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What’s the deal with gender pronouns? Why language matters

February 10, 2022 - 12 min read

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What are gender pronouns?

Why use gender pronouns?

Why using the appropriate pronoun matters

How gender pronouns promote inclusivity

How do you ask someone what their pronoun is?

What do you do when you use the wrong pronoun?

Tips for using gender pronouns the right way

You may have noticed conversations about gender pronouns popping up in the news, on social media, and even on Zoom. It’s becoming far more common for people to introduce themselves with their pronouns than it was even five years ago.

But what’s the deal with gender pronouns? Are they even necessary? The short answer is, yes. The correct use of pronouns is a powerful way to foster a sense of belonging both in and outside of work.

Learn the history of gender-neutral pronouns, why they’re so important, and how to be mindful in your everyday language.

What are gender pronouns?

Let’s start with a quick grammar lesson.

A pronoun is a word used to replace a noun in a sentence. We use them to refer to something or someone. Typically, pronouns are either singular or plural. Some languages, like English and Spanish, have gendered pronouns. In English, we use “he” to refer to male nouns, “she” for female nouns, and “it/they” for nouns with no or indeterminate gender.

The traditional use of “he/she” in English to refer to people assumes that gender is binary, and that people are either male or female. But in truth, gender exists on a spectrum. People can identify as male, female, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, or any number or other gender-expansive identities.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t assume a person’s pronouns. Their gender identity may or may not correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth, or how you perceive their clothing or name. The best practice is simply to ask how they want to be referred to. This may change over time or in different situations.

Why use gender pronouns?

So, why bother using gender pronouns? Well, if we spoke a language that didn’t insist on separating nouns into gender binaries, we wouldn’t have to. But since English traditionally uses “he” and “she” to refer to people, we have to be intentional about the language we use to un-trench the gender binary.

Using “he” and “she” exclusively to refer to people implies that gender non-conforming people need to be one or the other to be acknowledged. You don’t have the right to invalidate someone’s identity. Continually using the wrong pronouns to address or refer to someone is a form of hostility, also known as a microaggression.

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When did gender pronouns become a thing?

Believe it or not, English speakers' dissatisfaction with binary, gendered language was documented as early as 1795. Use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun predates this discussion by some three or four hundred years. Many languages – both modern and historical – don't gender their nouns at all, including Japanese, Tagalog, and Haitian Creole.

"They" has always been a source of some ire. Before it became a term for gender expression, editors rejected the idea of a singular, indeterminate pronoun. The word “they” was shunned by social conservatives and linguistic sticklers alike for some time.

Language, however, evolves to communicate experience. People found that expressing gender wasn't always necessary. In fact, many of us use the singular "they" in everyday conversation without thinking about it much at all. Consider the following examples:

"I love my barista – they make the best lattes."

"My friend lives pretty far out, so they usually leave early."

"Who wrote this article? They did a great job."

“They” is less a rejection of the gender binary as it is a need to express that, at times, gender is neither relevant or known — but the conversation still goes on.

Why using the appropriate pronoun matters

Imagine the following situation:

You meet a new colleague at work. They introduce themselves to you as Matthew. You’re a little surprised, because they look like a Michael to you — but whatever, you’re open-minded.

When you see them, you accidentally call them Michael — first in passing, then at a staff meeting. You apologize, but then you start to get a little annoyed. You just can’t wrap your head around it.

Later you complain to your colleague, “I mean, I don’t get the big deal. They look like a Michael, and they knew what I meant.”

...Ridiculous, right?

The thing is, when someone identifies themselves to you, you refer to them in that way as a sign of respect and acknowledgment. To do anything else is a not-so-subtle rejection of their identity. It communicates to these people that they aren’t welcome or accepted.

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How gender pronouns promote inclusivity

Unlike many other aspects of diversity, pronouns are part of everyday conversation. Using the correct pronouns is a way of affirming identity in every interaction. Because of the number of times we use pronouns in a conversation, we can show respect — or disrespect — that many times.

