Pride month may be over, but these concerns of support and performative inclusion remain, especially as huge corporations remove the rainbow from their logos and shopping carts on their websites, and the 2SLGBTQIA+ content dissipates (until next June, of course). And while it’s entirely up to an individual if they feel comfortable sharing details of their identity such as their sexual orientation, their partner(s), or gender identity or expression (which are not the same thing, by the way!), something that seems perhaps inescapable within the workplace is the usage of pronouns.
(Side note: gender is not inherently connected with a person’s sexual orientation; they are entirely separate, so please do not make any assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression based on the other.)
Even I, a cisgender female, have experienced the frustrations of mislabeling and pronoun assumptions in the workplace (see: the virtual conference I registered to that allowed you to either add the titles “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to the beginning of your name—a field that was in fact mandatory to fill out… I’m neither a man nor am I a married woman).
With that said, I cannot even imagine the difficulty of having to correct someone within the workplace who continually uses the wrong pronouns with me, or misgenders me in other ways (i.e. collectively calling the people in the room “gentlemen” even when I’m present).
Of course, these instances are numerous and perhaps seem minute in situations that have become regular and so commonplace in work environments that we as a society seem to have fallen into a habit of assuming someone’s pronouns or gender without even thinking about doing so.
So, this is your friendly reminder to look at the ways in which you’re addressing your colleagues, bosses, or employees, and to maybe start implementing some inclusive practices that neither assume one’s gender nor put someone on the spot about their gender identity.
What are pronouns, and why is this workplace relevant?
Pronouns are a subcategory of nouns that we use to readdress the subject without having to say the subject’s proper nouns repeatedly.
Instead of saying “Kendra” every time, we can say “she” or “her” depending on the context (because she/her are the pronouns I use). And while I personally use she/her pronouns and identify as a female, that certainly doesn’t mean that if someone else uses she/her pronouns they also inherently must identify as female, as well.
It must also be noted that just because someone has a seemingly more feminine or masculine sounding name, it’s not fair or appropriate to assume their gender for obvious reasons. For that reason, I’ve seen a growing amount of people in workplace and even everyday settings practice the gender-neutral singular “they” until a person’s pronouns are confirmed (though “they” is also an equally valid pronoun as well).
And because gender is a fluid, often changing performance on this vast, incredible spectrum, there is no reason why a person’s pronouns need to or will for certain align with their gender identity and gender expression. Gender, not to be confused with a person’s sex, is a performance that changes on a regular basis and can be fluid, stagnant, or some balance between the two, and thus, has some influence upon, but certainly does not define a person’s pronouns.
If anything, pronouns are complementary to gender identity and expression, so assumptions are never fair or appropriate. This can be a very personal topic, so please do approach others understanding that it is the best way to be considerate and mindful of how people would like to be referred to. And sure, there are ways to avoid asking difficult questions, like simply always referring to a worker as their first name, this can be impersonal and seem exclusionary, particularly if you use pronouns with everyone else in a workplace.
So, how do you go about making pronouns more of a comfortable topic and thus, your workplace more of an equitable space for people of all gender identities?
#1: Make sharing pronouns commonplace
Social media is a particularly great tool for inclusivity and sharing information on gender diversity. Namely, although I’ve been seeing others adding their pronouns to their names on various social media accounts, now certain platforms offer specific sections that are visible on your public profile (though you can keep these private to certain people on your network, depending on the platform you use).
On LinkedIn and Instagram, you can add your pronouns to the sections beside your name (and yes, they go beyond just “she/her” and “he/him”). As well, you can add them to your email sign off, like mine as shown below. To make this more of a regular practice and to ensure you don’t forget to add it, you can save it to your email signature to go out on every email.
The more commonplace pronouns become, the more equitable the opportunities will become for those who may struggle with sharing their preferred pronouns, and the less awkward it may make someone feel if they need to inform someone they’re referring to another person with the wrong pronouns.
Taking the first leap may seem daunting, but if you make it common and an everyday practice in your organization, it’ll become the new normal, and will place inclusivity and equity on the forefront of your company’s minds.
Here’s what my LinkedIn and email signature looks like. Simple enough, right?
#2: Add it to your introduction and welcoming process
The next time you hire a new employee or have a new member joining your c-level team, try including preferred pronouns into your introduction.
The Harvard Business Review has a great example of this in their article on pronouns in the workplace. The interviewee in the article, Lily Zheng, who is also the author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace, notes that a simple introduction with pronoun inclusion is an easy way to make the topic one that is every day and less of an uncomfortable topic.
Zheng’s example is “’Hey! My name is Lily Zheng. I use they/them pronouns, and I’m a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist living on Muwekma Ohlone land in the San Francisco Bay Area”.
