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What's In A Pronoun?

Pronouns -- we all use them as part of everyday conversation. A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (like “I” or “you”) or someone or something that is being talked about (like “she,” “it,” “them,” and “this”). Gender pronouns (such as “he/him/his” and “she/her/hers”) refer to people that you are talking about. Gender pronouns are the way that we constantly refer to each other’s gender identity - except we often don’t think a whole lot about them. Usually we interpret or “read” a person’s gender based on their outward appearance and expression, and “assign” a pronoun. But our reading may not be a correct interpretation of the person’s gender identity.1,2

Why Pronouns Matter

Nothing may be more personal than the way in which people refer to us through our name and pronouns. Using a person’s chosen name and desired pronouns is a form of mutual respect and basic courtesy. In the workplace, employees should have the option of articulating their preferred name and the way this is articulated may vary across settings -- formal vs. informal, email vs. in-person meetings, name badges, business cards and so on.

But what about pronouns? The experience of being misgendered can be hurtful, angering, and even distracting. The experience of accidentally misgendering someone can be embarrassing for both parties, creating tension and leading to communication breakdowns across teams and with customers. It’s important to remember that gender identity is not visible -- it’s an internal sense of one’s own gender. While most people align across their birth-assigned sex, their gender identity, their gender expression and how everyone else interprets their gender -- some people do not. A culture that readily asks or provides pronouns is one committed to reducing the risk of disrespect or embarrassment for both parties1,2

8 Things You Should Know About Pronouns

  1. Pronouns are words used to refer to either the people who are talking (like “I” or “you”) or a person being talked about in the third person (like “she/her,” “he/him,” and “they/them”). Since some pronouns are gendered (“she/her” and “he/him”), it is important to be intentional about the way we use pronouns to help create an inclusive environment.2
  2. We can all create a more inclusive and welcoming environment by self-identifying our pronouns in our emails, on name tags or when introducing ourselves in meetings. This gives everyone an opportunity to self-identify. Putting pronouns into practice shows a commitment to building an affirming space for all types of identities and experiences.3
  3. Transgender and non-binary people may use pronouns differing from traditional or perceived binary gender expressions, such as clothing, hairstyle or mannerisms.3
  4. Non-binary gender identity is any gender identity that does not fall within the traditional categories typically considered to be binary -- either man or woman. Culturally, there has been increasing recognition and visibility of people who are gender non-conforming and do not identify exclusively as either male or female.4
  5. Gender identity is different than sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is about who we're attracted to. Gender non-conforming and transgender people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight.5
  6. Individuals may use gender neutral pronouns, such as they/them. Using they/them in the singular form may take practice, but it is a safer choice if you haven’t had the opportunity to learn someone’s pronoun. Here is an example of they/them in a sentence: John is presenting the second agenda item during today’s meeting, as they are the expert on patient insights.3
  7. If you don't know what pronouns to use, listen first. It may be appropriate to ask which pronoun the person uses, but start with your own. For example, "Hi, I'm Alex and I use the pronouns he and him. What about you?"6
  8. If you misgender someone by using the wrong pronoun: apologize, correct yourself and move on by using the correct pronoun.3