Picture this: You’re gathered around the coffee machine one morning with a group of your co-workers when Joe says, “You guys missed a great story Robin told while we were manning the conference booth yesterday. No seriously, dude, she’s so funny.”
Sounds normal enough. But read it over again and see if you can spot all the ways Joe might’ve unintentionally made people feel uncomfortable or excluded.
He probably didn’t mean to insult or distress any of his co-workers, including Robin, who actually uses they/them/their pronouns. But the language he chose—referring to a mixed group as “you guys,” using the gendered term “manning” instead of a neutral one like “staffing,” and calling someone by the wrong pronouns—may have done exactly that. (For the record, hypothetical Joe uses he/him/his pronouns.)
You, like Joe or any other well-intentioned colleague, might inadvertently be using language that makes people around you feel uncomfortable, othered, or even endangered. But by adopting language that is more gender-inclusive, you can ensure that you’re treating all of your co-workers, clients, customers, and any other professional contacts with respect.
An integral part of helping employees thrive is creating a space where every individual feels they can bring their full selves to work.
“An integral part of helping employees thrive is creating a space where every individual feels they can bring their full selves to work,” says Elden Seropian, a software engineer for product at Asana who co-founded the company’s LGBTQIA+ employee resource group, Team Rainbow. (Full disclosure: Asana is a current client of The Muse.)
“Even in supportive environments, many transgender and gender non-conforming individuals can still expect uncomfortable conversations, one of them being around pronouns,” they add (Seropian uses they/them/their pronouns). “Small tweaks can lead to better communication for everyone—whether you’re transgender or simply someone with a name that could be mistaken for a different gender between different languages, cultures, or generations.”
And while you probably know to say things like “salesperson” instead of “salesman,” there are plenty of other ways gendered language can creep into our everyday speech and not only make people uncomfortable, but also unconsciously perpetuate outdated power structures.
It’s true that this probably isn’t a topic anyone at your office was discussing a few years ago (or even today, depending on where you work). But it’s worth making the effort. With a little learning and a lot of practice, you have the power to help make your workplace more welcoming for everyone. Here are a few ways to start.
Don’t Assume When it Comes to Pronouns
It’s a habit that’s so ingrained, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Most of us are used to looking at someone, categorizing them into “he” or “she” by some unconscious instinct, and then starting to talk about them that way.
But a person’s name, their clothing, or any other outward signals don’t necessarily tell you how that person identifies. That goes not just for transgender folks, but those of any gender identity. And being misgendered (referred to in a way that assumes a gender other than the one the person identifies as) can be hurtful, not to mention disrespectful.
“Perhaps I’m guessing [a person’s pronoun] correctly, but it’s still just guessing,” says Beck Bailey, Deputy Director of Employee Engagement for HRC’s Workplace Equality Program. “When we get it wrong, it’s awkward and alienating for both parties—the person who misgendered someone and the person being misgendered.”
When we get it wrong, it’s awkward and alienating for both parties—the person who misgendered someone and the person being misgendered.
It can shut down rather than foster work relationships and rapport building within teams and companies and, if you’re in a customer- or client-facing role, it can even turn away business if “that person doesn’t feel welcome or seen,” Bailey says, who uses he/him/his pronouns.
So if you’re referring to someone before you know what pronouns they use, opt for gender-neutral pronouns (like they/them/their) or none at all (for example, by using their name), until you know more. Because, as Bailey says, “nothing is more indicative of respect and basic dignity than talking to someone with the name and form of address they desire.”
Think, too, about assumptions you make when someone’s telling you a story about a person you don’t know, says Seropian. Did they mention their friend was a doctor or lawyer or a professional in some other historically male-dominated field and you assumed it was a “he”? Work on “getting into practice of using gender-neutral language when a gender hasn’t been specified or is not relevant.”
Ask About Someone’s Pronouns
Using gender-neutral pronouns or repeating someone’s name is a useful solution, but it’s only a temporary one. Continuing to avoid the matter might signal that you don’t care to take the time to learn about someone and get it right.
“Using the correct pronouns is a matter of common courtesy,” Seropian says. They point out that beyond the fact that using someone’s name as the only way to refer to them over time “reads as being unwilling to accept a person’s pronouns or make an effort,” it can also result in some pretty awkward sentences. (Think: “I was talking to Elden and Elden said that Elden had a cat.” It’s not great.)
One way to proceed is to ask. By doing so, Seropian says, you’re “demonstrating that you care about addressing them correctly.”
You might want to try:
- “Hey, what are your pronouns?”
- “What pronouns do you use?”
- “I was just wondering how you’d like me to address you.”
- “I just want to make sure I’m using the correct language to refer to you.”
Seropian emphasizes that you should avoid any language around preference (such as “what pronouns do you prefer?”), because correct pronouns “aren’t really a preference, they’re a requirement.”
