The Importance of Gender-Inclusive Language
Like me, you may have noticed the recent increase in people including personal pronouns in their work signature lines or social media bios, which made me think about why this language matters, particularly in workplaces. As I went down this path of discovery, I found “A Guide to Using Pronouns and Other Gender-Inclusive Language in the Office,” by Stav Ziv, to be very helpful. She argues that language is an integral part of helping employees thrive by creating a space where every individual feels they can bring their full selves to work.
At the most basic level, correct pronoun use is about recognizing part of someone’s identity. It may seem simple, but it can be very meaningful. As Stav says in her article, small tweaks can lead to better communication for everyone, whether you are transgender or gender non-conforming, or even if you have a name that could be mistaken for a different gender between different languages, cultures, or generations. You can proactively accommodate all your colleagues and clients by learning more about gender-inclusive language. I would say it is not only doable, it is essential.
To some, the shift towards normalizing the use of personal pronouns has been a long time coming. To others, there is hesitation, even resistance, in using personal pronouns. It is only recently that mainstream workplace culture has begun to recognize that gender is not a binary, and not everyone’s gender conforms to the sex they were assigned at birth, or to either gender, or even to one static gender.
I may be getting ahead of myself, so why don’t we take a few steps back. Let’s start with some basics.
What are Personal Pronouns?
This is a good place to start. What are personal pronouns you ask?
Pronouns are the words used in place of specific people, places or things. Personal pronouns like “me, myself and I” are how people talk about themselves, and personal pronouns like “you, she, he and they” are some pronouns that people use to talk about others. Personal pronouns are used to convey a person’s gender identity and don’t necessarily align with the sex a person was assigned at birth. People who are transgender or gender nonconforming may choose to use pronouns that don’t conform to the binary male/female gender categorizations, and instead might use pronouns such as “they, them, theirs”.
Why do pronouns matter?
So, we’ve covered what pronouns are, but why do they matter, especially in the workplace?
It matters because whether we know it or not, gendered language creeps its way into our everyday speech, especially in law. Phrases like “manpower,” “working mother,” or “lady boss” are terms I hear all too frequently. This gendered language not only makes people feel uncomfortable, but it also unconsciously perpetuates outdated power structures. Language is an important part of creating a workplace where everybody feels welcomed and included.
For most, their singular and visible gender identity is a privilege. Not everybody has this privilege. For myself, I acknowledge that I have never been questioned about my gender identity. I’m cisgender, meaning I identify with the sex assigned to me at birth. But I also include pronouns in my email signature for one simple reason – it normalizes discussions about gender. The simple fact is, you cannot always tell, nor should you assume, someone’s gender pronouns by looking at them. Most of us are used to looking at someone and categorizing them into “he” or “she” which can lead to the problem of misgendering someone, even if unintentionally.
Misgendering occurs when you intentionally or unintentionally refer to a person, relate to a person, or use language to describe a person that doesn’t align with their affirmed gender. For example, referring to a woman as “he” or calling her a “guy” is an act of misgendering. Misgendering is a habit that’s so ingrained, we don’t even realize we’re doing it, even with our own colleagues.
The pressure to be seen as easy-going or at the very least, not be categorized as someone who causes tension in the workplace, is a common feeling regardless of where you fall on the gender spectrum. This becomes an issue though for the many individuals with diverse gender identities and gender expressions who aren’t able to be publicly “out” in their communities and workplaces. This means these individuals have to deal with being misgendered on an ongoing basis. Even in supportive environments this remains an issue as some people may not feel they can easily share their true pronouns for fear of negative repercussions. Taking the simple step of including your own pronoun in your signature line or social media bio not only prevents others from misgendering you, it also reduces the risk of you misgendering others. Ultimately, it lifts the burden from those of your colleagues or clients that may identify as transgender or non-binary from having to explain their identity. Again. And again.
This feels Weird. Where am I supposed to Start?
Okay, great now we know what pronouns are and why they matter… so why does this all feel awkward? Well, most things that are new are inherently uncomfortable. If this is your first time thinking about the pronouns you use for yourself and are just now learning how diverse pronouns can be, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to do, especially if you’re not used to thinking one’s gender identity may differ from their biological sex. But here’s the thing, misgendering someone is not only disrespectful, according to the Ontario Human Rights Code, misgendering is considered a form of discrimination.
The goal is to keep developing your gender literacy until it becomes second nature. An easy way for companies to do this is to introduce gender pronouns into the conversation by including them in email signatures. Along with this simple step, here are some other tips on how you can implement gender inclusive language in your workplace:
-Don’t assume someone’s gender or pronouns.
-Pronouns are not “preferred,” it is who someone is. For example, I do not prefer to be called she/her, because I just am she/her.
-If you’re referring to someone before you know what pronouns they use, opt for gender-neutral pronouns (like they/them/their) or none at all (for example, by using their name).
-Lead by example, put your pronoun in your bio across your social media and work platforms and encourage others to do so too.
-Mistakes are bound to happen, but we need to hold each other accountable and help each other learn.
Misgendering your colleagues and clients can make them feel uncomfortable, othered, or even endangered. GLAAD says normalizing the use of pronouns in your workplace creates a safe space so everyone can bring their whole self to work, no longer needing to censor or hide parts of themselves. This leads to greater productivity, creativity and connection with colleagues and your organizational purpose.
A simple step such as adding your pronouns to your email signature has the practical benefit of signaling to colleagues and clients this is how to refer to you and is a great first step to building inclusivity at work and helps normalize the practice across the board. It brings awareness to something that many people might not have thought about before. Perhaps more importantly, it signals to the recipient that you respect their gender identity and pronouns. It is a simple but effective way of normalizing discussions about gender and creating an inclusive environment, not only for transgender and non-binary people, but for everyone.
Overall, pronoun inclusion is a small way to support individuals with diverse gender identities and gender expressions on a daily basis. Being aware of pronouns, and the way societies attitudes are changing to them is a valuable tool for employers, employees, and clients. By adopting this practice, you can contribute to a more inclusive and safer workplace for all.
About the Author
Jaeda Lee is an associate at Harper Grey LLP practicing in insurance and health law. An avid volunteer, Jaeda gives much of her time to the ACTS Water Charity, an organization focused on providing clean, accessible water to those who need it most.