Preferred Pronouns At Work: Are You Current and Inclusive?
At business meetings, conferences and through email introductions, it is becoming more common to include pronouns of choice, identifying yourself as she/her, he/him or they/them. But everyone needs to move beyond the nametag to real efforts of inclusion.
Misusing pronouns in speaking about a colleague or business associate has recently become a concern for some, sparking backlash for those unfamiliar with the necessity to be empathic about pronoun preference and choice. And the implications run much deeper to a bias that needs to be addressed.
“Little attention used to be paid to pronouns. In recent years, however, they have become a cornerstone of the culture wars,” writes Arwa Mahdawi in The Guardian.
“Further, while pronoun introductions are supposed to be about recognizing that gender is complex, it sometimes seems as though they – paradoxically – reinforce gender binaries. Announcing yourself as a “she”, “he” or “they” would appear to buy into the notion that a “he” is completely different from a “she” – and if you don’t subscribe to traditional gender roles you should identify yourself as a “they,’” Mahdawi writes.
As a leader and a colleague, you can face backlash in the workplace and also offend coworkers, clients and bosses if you incorrectly refer to someone on your team or make a public announcement that uses pronouns the person has asked not be used.
New research from Pew shows that more Americans are aware of gender spectrum issues and are almost split evenly about the confort in using gender neutral pronouns.
“Overall, roughly half of Americans (52%) say they would be somewhat or very comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to someone, while 47% say they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable doing so.”
The good news is the gender pronoun issue is more widely known. “As the experiences of people who don’t identify as a man or a woman have gained attention, a majority of Americans say they have heard at least a little about the use of gender-neutral pronouns. And about one-in-five (18%) say they personally know someone who goes by such pronouns,” Pew reports.
“Overall, six in 10 Americans say they have heard at least a little about people preferring that others use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” instead of “he” or “she” when referring to them, including 22% who say they have heard a lot about preferences for such pronouns, according to a Pew Research Center survey.”
In a concert that opened in San Francisco recently, actresses Abby DePhillips, 23, and Kimberly Jenna Simon, 26, perform “Pronoun Showdown,” altering the pronouns of famous Broadway tunes. As an experiment, the pronoun switching changes the meaning and impact of all of the songs.
TIAA, the financial services and investing giant, recently “rolled out new gender-identity awareness guidelines for its client-facing consultants. The guidance included: ‘Never assume someone’s gender identity’ and ‘Be aware that a person’s pronouns can change over time. They may also change based on context,’” writes Lilla MacLellan in Quartz.
Many large corporations and organizations are following the lead with suggested or mandatory pronoun pronouncements.
MacLellan writes, “In the past year, Workday, the human resources and payroll management platform that counts Amazon, Target, and Bank of America among its clients, made it possible for people to log into its dashboard and update their profiles with their pronouns and gender identity, the latter of which incorporates 20 options, including cis gender, non-binary, and gender fluid.”
The impact of the shift to intentionally discuss and announce preferred pronouns in the workplace is obvious, as is respecting the preferences of every person in the workplace in real time or virtually. Yet, a mandatory request for someone to declare the preference is not so welcome.
“The problem, obviously, is that not everyone identifies as a he or she, meaning this style is inherently exclusive, intoning, at worst, that those who don't fit into male or female gender identities aren't part of the world we report on or, at best, that they are the exception to the rule. Of course, the gender non-binary, gender fluid, genderqueer and people in transition among us are important parts of our community and the stories we write and it's long past time that our choice of grammatical style reflects that,” write Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Thadeus Greensoon in North Coast Journal.
One response—and perhaps unwise—is to avoid the use of pronouns altogether. The Department of Justice did that recently in a U.S. Supreme Court case, according to the American Bar Association Journal.
“The U.S. Department of Justice and a funeral home that fired a transgender woman managed to avoid gender pronouns in Supreme Court briefs opposing her bias claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In more than 110 pages of briefs, fired funeral director and embalmer Aimee Stephens is repeatedly referred to her by her name; no gender pronouns are used, the Associated Press reports,” according to the ABA.
In a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found “those who used gender-neutral pronouns (in the study) were more likely to use non-male names (in a later task.) The gender-neutral pronoun also appeared to improve positive feelings towards LGBT people,” The Guardian reports.
Laura Russell, director of research, policy and campaigns at Stonewall, told The Guardian: “The language we use is important, especially when it comes to describing or referencing someone’s identity. This study adds to the evidence showing that when we use language that actively includes women and LGBT people, it makes a real difference in reducing gender stereotyping. Using gender-neutral language is a positive step towards creating a world where everyone is accepted without exception.”
This study may be a source of optimism about shifting a specific culture—perhaps workplace culture too—away from gender bias and toward a more inclusive, non-binary inclusivity. This gender neutral approach may be another step in achieving gender parity in leadership across all sectors by 2025, the mission of Take The Lead.
Adam Rogers writes in Wired, “Languages handle pronouns and gender in different ways. Some avoid gender altogether, some gender just the pronouns, others inflect the nouns, too. Certain languages even use masculine words or forms as plurals or generics—like “all mankind,” for example, as a stand-in for all people. That’s called androcentrism, the idea that men also represent everyone.”
Rogers writes, ”And over the years, linguists and other social scientists have come up with a few ideas to combat it—to neutralize androcentric terminology and concepts. You can pare down pairs of masculine and feminine words with the same meaning to just one—aviator and aviatrix to pilot, waiter and waitress to waiter, author and authoress to author. You could make up new words and terms—firefighter, mail carrier, police officer. In pronoun land, that’d be ideas like ze or e. Or you could do what English seems to be trending toward, which is to take a non-gendered, plural, third-person pronoun—they—and repurpose it as singular.”
The pronoun changes can be seen as a welcome shift away from gender bias to gender equity—and human equity. They could offer everyone hope.