Unfortunately, the asking approach can be problematic on multiple fronts. “If you only ask people who ‘look trans,’ you risk singling them out as not passing or bringing them unwelcome attention,” Seropian explains. But “if you start asking everybody, you’ll find some cisgender people [whose gender identity corresponds with their sex assigned at birth] get very offended that you ‘can’t tell by looking at them,’” they add. (In explicitly queer spaces, asking broadly is more expected and accepted, “because there’s a general understanding that everyone in the room knows you can’t tell by looking and are trying to be respectful.”)
Or Better Yet, Share Yours
The best solution, then, is to “lead by example and introduce your own [pronouns], then give people space to optionally tell you theirs,” Seropian says. “I would say, ‘Hi, my name is Elden and I use they/them/their pronouns’... Generally if you lead with your own, people who care about you knowing will respond in kind and you don’t need to ask.”
There are also ways people can share pronouns outside of face-to-face interactions. For example, Seropian spearheaded an effort to add a pronoun field to profile settings in the Asana app so that any company using the work management platform could allow workers to share their own and learn those of others who’ve chosen to do the same.
Generally if you lead with your own, people who care about you knowing will respond in kind and you don’t need to ask.
The same could be done by allowing people to add pronouns to an internal company directory, in job applications, and on name tags at events, or through individual efforts by adding pronouns to Slack profiles, email signatures, Twitter bios, or any other profile or communication.
By sharing your own pronouns rather than putting the spotlight on someone else, you’re “sending a signal that you’re inclusive,” Bailey says, without singling anyone out. It could help create a safe environment where, over time, colleagues feel more comfortable sharing how they identify and what pronouns they use.
Take the Lead, But Be Smart and Sensitive
Bailey acknowledges that sharing pronouns is not yet a common corporate practice, explaining that the conversation is driven primarily by younger workers in urban and especially coastal areas, and probably more common in industries such as tech and education than perhaps an area like institutional investing.
So while being a proactive ally by sharing your own pronouns might be all the more meaningful in more conservative spaces, your efforts may also carry different risks. As with anything, consider the safety of everyone involved.
If you’re in a position of privilege—because you’re in a management role or simply white, straight, cisgender, a man, etc.—it can be a powerful statement if you take it upon yourself to begin making change by adding your pronouns to your email signature, wearing a pronoun pin, introducing yourself with your pronouns, or even just bringing up an article you read or someone you know who’s come out as transgender or non-binary and informally discussing what you’ve learned.
It might start just with your team but could lead to a larger conversation, and that’s what we want.
“That takes maybe a little bravery,” Bailey says. But “if you have the agency and you want to be a leader, that would be a good way to start,” he adds. “It might start just with your team but could lead to a larger conversation, and that’s what we want.”
If you have a colleague who’s not explicitly out but you’re unsure what pronouns they use, you can privately offer your own and ask after theirs. For example, you might say, “I really want to be inclusive of everyone in the workplace, and I want to refer to you respectfully. I use he/him pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”
Seropian adds that if you do chat privately with a colleague “you don’t know how to address or suspect others are addressing incorrectly,” don’t forget the next step. “If they do turn out to be TGNC (trans or gender-nonconforming), make sure to get clarity around how they want you to refer to them in front of co-workers, as they may not be out at work.”
When someone shares their pronouns with you, some appropriate responses, according to Seropian, include:
- “Thanks for letting me know!”
- “Cool, my pronouns are [they/them, he/him, etc.].”
- “To make sure I’m using those right, is that like ‘Xe is my co-worker’?”
- “Great, I’ll look up how to use those correctly. Mind spelling them for me?”
On the flipside, you should avoid doubting a pronoun is real, telling someone “[the] singular they is grammatically incorrect,” saying “I’ll try, but I’m going to mess it up,” or giving up before you even start and telling them you’ll just use their name.
Beware of Other Gendered Language
That may feel like a lot to think about already, but don’t forget that pronouns are hardly the only examples of gendered language we use on a regular basis.
“Think about boarding an airplane or sitting down to have breakfast at your favorite diner,” Bailey says. “You often hear, ‘Welcome aboard, sir!’ or ‘Good morning, ladies!’” As he points out, these are all meant to be signs of politeness and respect, but they can backfire. If you get them wrong, he explains, you’ve not only failed to accomplish what you set out to, but also done some damage. Why not just say “Welcome aboard!” or “Good morning, everyone!” using your tone of voice and body language (like a smile!) to communicate warmth and respect?
Seropian recalls seeing something on Asana’s website about recruiting talented men and women to work for the company. “I know what you’re trying to do here,” they thought, but “men and women doesn’t include me.” To the credit of the people responsible for the language, they responded to Seropian’s email within half an hour and had changed the phrasing on the site.
Here’s an (incomplete) list of common gendered terms and what you can use instead:
- Instead of “you guys,” try “you all,” “y’all,” “folks,” “friends,” “everyone,” “people”
- Instead of “dude,” “man,” and “bro,” well, how about just ditch those, no replacement necessary?
