Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace can take months, if not years, to get right, and one important part of the equation includes taking time to open conversations about people’s pronouns.
There are few things as personal as the way in which people refer to us – both through our name, and our pronouns. What are gender pronouns? Gender pronouns, sometimes called PGPs, are words that individuals want others to use when talking to, or about, them. The most common gender pronouns include “he/him” and “she/her,” but people who identify as transgender, non-binary, or gender nonconforming may opt to use different pronouns to best suite them, such as “they/them.”
If you’ve never had to worry about what pronouns people use, the use of pronouns might not seem important. But for people like Max Appenroth, a German-based trans activist, diversity consultant, and PhD candidate at the Institute of Public Health at the Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin, pronouns make a big difference.
Appenroth first came out as trans twelve years ago. At first, they opted to use “he/him” pronouns because they thought “if I’m not a woman, I must be a man and therefore have to use male pronouns,” the activist said in an interview with the Adecco Group.
But approximately nine years later, they realized that there is much more than the gender binary and that they don’t have to be a man – or use male pronouns (Appenroth now uses “they/them” pronouns).
Roberto Andres Ampuero Nawrath, who identifies as non-binary, also began questioning the concept of gender as a social construct when theybecame an LGBTIQ+ activist. “It wasn’t until a year ago, when I moved to Berlin, when I left the fears behind and started sharing that my genders are not only he/him but also, they/them,” Nawrath, who works at the Adecco Group, said.
Laura McGeachin, an employee at the Adecco Group, had a similar revelation five years ago, when they first came out as non-binary. From a young age, they said, they felt uncomfortable with gender labels – and never felt connected to the “she/her” pronouns that many used with them (McGeachin is AFAB - assigned female at birth).
Pronouns refer to a person’s identity, Narwath explained, and when someone uses the wrong pronouns, it can feel hurtful and embarrassing. So how can you ask someone about their pronouns? What happens if you use the wrong pronouns? And how can pronouns promote diversity and inclusion? Here is our introductory guide.
How can you ask someone about their pronouns?
Many hetero- and cisnormative people don’t understand the importance of referring to people by their correct pronouns, especially if they have never had to worry about someone using the wrong pronouns to refer to them.
You can’t always tell what someone’s gender pronouns are by looking at them. Moreover, assumptions might not be correct. Making your pronouns visible, even in small ways (think: an email signature) can go a long way towards normalizing this behaviour and making it more acceptable for people to ask what your pronouns might be.
So how can you ask someone about their pronouns?
The best way is to introduce yourself with your pronouns – and ask them for theirs, according to Appenroth.
“If someone might get confused by that question, just tell them, it’s your intention to make sure to refer to them correctly,” they said. “This question should be built into our everyday life. We shouldn’t only ask, when we are unsure of a person, because we might not be able to read them based on their gender expression.” But it should always be optional for people to answer that question.
It’s also important to maintain a friendly tone, McGeachin said.
“Think about how you like to be spoken to, and don’t see it as something to be afraid or embarrassed of asking,” McGeachin said. “It’s not so different to asking someone how they like to be referred to by their name. ‘So do you go by Jim or James?’ could be ‘So do you go by he/she or they?’”
How does it feel when someone uses the wrong pronouns?
It can be awkward, embarrassing, or disrespectful when someone does not use your correct pronouns. That feeling can compound when the person realizes how easily it could all have been avoided, too.
“For a long time, I felt awkward and embarrassed to call people out for not respecting my pronouns, but I have been pleasantly surprised that most people have accepted my pronouns without issue,” McGeachin said.
They said it can feel great to work in a safe space where you feel respected. Because regardless of the person’s intention, when someone does not use the correct pronouns, it can feel demeaning – and diminish a person’s sense of identity.
“For some people, it can trigger a strong emotional response because even if it doesn’t seem like a ‘big deal’ to one person, to someone else it is integral to their sense of self or their feeling of self worth,” McGeachin said. “And you never know how much abuse or conflict they have already had to endure over this – to you it’s just a word, to them it’s a fight to be recognised as a person.”
What happens if you use the wrong pronouns?
If you find yourself using the wrong pronouns in the moment, simply correct yourself and apologize. “It happens, so don’t panic,” McGeachin said. “Apologize, acknowledge, and move on. Sometimes it takes practice to adjust.”
