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Pride Month: The importance of using gender pronouns in the workplace

Whilst we all live in a much more progressive society than we ever have before, there is still a danger of misgendering someone’s identity. The use of gender pronouns in the workplace can therefore help and is an important part of LGBT+ inclusion.

Background

The Oxford Dictionary defines a pronoun as ‘a word that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase, for example ‘he, it, hers, me, them, etc.’. We use them all the time whether in a possessive, personal, impersonal or preferred way.

In the workplace we are slowly seeing more employers allowing their staff to share their gender pronouns to promote their gender identity, whether that be on an email signature, business card or otherwise, in the pursuit of improved diversity and inclusion, particularly for the LGBT+ community, and overall good employer/employee relations. With Pride month upon us this article provides a timely reminder of the importance of using gender pronouns in the workplace, both now and in the future.

We have to remember that someone’s perceived gender identity may not always be correct; identities are diverse and not always binary. Just because a child was born a boy does not mean that that person identities as a male later in life. Someone’s actual gender identity is their own innate sense of identity in society at that time and this should be respected. Therefore to refer to a known individual who identifies as non-binary or gender fluid, as growing numbers do, with the correct pronoun of they, them or their has to be correct. Pronouns are used to refer to a person’s actual gender identity, and some people prefer to be referred to personally and/or in a gender-neutral way, it is their choice and therefore a form of mutual respect and courtesy.

Including gender pronouns in an email signature, referring to them at the beginning of a meeting (during introductions, saying ‘my pronouns are…’), or using them in headlines / user names on professional platforms such as LinkedIn or Instagram, are all ways in which employers can increase awareness, and can particularly contribute to transgender staff or those who do not identify with binary definitions of gender (non-binary identities) feeling more comfortable in the workplace. Giving staff the option to refer to their pronouns at work can also foster a more inclusive environment, where employees can be themselves at all times; improve communications and general dialogue on what was a previously very sensitive subject; normalise discussions about gender identity for all in a respectful way; demonstrate allyship and generally encourage more conscious everyday inclusion of colleagues, clients, customers and other business contacts.

Employers can also encourage conversations, such as with visible pronouns, which will help to remove any assumptions or judgements that people might make. And we need to do this because we, being society in general, still misinterpret someone’s gender based upon their outward appearance, or often simply by our subconscious minds. Society will still ask a gay man how his wife is if he is of a certain age, or how his kids are, despite him having been in a committed relationship with his same-sex partner for many years. Our societal assumptions are not always correct and everyone deserves to have their chosen gender pronouns respected in the workplace. Raising awareness and acceptance of the many different gender identities that surround us can only be a good thing. It’s time to minimise the many mistakes that have been made over the years from this point onwards. But the choice to use gender pronouns must of course be a personal one and employers must continue to balance the views of all of their staff – particularly when considering religious beliefs.

Employers should therefore consider giving their staff the option to refer to their pronouns at work. Support for this will include employers asking their staff, particularly senior leaders, to get into the habit of using ‘they/them’ in conversation or correspondence until they know someone’s chosen gender pronouns. Once that person’s pronouns are properly known, any introductions and subsequent conversation that follow can offer the correct use of their pronouns. If there is any uncertainty there will never be any harm in asking people what their pronouns are, for example, ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch your pronouns’.

Other examples for allowing the use of pronouns / allowing a more inclusive working environment include:

  • The use of pronouns within email signatures, correspondence salutations and sign-offs and/or on professional social platforms. The more consistent this is throughout the workplace the better;
  • Asking staff which pronouns they would prefer to use, should they wish to do so. Always avoid assumptions and respect diversity. Appropriate processes could be set up right from the beginning of the employment lifecycle, such as at interview stages or throughout any onboarding or induction processes;
  • Allowing the use of pronouns on name badges if that person so wishes;
  • Updating internal contact lists with known / respected gender pronouns;
  • Having a pronoun policy for the use in meetings and/or employer-wide communications, to allow for the disclosure of someone’s chosen gender pronouns and therefore identity. Senior leaders should of course be role models at all times; and
  • The use of gender-neutral policies and procedures.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. 

© Shoosmiths LLP 2021.

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