- Instead of “ladies and gentlemen,” try “everyone,” “folks,” or nothing at all
- Instead of “men and women,” try “people,” “employees,” or “workers”
- Instead of “sir” and “ma’am,” try nothing at all
- Instead of “man hours,” “man the door,” “manpower,” etc., try “work,” “staff,” or “people/person,” as in “work hours,” “people hours,” “staff the door,” etc.
- Instead of “mankind,” try “humankind”
- Instead of “freshman,” try “first-year student”
- Instead of “fireman,” “congressman,” and “waitress,” try “firefighter,” “legislator,” and “server” (and the same extends to all sorts of professions)
As dedicated as you may be to using more inclusive language, mistakes are bound to happen once in a while. How you correct yourself is nearly as crucial as what words you’re trying to use in the first place.
If you’re having an in-person conversation and realize right away you’ve messed up a pronoun, you can easily fix it in the moment, Bailey and Seropian agree. For example, you might be talking and say, “He’s over there, I mean, they’re over there,” or, “I was talking to so-and-so and he, sorry she, said such-and-such.” Seropian adds that if you make a mistake on Slack, you can quickly edit your message. And Bailey notes that if you find yourself using “you guys” or another gendered term, you can also make a mental note that you don’t want to do that again.
But if you get a pronoun wrong on an email thread that includes a whole bunch of people, you’ll want to carefully consider your next step. Rather than hitting “Reply All” (which is almost never the right move, whether you’re dealing with pronouns or anything else), you might want to make a quick, private apology to the person you misgendered.
For example, you could write or say, “Hey, I saw that I misgendered you there. I won’t do that again,” or, “I noticed that I messed up, and I’m sorry about that.” And you can ask them if they’d like you to make a more public correction. Whatever they decide, respect their wishes, but regardless, make sure that the next time you refer to that person in the thread, you use the correct pronouns.
But Don’t Dwell
Don’t make a small mistake worse by dwelling on it. You might instinctively want to keep talking about how sorry you are, or how hard you’re trying. But as Bailey explains, “when you do that you’re asking a person to tell you, ‘That’s okay.’”
You’re ultimately asking them to take on responsibility for educating you and relieving your guilt. That’s a big emotional burden for them to bear, on top of the discrimination, harassment, and other obstacles they may already face.
And by doing so, you’re ultimately asking them to take on responsibility for educating you and relieving your guilt. That’s a big emotional burden for them to bear, on top of the discrimination, harassment, and other obstacles they may already face. The same goes for questions: Remember that no one is actually required to answer your inquiries about being trans or how to be an ally. Instead, put the onus on yourself to do some research.
“We don’t need a big scene, we need folks to work on getting it right,” Bailey says. And definitely don’t try to explain yourself with a comment about someone’s deep voice or outfit or whatever. “Just own it and move on. It’s not about a voice or dress or pants or makeup,” he says. “Don’t make it about that. It’s about how people are telling you how they want to be addressed.”
Ditching old habits and training yourself to adopt new behaviors—including using gender-inclusive language—doesn’t happen at the drop of a woke hat. You have to work on it.
“It takes practice,” Bailey says, adding, “I’m someone who’s very aware of this and does this for a living, and I have to really work at not using a gendered reference… It is so socialized and so a part of our culture, it does take conscious effort to do it differently.”
It is so socialized and so a part of our culture, it does take conscious effort to do it differently.
The good news is that the more you offer up your own pronouns, ask people about theirs, avoid other gendered terms and phrases, and make note of and correct your mistakes, the easier it’ll get.
Help One Another Learn and Be Accountable
Learning about and practicing using gender-inclusive language (and inclusive language more broadly) doesn’t have to be a lonely endeavor. Even if no one else at your job is discussing it explicitly yet, chances are you’re not the only one who wants to do better.
At Nuna, a healthcare technology company, Bron Lewis facilitated a discussion titled “Language Matters: Challenging Bigotry in Everyday Vocabulary” at the company’s annual retreat. “In the mere 20 minutes we had to talk about this topic, the #watch-your-language Slack channel was born,” Lewis wrote in a blog post. The channel was designed to be “a space where we could ask questions and support each other as we try to change the language we use to be more inclusive.” Employees could opt into the channel to help one another learn and find “a safe space where we could admit to messing up and ask questions without judgment.”
In another kind of effort, a group of employees at the startup npm made a “Guys jar,” where people could voluntarily put in a dollar when they said “you guys,” used another gendered term unnecessarily, or misgendered someone. They decided to give the funds to charity whenever they’d accumulated $50, with their first donation going to Girls Who Code.
To circle back to hypothetical Joe, next time he’ll try to remember to say, “You folks missed a great story Robin told while we were staffing the conference booth yesterday. No seriously, y’all, they’re so funny.” And the better he gets at using gender-inclusive language, the more all of his colleagues will know how much he respects and values them.