If you realize you have used the wrong pronouns later on, it’s always nice to apologize in private to the person as a sign of respect. After all, we’re all human, and we all make mistakes, Appenroth said.
“If it happens that you use the wrong pronoun of a person, just stand up to your mistake, tell them: ‘I’m sorry, I realized I made a mistake. I’ll do better next time,’” Appenroth said. “And that’s it. Just acknowledging and standing up to the mistakes we made already goes a very long way and speaking from experience, a small gesture like this is much appreciated.”
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to use someone’s correct gender pronouns. And if you do end up forgetting and apologize, it’s always best to correct the mistake – and be better in the future.
Why using proper pronouns is so important, both in the workplace and outside it
While Appenroth doesn’t feel strongly about using pronouns in general, they do feel it is important to use a person’s correct pronouns. After all, there are many situations in which you may need to refer to a person by their pronouns – it’s an automatic part of many languages.
For many people, there is no difference between how other people perceive their gender identity and how they self-identify. However, others might feel deeply uncomfortable when someone refers to them as “she” or “he.”
“It’s pretty much up to us to avoid triggering such negative feelings like I have very often in my daily life - both professionally and in personal encounters,” Appenroth said. “To create a respectful environment, where everyone should not only feel but really is seen, it’s essential that we make an effort to address people in the way they feel comfortable and how it reflects who they are.”
Using the correct pronouns is also a sign of respect for friends, colleagues, and others you might interact with, McGeachin said. It’s important to be mindful and aware of how we treat others.
“If someone constantly got your name wrong, you would feel irritated and insulted – pronouns are similar for me. If someone is disinterested or resistant to respecting others, this sadly can normalise poor behaviour and other people follow suit,” McGeachin said.
Promoting inclusivity through pronouns
The experience of being misgendered can be hurtful, distracting, and saddening. It can be an embarrassing situation for both sides and may lead to tension between co-workers.
Opening up the conversation about pronouns is the first step to building a more inclusive workplace. By using pronouns correctly, you are also increasing visibility for people who are trans, non-binary, or agender. McGeachin hopes that, by including pronouns in her communications, people will be more open to changing their habits – and more willing to embrace diversity.
“If disrespect normalises poor behaviours, using pronouns normalises acceptance and inclusion,” they said. “I also believe that as more people realise that it isn’t a difficult or ‘weird’ thing to do, it might challenge other misconceptions they might have.”
Using the correct pronouns can be the start of opening up new conversations, particularly when leaders do this, Nawrath said.
“Diversity & Inclusion is an educational path, and leaders must start getting involved in topics such as gender pronouns since it’s the most efficient way to prove all colleagues that these topics really matter. I believe this will truly make the future work for everyone,” they said.
Normalizing this behaviour makes space for each individual to fully express themselves and bring their full, “uncensored” selves to work, Appenroth said.
“Trans and gender diverse people like myself have learnt to scan a situation, environment, or an encounter in between people, to make sure to stay safe,” Appenroth said. “If, for example, I enter a meeting and I see a bunch of pronouns stickers next to the name tags, I’m much more likely to fully open up to people in the meeting, share my ideas and thoughts and to feel comfortable in that space, than if there wasn’t an option to state my pronouns.”
“But talking about pronouns is not only a matter that supports trans and gender diverse people. Promoting diversity and inclusion opens up a space for everyone to reflect about themselves and to potentially find personal attributes and traits, they would have never explored otherwise. It’s a win-win-situation for everyone,” Appenroth added.
By including your gender pronouns in your email signature, for example, workers can show they respect and care about those in the workplace that are questioned about their gender identity. It’s also a step forward for many to acknowledge their privilege – and normalize the use of pronouns. Regardless of how you identify, there are some simple ways to make someone aware of your pronouns:
- Include them in your email signature
- Include them in your social media profiles, like LinkedIn, Slack, or Zoom
- Include your pronouns when you introduce yourself, both in person and virtually
Small gestures like these can even springboard and start new conversations about gender identity, too.
“It may feel weird in the beginning to talk about your own pronouns and to ask people about theirs. But believe me, you’ll get comfortable with it and it’s a great support my community and beyond,” Appenroth said.