Gender pronouns in the workplace have received heightened attention in recent years, as employees who identify as transgender or gender non-binary struggle to be recognized by the pronouns that match their gender identity — not necessarily the ones others assume they use. While some people use “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers,” others may use “they/them/theirs” or a different set of pronouns.
“We’re in a talent-driven economy, and you can’t hire and retain fabulous people if you don’t recognize their humanity,” Raleigh-based human resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann told Moneyish. “Whether or not you want to participate in the cultural and scientific discussion around sex and gender, it’s happening. Much like our language has evolved on race, it’s evolving on gender and sexuality. Change now or change later, but eventually your language will have to change.”
And misgendering — the act of referring to someone in a way that incorrectly reflects their gender identity, like referring to Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce Jenner — can do real harm. A 2014 study of transgender individuals, for example, found that 32.8% of participants felt “very stigmatized” when they were misgendered.
At its most basic level, calling a person by their pronoun conveys a “fundamental” respect, Beck Bailey, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Workplace Equality program, told Moneyish. “Even if you’re someone who’s not transgender or gender non-binary, you can kind of understand that,” Bailey said. “People know when they’re called by the wrong name or inappropriately addressed; they resonate with how that just doesn’t feel good.”
“If you think it’s hard to remember to (ask for pronouns), I would say think about how hard it must be for the person who’s always having to correct everyone, and what that must feel like,” added Paula Brantner, an employment attorney and senior adviser to the nonprofit Workplace Fairness.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) got her own small taste last week with a pro-forma birthday greeting from President Trump addressed to “Congressman Jayapal.” “It’s CongressWOMAN Jayapal,” she corrected.
But for people like Max Masure, a transgender gender inclusion strategist from Brooklyn who uses they/them pronouns, misgendering can be mortifying. Masure, who co-founded the group Argo Collective, recalled a barista last year calling out the feminine birth name on their credit card at a cafe. “I felt not safe, because I felt like I was outed as being a trans person in a public space,” they told Moneyish. “My feeling was like, ‘Wow, who heard that? Who now knows that I’m a trans person, and what will happen to me if someone is not OK with that?’”
The experience can result in a loss of “the sense of belonging, of being seen,” Masure added, and make you feel distracted at work. “If this happens over and over again, you don’t feel yourself and you don’t feel that you can be at your best,” they said.
Those looking to signal their pronouns either formally or informally in the workplace might do so in a couple of ways, Bailey said. One method might be to include pronouns in their email signature (e.g., “pronouns: they/them”); another, depending on the formality of that particular workplace, might be to wear a button specifying pronouns.
At the institutional level, companies might also encourage people to put pronouns in their email signature. (Such a policy should also come with broader education efforts around transgender and non-binary inclusion, Bailey said.) Company directories could include pronouns as part of employee profiles, he added.
And documents provided as early as the hiring process and onboarding can be written to include a place to identify your pronouns, allow workers to specify non-gendered partners and provide an equal-opportunity statement that includes gender identity, Brantner said.
“Think about every document that you ask an employee to read or sign or fill out: How can you make those inclusive from the very beginning?” she said. “Because that sends a message to your potential applicant pool, to new employees, to existing employees, of how new people will be brought into the office and integrated into the specific culture of that workplace.”
Technology, Ruettimann added, “makes it easier than ever to be inclusive.” “It’s possible to ask for preferred pronouns as part of an automated, consistent onboarding process,” she said. “Formerly squeamish and sensitive recruiters and human resource managers don’t need to overcome their objections or manage their sensibilities. Technology can ask questions that feel awkward or might embarrass untrained corporate professionals.”
If institutional change isn’t a possibility for you, Masure said, having a close coworker who can correct people when they use the wrong pronouns can help — that way, “you’re not the one having to correct everyone every time.” “If it’s coming from another coworker,” they said, “it’s the best way to try to spread the usage of the pronoun.”
And if you’re a cisgender person whose gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth, you can be an ally. For starters, Masure said, you can introduce yourself using your own pronouns, forging a natural opening for the other person to specify theirs. “For example … ‘Hi, my name is Max and I use they/them pronouns,’” they said. “That means you actually open the discussion for someone to share their pronouns, and it’s really inclusive and welcoming.”
Provided your company doesn’t have any rules governing email signatures, Bailey added, including your pronouns can be a great way to show allyship.
“I saw it as a step that I could affirmatively take to show my support for trans issues and to clarify (my pronouns) in business settings,” Brantner said of including the pronouns “she/her/hers” in her email signature. “I wanted to model best practices and convey that this is an issue that I was aware of and sensitive to and supportive in working with people through these issues.”
When you’re addressing a group of people, Masure added, steer clear of using the word “guys” as a collective greeting. “I think sometimes, somehow in our vernacular, ‘guys’ has somehow been deemed as gender-neutral, but of course it’s not,” Bailey said. “You can use ‘folks’ or ‘people’ or ‘Hi, everyone’ — there are many other terms that are not gendered, that are inclusive of everyone and that are friendly and welcoming.”
If you make a mistake in the way you address someone, Bailey said, just apologize, correct yourself and move on. “It can take some time to adjust,” Brantner added. “It’s a new concept for some people, and I think if you show good faith and that you’re working on it … that others will work with you.”
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