Why pronouns matter

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Written by Joanne Lockwood on 23 May 2022 in Features
Features

Joanne Lockwood (she/her) on why understanding specific language is central to understanding how gender is changing 

For the LGBTQ+ community and many others, gender and pronoun awareness are at the heart of inclusivity, but training is increasingly needed to develop employees' understanding of how gender is changing for the long term and how important contemporary language is.
 
While Pride this June will show us how far the community has progressed, it was only in 1990 that the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders! In the workplace, the LGBTQ+ community still faces isolation, harassment, discrimination, inequality, and fewer opportunities than their colleagues, with many still not accepted for their true identity.  
 
The best estimate of the proportion of the UK population that is transgender, including people who identify as non-binary, is around 1-2%. Strongly held gender norms have been highly enforced for centuries so it is taking time to build awareness around the contemporary gender movement. It is made harder because gender identity is not always visible as it is the individual’s own gender identity and expression that is crucial, rather than how it is interpreted by others or according to the gender they were assigned at birth. 
 
Most people don’t mean to insult by using the wrong pronouns but repeated misgendering is unacceptable and is a microaggression
 
Gender stereotyping is painful to those who choose to use alternative pronouns to avoid being misgendered such as trans and non-binary individuals. If you are cisgender imagine being called a gender that you are not. We all want to be identified as who we truly are which means we need equality and respect for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

On an individual level, most people don’t mean to offend by using the wrong pronouns but repeated misgendering is unacceptable and is a microaggression. Ultimately the buck stops with an employee’s organisation which needs to ensure it has a transparent protocol and a safe work culture. Leaders need to lead by example and there needs to be a powerful cultural shift around diversity and inclusion.
 
What you need to know

Using the correct pronoun shows you respect and accept an individual’s right to be as they choose. There are currently 78 pronouns, the most common of which are:
 
He/him/his – male pronouns
She/her/hers – female pronouns
They/them/theirs – gender-neutral group pronouns and singular pronouns
Ze/zir/zirs – neutral singular pronouns for those not wanting to use they/them/theirs.
 
If you are not sure how someone identifies, don’t make assumptions; introduce yourself to your co-worker and tell them what pronouns you identify with, giving them the opportunity to share. Those who are misgendered can feel as though they are failing to be allowed to be who they choose and that she/he/they are not accepted, validated, included, or good enough.
 
Creating a culture of inclusion by using pronouns 
Increase discussions about gender 
This is something that benefits everyone. It helps create an inclusive and supportive work environment in particular for transgender and non-binary people, as it can reduce the burden on them to explain their identity repeatedly. 
 
Add your pronouns to your email signature 
While some add their pronouns to their email signature to avoid being misgendered, anyone can show support and allyship to the community by using them too.  
 
Respect there are different stages of gender and identification 
Some people are confident in sharing their pronouns, whilst others could be at a different stage of their gender identity and may need more time, or they may fear discrimination.  
 
Don’t question the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun
'They’ is an accepted term in the dictionary as a way to refer to someone who is nonbinary; that is who identifies as neither exclusively male nor female so talking about it as ‘incorrect English’ is a microaggression. Awkwardness and questioning someone’s identity is unhelpful for progression.
 
Be language aware
For example, addressing an audience using ‘ladies and gentlemen’ is outdated and insulting to many people in the community. We need awareness of contemporary language. 
 
Use training to create a culture of inclusion
 
Education. Education. Education 
Take action through positive awareness training, whether it be through training videos, e-learning, webinars, interactive workshops, guest speakers, inclusion masterclasses, or internal communication. We need to do better with our awareness of gender and the importance of pronouns.
 
Come from a place of understanding
Any type of gender-inclusive training needs to be professionally delivered by individuals or businesses who can genuinely help deepen employee understanding of the issues.
 
Create a safe space 
Let everyone bring their authentic self to work so colleagues don’t censor or conceal parts of themselves. When employees bring their authentic (and therefore best) selves to work, the business itself will benefit from better productivity, collaboration, innovation, creativity and teamwork, and stronger relationships within the business, and with customers and business partners. 
 
Adopt bias-free communication
Ensure any collection of workplace data allows for the inclusion of pronouns. Policies and contracts that only have the female and male gender options are outdated. Update the wording in all marketing and business material to encompass all gender identities including providing an option not to say, as not everyone wants to share. 
 
Create an opportunity to disclose preferred names and genders 
This can be done during the recruitment, interviewing and onboarding processes, during introductions, on internal social networks, on online platforms, and within digital directories.
 
Anyone can add their pronoun
Let your staff know they can (if they wish) add their pronoun to their email signature, business cards, name lanyards and video calls. 
 
Celebrate people’s differences
Diversity and inclusion create a healthier working environment that increases productivity, creativity and new thinking, reduces bullying and harassment, and promotes respect and acceptance. 
 
Joanne Lockwood (she/her) is founder and CEO of SEE Change Happen
 

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