set of self-identity options available to Harvard employees in PeopleSoft.

File photos by Kris Snibbe (left) and Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographers

Campus & Community

A step toward a more gender-inclusive Harvard

7 min read

Employees, faculty now have new options to self-identify in key Harvard system

In a change intended to honor and help ensure representation of gender diversity in Harvard’s campus community, PeopleSoft, one of Harvard’s internal people management systems, now offers employees a broader set of gender-inclusive options with which to identify themselves. The Gazette spoke with Sherri Charleston, chief diversity and inclusion officer, and Nicole Merhill, director of the Office for Gender Equity (OGE) and the University’s Title IX coordinator, to discuss what these changes mean for community members. The interview was edited for clarity and length.


Nicole Merhill and Sherri Charleston

GAZETTE: Tell us what drove this change in PeopleSoft, and what changes the campus community can expect to see?

CHARLESTON: Part of the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging’s (OEDIB) mandate and what we’re working toward here at Harvard is creating an environment where everyone can thrive, which means building a culture that welcomes and values diversity within our community, including our workforce. Offering Harvard employees a more inclusive set of self-identity options for pronouns, prefixes, gender identity, and gender marker in PeopleSoft brings us one step closer to that. It acknowledges that binary options cannot encompass the broad diversity — specifically gender diversity — that we have within the community.

This is just one way that we’re aligning our administrative systems with our vision and values, and that helps to ensure we are not only being inclusive but also provides more accurate data to help inform future diversity and inclusion programs.

MERHILL: We are in a time in the world where gender inclusivity is being challenged at the highest of levels. It is imperative that we strive to cultivate an environment where each of us feels safe to participate fully in University life — whether that’s studying, teaching, conducting research, or working to support our individual and collective goals. It’s absolutely essential that we’re not just speaking about our intention of honoring gender diversity but actually creating that space where people can bring their whole selves to where they work and learn. When people come to Harvard, PeopleSoft is often the first touchstone that individuals encounter. Our intentions through this project are to demonstrate that all dimensions of our community members’ identities are welcome here.

GAZETTE:  What went into making this change happen?

CHARLESTON: This has truly been a collaborative effort, and I am grateful to the offices and individuals that have come together to make this happen. Last summer, OEDIB convened a working group to help address longstanding and increasing concerns regarding the lack of nonbinary gender and pronoun options in Harvard’s administrative systems. This change is one of the group’s recommendations, and in collaboration with Harvard Human Resources, HUIT, and OGE, we decided to update our system this year. I couldn’t be more grateful to the working group that provided advice and guidance along the way, in addition to others who worked on this project and who spearheaded efforts.

MERHILL: This really would not have been possible without engagement from the community. As a starting point, we would be remiss to not highlight the wonderful work of the Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund grantees who played a key role in facilitating the inclusion of gender pronoun fields within our systems. Additionally, the working group, the LGBTQ+ Community Coalition, and so many others worked hard on this — they offered suggestions, thoughts, and ideas of how we can really effect positive changes to our systems. There was such enthusiasm from administrative spaces, too. From HR, to OGE, to HUIT — at every single juncture we have had people leaning in to ask how they can help or how they can be a partner. Everyone was really committed to making this change and getting it right.

GAZETTE: Why was this change a priority?

CHARLESTON: My philosophy is that to achieve cultural change, we need to promote better structures and better habits. So now that we have better structures in place, we can all be empowered to do our part to develop better habits around our pronoun use. That means not just sharing our pronouns if you’re comfortable doing so but using the correct pronouns to address others. That should just be commonplace here. It’s fundamental, and it’s a form of respect to refer to people by the correct pronouns. It’s fundamental to human dignity.

An inclusive environment caters fully to every member — and every member means every member — of the community. For our trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and gender queer faculty, staff, researchers, and students, who in many cases not only are experiencing threats of violence in the world but also threats to other forms of their civil rights, the smallest thing that we can do to support and include them is to acknowledge all aspects of their full humanity and human dignity.

MERHILL: It’s also an exceedingly challenging time around civil rights, including gender equity, particularly in light of the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. As Sherri noted, while there is more to do, this is a concrete step forward. To those persons who are feeling unease during this time, please know that OGE firmly believes in individual agency, and staff within OGE’s SHARE [Sexual Harassment/Assault Resources & Education] team are available and will remain available to provide support to any person navigating reproductive health care choices.

GAZETTE: How can people who want to share information on their gender in PeopleSoft do that?

MERHILL: When you enter PeopleSoft, you can click on “My Self Service.” From there, click on “My Personal Details,” and from there you’ll see a new tile that says “Gender Identity.” There, you can add gender identity details, including gender pronouns, gender marker, and gender identity. Prefixes are located where they have always been under the “Names” tile where nonbinary options are now included.

CHARLESTON: Regardless of how individuals self-identify, everyone should review and update their information. That’s the only way that this is going to be effective. Although participation isn’t required, it’s really one small step that each of us can take to ensure that our community is more inclusive for everyone. Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats.

GAZETTE: Can you tell us how the data is going to be used? Is all the information confidential?

CHARLESTON: As I said, the driving force behind this change is creating the space for people to bring their full and authentic selves to the workplace. We want to be transparent about how this information is used and ensure that gender identity information is always confidential. However, we’re looking at ways to include pronouns into other internal Harvard systems, like the directory.

Ultimately, providing the data is optional, but to the extent that members of our community feel comfortable inputting information into our systems, it will help us to design diversity and inclusion programs that better serve the community as a whole and help us to better live up to our values and comply with our nondiscrimination policies.

MERHILL: But there is also a real importance around transparency from the user, who is putting the information into the system, to understand why Harvard’s asking for this, where the information will be displayed, and who has access to it. The information is confidential, and when you go into PeopleSoft we’ve added a statement on how it is used to build inclusivity.