With that said, pronouns can extend beyond she/her, he/him, and they/them, as well, so be open and listen to ensure you are referring to them how they want. As well, make sure to keep an ear and eye out for when people mention they go by more than one pronoun (I.e. an individual can go by both “he/him” and “they/them”).
This just means that they can either go by one or the other equally, or can prefer to use one and sometimes use the other in different contexts. The best way to find out is to ask the person, so make sure to do so before making assumptions!
#3 Address people by their titles or gender-neutral terms
Unfortunately, this one has yet to become integrated into many aspects of everyday life, like the instance I shared about the digital conference I mentioned above. Titles in general, while well-meaning, can come across as discriminatory because of the (wrong) assumption that people are either one gender or another.
This includes “miss,” “mister,” “missus”, “madam,” and others of the sort; these are becoming more and more archaic to use, particularly because of their implications of inequality to women’s privacy of sharing whether or not they’re married, as well as of course the exclusion of those who do not identify as strictly and consistently “male” or “female”.
Instead of “ladies and gentlemen” or the like, try referring to multiple people by their names individually, or by their titles or departments, like “marketers”, or “sales folks”. If you’re talking about all workers within your organization, including those whose jobs vary across different departments, try “team members,” or “everyone”.
Similarly, there may be some habits that may require some unlearning, like addressing a group of people, regardless of their gender by “guys”. And yes, some people won’t care because “guys” has become so common, it has become less focused on gender, though it is still implied in the meaning behind the word, of course. The best practice is to maintain gender-neutral, so no one feels either left out or misgendered.
This may require practice and time to get used to, and you may find it difficult at first to remember or even really understand, and that’s okay. Practice means you’re putting an effort into learning and improving your workplace, and that itself—to most people—is so important.
#4 Practice using your team’s pronouns
This tip is similar to the one above, though it is different in its practice and context. Let’s say you have a coworker or colleague who has been going by “he/him” pronouns for as long as they’ve been working there, and then either independently or after you take a step towards making your workplace more equitable, they ask that people actually refer to them by “they/them” or “she/her” pronouns.
This may seem surprising or confusing, but it’s important to a) not question their certainty about changing their pronouns or even their reasoning behind it and b) make a fuss over them doing so, either. The more normalized this process becomes, the less uncomfortable and inaccessible the steps will seem, and the less likely the person is to feel welcome or respected in their job.
So, let’s say this worker asks to refer to them with “they/them” or “she/her” pronouns; your first step can be to thank them for correcting you and maybe even clarify if they prefer one over the other, or for them to be used interchangeably (some people do use one pronoun over another, though the best way to ensure you’re being respectful is to ask when an appropriate time arises).
The next step is practicing them with others or practicing them on your own.
Example: “Did Kendra get you that document about gender pronouns in the workplace yet?”
“Yes, she did. It’s her favorite blog post so far. Did you read Lily Zheng’s article on the Harvard Business Review?”
“Yep! They did a great job making that information accessible to me. I have to read their book—it sounds great.”
Of course, like everything, practice makes perfect, and if you mess up someone’s pronouns, you can simply correct yourself and apologize, then quickly move on.
Bonus tip! Accept responsibility that comes with leadership
Indeed, with great power comes great responsibility. As a leader, you need to be able to set yourself as the example for the organization.
While this goes for setting the example of using pronouns and ensuring you’re using the correct pronouns, this also extends to both respecting if a person would prefer not to share their pronouns (in which case, you can either ask them how to refer to them, or stick with just their name), and ensuring that no bigotry to discrimination is tolerated in the workplace.
This should be included in either the employee book of conduct, or be made clear in another context, like an official meeting with training to ensure that all workers are aware of what is expected of them and what will not be tolerated when it comes to discrimination of any kind.
Lastly, it goes without saying that you should always follow through on these policies. Anyone can claim to be inclusive and care about diversity, particularly for those within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and paint their logo with the colors of the rainbow, but these things don’t mean anything until it is put into practice.
With all of this said, by no means is this blog post comprehensive; it’s rather intended to be more of a jumping-off point to talking about pronouns in the workplace as a whole. Discussions are important, and if you’re not sure how to facilitate them, try hiring an HR or gender diversity expert who can address your concerns, especially with making sure all workers in your organization feel heard, respected, and comfortable talking about and being who they are.
While gender and sexual expression is by no means mandatory to know about your employees and colleagues, pronouns are absolutely a must when it comes to ensuring gender equity within the workplace. If you currently have no workplace standards when it comes to ensuring a person’s correct pronouns are being used, you may need to implement new practices to do so. This can include taking responsibility by placing your own pronouns in your email signature or on your LinkedIn account, including them in everyday interactions with others, and not assuming a person’s gender, which you can do by either constantly referring to them by name, or by using the singular gender-neutral “they”.
Gender inclusivity is a huge aspect of how your coworkers and employees interact in everyday situations, and ensuring everyone feels welcome and heard is key to making your organization one that is inclusive and respectful.