Respect is the foundation of belonging and diversity, and an essential part of that respect is using someone’s correct gender pronouns. Almost one-in-five Americans (18%) personally knew someone who prefers a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’. Given how easily pronouns are obscured, that figure is likely far higher.
A study by The Trevor Project in 2020 found that 1 in 4 members of the US LGBTQ community (aged 13-24) use pronouns outside of the gender binary. However, only 1 in 5 transgender and non-binary youth reported having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives. Closing that gap is an important step.
Fortunately, the first step is simple: clarifying your own gender pronouns.
A remarkable amount of language excludes those who don’t exclusively identify as female or male—we should all strive to be more aware of that. Empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of tackling belonging and diversity initiatives. And that understanding starts with a definition.
What are Gender Pronouns?
When we’re establishing why gender pronouns are so important, it’s essential we understand the terms being used. That’s the same reason we emphasize the importance of defining belonging and diversity. It may seem simple, but defining pronouns for your staff will immediately increase awareness and promote inclusion.
- A pronoun is a way of referring to someone or something, in place of the noun itself e.g. I, you, they.
- A gender pronoun is a pronoun that specifically genders the person being referred to e.g. she/he, hers/his.
- People who are transgender or non-binary may use non-gendered pronouns e.g. they/them/theirs
Some languages prioritize non-gender specific pronouns, and some languages have no gender pronouns whatsoever. For the purpose of today’s article, however, we’ll be focusing on English pronouns, since that’s where gender pronoun discourse is often focused.
Only 1 in 5 transgender and non-binary youth reported having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their lives.National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020, The Trevor Project
Why are Gender Pronouns Important?
An inclusive environment is one where people feel that they can be their true selves, where they can thrive and flourish without fear of prejudice. If gender pronouns are the words each individual wants others to use when referring to them, then an inclusive working environment safeguards such needs.
Many people may never have to consider the gender pronouns used in reference to them, but being inclusive requires looking past such privilege. Assuming someone’s gender can invalidate a core part of their identity, excluding them from conversations, and leave them feeling disrespected.
There are many benefits to belonging and diversity, but the most important one is making people feel heard. Your people can’t feel heard unless you know the right way to refer to them.
Why the Term ‘Preferred Pronouns’ is Outdated
You may have seen the term ‘preferred gender pronoun’ used, or PGP for short. However, such terminology is becoming outdated. A pronoun is a pronoun, and distinguishing based on preference implies that using the correct pronoun isn’t necessary. That’s why we refer to pronouns over preferred pronouns.
Why Sharing Gender Pronouns When Working Remotely Matters
As offices shift toward a hybrid working model, where people split their time between communal spaces and working from home, sharing pronouns is particularly productive.
Following the move into digital workspaces, businesses should aim to reduce the risk of harmful assumptions. Using pronouns based on someone’s avatar or profile picture drastically increases the risk of misgendering them. That’s why businesses should aspire to create a culture where people feel comfortable sharing their pronouns.
Part of that process is sharing your own pronouns, even if you’re cis-gendered i.e. you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth. If only trans and non-binary people share their pronouns, that opens them up to othering and ostracization. Inclusivity means normalizing sharing pronouns, and promoting an awareness of the power of pronouns to each person.
Your people can’t feel heard unless you know the right way to refer to them.Peakon, a Workday company
Some concerns have been expressed that sharing pronouns may force people to define themselves in a rigid way they’re not comfortable with yet (and may never be). That’s why it’s key to encourage sharing pronouns without making it mandatory.
Normalizing the Use of Gender Pronouns
Normalizing sharing gender pronouns can be done through several methods, but in digital spaces there are three particularly effective methods.
- Slack and Instant Messaging
Most instant messaging or workplace communication apps have the option to alter your username. By putting your pronouns here, you help encourage others to do the same—at Peakon we’ve even added a dedicated pronoun field to Slack.
- Email Signatures
An easy way to normalize the use of gender pronouns is including your own pronouns in your email signature. If you’re comfortable doing so, this would be best accompanied by an email explaining why you’ve done so.
- Direct Communication
If you’re talking to your team directly, whether it’s over a Zoom or in-person, introducing yourself with your name and gender pronoun is a great icebreaker. In the right environment, you could also ask them to do the same.
It’s key to encourage sharing pronouns without making it mandatory.Peakon, a Workday company
How to Ask Someone’s Gender Pronoun
If you’re new to the idea of sharing gender pronouns, then asking someone what pronouns they use can feel awkward. That’s why it’s always easiest to take the first step yourself, and create a level playing field.
The best way to ask in a one-on-one conversation is to make it seem casual, and keep it direct.
- “What gender pronouns do you use?” or “Can you remind me which pronouns you use?”
In a group environment, introducing yourself with your name, role, and pronoun makes it par for course.
- “Hi, I’m Blaise, a copywriter, and I use he/him pronouns. Let’s each introduce ourselves with our job roles, and our pronouns—but only if you feel comfortable!”
What if I Use the Wrong Gender Pronoun?
A common fear, particularly in a professional environment, is using the wrong pronoun. While the steps above should help minimize the possibility of such a situation, sometimes it can still happen. What’s important is how you handle it.
If you catch the mistake quickly, and it’s one-off, make sure to correct yourself, but don’t cause more fuss than is necessary—this in itself can exacerbate an issue. The best thing to do here is not repeat the mistake again!
- “Her work this quarter has been excellent—I’m sorry, his work.”
In an instance where you only catch the mistake after the fact, approach the person you misgendered and apologize directly. Whether or not they want to enter into a dialogue on the matter should be left up to them.
- “I’m sorry I used the wrong pronouns for you earlier. I know you use ‘she/her’—I’ll make sure not to repeat that mistake.”
If you realize you’ve been misgendering someone repeatedly, the situation is more complicated, but empathy and openness is still the key. An apology similar to the above works best.
Everyone makes mistakes—the most important step is acknowledging them, and ensuring those mistakes are not repeated. More than that, recognize that it’s not the responsibility of the transgender or gender-non-confirming person to address any upset you may feel for making the mistake in the first place.
Making Your Staff Feel Heard
The above steps are a great foundation in normalizing the use of gender pronouns amongst your staff, but they’re only half of the battle. To create a truly inclusive work-space, you have to listen to your staff and visibly respond to their needs.
That’s where an active listening platform can be useful.
With Peakon, a Workday company employees can provide direct, confidential feedback on belonging and diversity initiatives, as well as more directly discussing pronoun usage. Those survey responses, in turn, have oversight from the leaders who can enact change.