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What are Gender Pronouns? Why Do They Matter?

Collage of illustrated diverse persons labeled with pronouns she/her/he/him/they/them/ze/hir

Words are powerful language tools that help us convey meaning and connect. We use words to communicate, characterize, and describe everything around us. Nothing may be more personal than the words people use to refer to us through our names and pronouns.

Employees now have more opportunities to encounter a wider range of gender identities and expressions at workplace1. While many transgender people identify on a binary scale – as either male or female – some do not and may instead refer to themselves as "genderqueer," "gender fluid," "non-binary" or other terms. These gender-expansive identities are generally considered part of the greater transgender community.

How should we use pronouns for gender-expansive employees?
Traditionally, many languages use gender binary pronouns and suffixes. For example, 'he/him/his' with men and 'she/her/hers' with women. This binary reference of gender no longer applies to the increasing broadening nomenclature of gender identities and expressions.

Gender-expansive employees – those that do not self-identify as male or female – often challenge existing understanding and norms around gender. They may opt to use gender-expansive pronouns such as "they, them and theirs" instead of the gendered "he, him and his" or "she, her and hers." Other options also exist, though we may use them less often such as "ze, sie, zie, hir." Also, gendered honorifics such as "Ms." or "Mr." may change to the more inclusive "Mx (pronounced as MIX)." All of these are simply more examples of how people express their identities using languages which fail to include gender neutral pronouns in the interest of greater equality.2

Why does using appropriate pronouns matter for inclusion?
Correctly using an individual's preferred pronoun is an easy way to show respect or using a gender-neutral pronoun if not indicated or unsure. Whether intentional or unintentional, using the wrong pronouns can be hurtful, angering, and even distracting. It is like saying, "you don't matter to me, and I do not respect you as a person." Having your identity invalidated puts a strain on how a person moves about in society and how they interact with others.

The experience of accidentally misgendering someone can be embarrassing for both parties, creating tension and leading to communication breakdowns across teams and with customers.3

What can we do to make a more inclusive environment?
Organizations need to be aware of the importance of pronouns in the LBGTQ community and explore appropriate solutions if they are seeking to be an inclusive workplace.

Organizations can encourage all employees regardless gender identities to put their preferred pronounce in their email signature, name tags; check with speakers for their preferred pronouns when preparing conference materials, bios, and introductions; and make corrections when needed because we are a learning community.

But what about pronouns?
You may have noticed that people are sharing their pronouns in introductions, on nametags, email signatures, and when meetings begin.

These actions help make our workplace more inclusive of transgender, gender nonconforming, and gender non-binary people. Using appropriate pronouns is a first step toward respecting people's gender identity and creating a more welcoming space for people of all genders. Whatever approach we take to address pronouns, the bottom line is that everyone deserves to have their self-ascribed name and pronouns respected in the workplace.4

By Gemma Martin, Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Awardee Griffith Lab, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and Louis Choporis, Management Analyst, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences



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