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Let’s Talk About Pronouns: 4 Tips for Gender Inclusivity in the Workplace

POSTED ON 
June 15, 2021

Nothing is more personal than a pronoun.

For cisgender people, whose sex and gender identity align, this may seem like an exaggeration. But for transgender and/or non-binary folks – people whose gender identity and expression vary from their birth-assigned sex – pronouns are a BIG deal.  

For a trans and/or non-binary person, misgendering is exhausting, alienating, and – I’m going to come out and say it – a slur. It is a denial of personhood. And it can have a massive impact in the workplace.  

A landmark study by the Center for American Progress revealed that 90% of transgender workers have experienced harassment or mistreatment at work, including intentional (and unintentional) misgendering. While we will make mistakes in a world that has programmed us to accept gender normativity, all of us can do our part in using language that is respectful, inclusive, and affirming at work. Here’s how!  

1. EDUCATE YOURSELF

It’s a good idea to brush up on what gender pronouns are – and how much their usage has evolved in recent years. Gender pronouns (such as “she/her/hers”) are the way we refer to each other’s gender identity, but gender is more fluid than the binaries of male and female. People may be trans, non-binary, and/or genderqueer – and they may use a variety of pronouns to reflect that.

Check out the UC Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center Pronouns guide for a (non-exhaustive!) list of options.

2. ASK, DON’T ASSUME

When we use gender pronouns to refer to people, it’s usually based on how we read/interpret their outward appearance. But because gender identity is internal – a sense of how a person feels inside – we don’t know a person’s correct gender pronoun just by looking at them.

Always ask before assuming. It may feel awkward, but it’s less awkward than feeling embarrassed because you’ve hurt your colleague by misgendering them. “What are your gender pronouns?”

Tip: never ask someone what their “preferred pronouns” are. No one’s pronouns are a preference; they just are.

3. OWN YOUR MISTAKES

If you happen to misgender a colleague by accident and realize it in the moment, correct yourself and move on. “Sorry; I meant ‘he.’” If you realize it after the fact, apologize in private and move on. Don’t dwell, and don’t make it your colleague’s responsibility to comfort you. Just be mindful moving forward!  

4. BE AN ALLY

If you are cisgender, including your pronouns in your professional presence online sends a signal to trans and gender-nonconforming colleagues that you recognize your privilege and are an ally. Add your gender pronouns to your email signature, company bio, and socials such as LinkedIn, which now has an option for identifying your pronouns.  

If you are a manager or leader, ask colleagues to share their pronouns during intros or icebreakers – if they feel comfortable. “Tell us your name, your role, and, if you’re comfortable, your gender pronouns.” Since not everyone feels comfortable disclosing their gender pronouns, it should ALWAYS be optional. Be careful not to assume that the absence of pronouns is a sign of transphobia. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to disclose their pronouns, and an inclusive workplace will respect that. And communicators, we haven’t forgotten about you.

For more on how to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, visit the Straight for Equality in the Workplace resource center.  

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Farida Habeeb, Ph.D.
SENIOR STRATEGIST

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