Whether you think it’s a big deal or not, gender pronouns are important. Their use has a direct impact on well-being and belonging. A 2016 study found that simply using the correct pronouns raises a person’s raises self-esteem. Youth who are able to use and be acknowledged by their correct name and pronoun experience significantly fewer symptoms of severe depression.

This impact to belonging doesn’t just hurt your employees — it hurts your entire business. Working with diverse groups of people makes us more innovative, creative, better collaborators, and more analytical. Companies led by inclusive leaders enjoy more productivity, higher engagement, and lower turnover.

How do you ask someone what their pronoun is?

Asking for someone’s pronouns can be nerve-wracking — but it’s a sign of respect and is often appreciated.

Often, the easiest way to ask for someone’s pronouns is to share your own pronouns first. You can just say “Hi, my name is Bobby, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.” People tend to reciprocate by introducing themselves the same way that you just did. Opening with your pronouns invites them to share theirs.

If you’re meeting virtually, you can share your pronouns next to your name or in your profile. Many platforms, including Zoom, LinkedIn, and Slack, have input fields specifically for your pronouns. Several others, like Twitter and email signatures, can be customized to include this information.

Finally, you shouldn’t wait until you’re unsure to ask. Make a practice of asking everyone. If you only ask when you’re not sure, you’re relying on the idea that everyone you meet who conforms to your ideas of gender must use the pronouns that make sense to you. And honestly, that’s a lot of “what ifs.” Save yourself — and them — some trouble and just ask.

What do you do when you use the wrong pronoun?

If you use the wrong pronouns when talking to someone, don’t make a huge deal out of it. It’s fine to apologize, correct yourself, and move on. 

The same holds true if you’re referring to that person when they’re not present. You can — and should — correct yourself and your coworkers even when they’re not there to hear you. It will help you avoid making mistakes in the future. 

More importantly, it will reaffirm the importance of using the right pronouns for everyone else. Having someone else occasionally “fight the good fight” makes life a little easier — and the workplace feel much more welcoming.

whats-the-deal-with-gender-pronouns-person-laying-on-sofa

Tips for using gender pronouns the right way

Here are some other things to keep in mind when you use pronouns at work:

  1. Normalize the use of pronouns by sharing your own.
  2. Don’t single out nonbinary people or joke about their pronouns.
  3. Be conscious of using everyone’s correct pronouns, whether they’re present or not.
  4. Use gender-inclusive language in company memos, content, and job descriptions.
  5. Use gender-inclusive terms when addressing a group, such as “everyone,” “colleagues,” or “attendees.”
  6. Prioritize respect in all conversations and interactions.
  7. Don’t assume someone’s gender pronouns. 
  8. Apologize if you’ve misgendered someone.
  9. Pay attention to the entire set of pronouns. People can use she/they, he/they, or pronouns you may not be familiar with, like zee and zir.

As a final, best practice, take the time to educate yourself. The gender-expansive employees in your workplace already have full-time jobs. They’ll likely resent having to be the spokesperson for the entire LGBTQ+ community. Nor can they, since each person will have their own preferences for how they want to be referred to. 

Avoid asking someone to explain their reasoning behind their pronouns. That line of questioning is invasive and rude. If someone gives you pronouns to use when addressing them, use those pronouns. A person's gender identity isn't up for debate.

Final thoughts

Many of us were raised in societies that enforced a "cut-and-dried" understanding of gender. We may never have thought about our use of gender pronouns and how they may affect others. If you’re not used to thinking outside the binary, you may have trouble getting used to using gender-inclusive pronouns. That’s okay.

Even if you don’t get it perfectly right all the time, the important thing is to try. Addressing someone the way they’ve asked to be addressed is a sign of respect. Just as you would if you mispronounced their name, you should try, apologize, and try again. Continually striving to get it right affirms to them that they’re worth getting it right.

You may never understand what’s the deal with gender pronouns, and that’s okay too. You don’t have to understand someone to treat them with respect. Using the correct pronouns is a simple way to show someone that they’re respected, welcome, and worthy of acknowledgment.

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Published February 10, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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