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You’ve probably noticed people adding pronouns to their LinkedIn profiles and email signatures.  Those involved with DEI efforts at more traditional workplaces may wonder if allowing employees to specify their pronouns makes a difference with “inclusion” outcomes. The answer is yes, particularly for employees under 40:

GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group found that 12% of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, meaning they do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth or their gender expression is different from conventional expectations of masculinity and femininity. This is double the number of transgender and gender non-conforming people reported by generation X (6%). 

We use pronouns most often when referring to someone without using their name.  The most commonly used pronouns are she/her and he/him, with they/them being used as singular and gender neutral.

Although many of us were taught in school that it isn’t proper to use the pronoun “they” when referring to a single person, grammar-lovers may find comfort that even Shakespeare used the pronoun “they” when he wrote Hamlet around 1599, based on common usage at the time. During the 18th century, people started defaulting to the masculine pronoun when describing someone of a non-specific gender in writing, marking the beginning of modern deference to masculinity in language, which all along has caused some people to bristle.

As gender-neutral pronouns like “they” have been reclaimed over the last few years, more people have put their preferred pronouns in visible places – such as their online platforms and their email signatures. The point of self-identifying is to avoid the common occurrence in which people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on the person’s appearance or name.  The recent emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion has highlighted damaging impacts of assumptions on social groups and invites us into a more empathetic culture of social interaction.

Fostering the use of self-identified pronouns in the workplace is important for at least four reasons.

  1. It allows individuals to self-select their gender identity.  This creates an opportunity for employee self-identification and self-expression.  When we say that we want employees to bring their whole self to work, this includes their gender identify.
  2. It empowers others to refer to individuals by their preferred pronoun, providing a practical way to be respectful and inclusive to others.  It also takes the guesswork out of interpersonal communications in the office, decreasing opportunities for microaggressions.
  3. It fosters a more inclusive workplace culture by acknowledging different identities that exist and creating the opportunity and room for more employees to show up at work the same way they show up outside of work.  
  4. It boosts positive feelings towards women and LGBT individuals. A recent study found that using gender neutral pronouns reduces mental biases that favor men and increases positive attitudes toward women and the LGBT community.  Talk about leveling the playing field.

It may be uncomfortable to venture into this new world of pronouns, but with the benefits to your workforce and workplace culture, it’s worth adopting.  Here are some ways your organization can adopt pronouns.

  • Increase awareness by training leaders and employees on pronouns. Emphasize the importance of respecting pronouns individuals use for themselves.
  • Empower managers by providing guidance on how to discuss pronouns during team meetings.
  • Encourage leaders to lead by example by adding pronouns to their email signatures, company webpages, LinkedIn page and other online platforms.
  • DO NOT make it mandatory for employees to include pronouns in email signatures.  Pronouns are about choice, and that includes the choice to opt out.
  • Rethink your dress code by removing gendered language and focus on specificity and functionality. In addition to dampening your inclusion efforts, a recent lawsuit shows that gender-based dress codes can be a litigation risk.
  • Revisit how you may be gendering your products or services, and as a result, excluding your markets and limiting the ways your teams approach their work.

The rise of pronouns is part of the global movement toward inclusion. Adopting it can help your organization create a more inclusive environment for your workforce. Before embarking on this journey, it’s worth digging deeper into the world of pronouns to understand the nuances that exist.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile