At a glance
- Workplaces around the globe are beginning to understand the fluidity of gender and the importance of policies and practices that make everyone feel included.
- The use of personal pronouns in email signatures and on social media profiles is growing in popularity as a means of showing support of colleagues’ choices while driving awareness.
Ro Allen, Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, says they walk through the world with many pronouns attached to them. From their mother using “she”, to members of the LGBTQIA+ community using “they”, to shopkeepers referring to them as “him” – gender is a fluid concept for Allen, and one they have spent years educating people about.
For anyone who has trouble grasping the concept of gender identity, and who questions how Allen can respond to all of the above pronouns, they say the first premise to understand is that gender is fluid and is a continuum.
“To understand the use of diverse pronouns, you do need to understand there’s more than ‘male’ and ‘female’ or ‘woman’ and ‘man’. If you can sign up to that, and you understand that, then obviously the use of other pronouns becomes easier,” says Allen.
“I’m gender fluid – I say to people, pronoun me as you see me. I’m OK with that, but others may not be. When I’m educating groups, I say ‘It’s just manners’. If somebody says, ‘This is my pronoun’, then you do your best to use that pronoun.
“I think the trickiest group I have ever tried to explain this to was some English teachers. They argued it’s not grammatically correct and therefore you can’t change it,” says Allen.
The English teachers are not the only ones grappling with this interpretation of gender. For some people, there is a degree of confusion in gender not necessarily being linked to biological sex, and they may find it difficult to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “them”.
Many people are nervous about getting it wrong, some protest that it is too difficult to change, while still others, such as the teachers Allen attempted to educate, question the grammatical correctness and argue that using “they” as both singular and plural can change the sentence’s syntax.
When Joe Ball, CEO of Switchboard Victoria, a LGBTQIA+ mental health and family violence support service, hears complaints about how hard it is to remember someone’s pronouns, they point to the ability of some people to remember every football player in their favourite club.
“People always say it’s a lot of work keeping on top of it, but I think the human mind has a lot of capacity to do this. I use that example, because it is extraordinary that people can rattle off the last few years of footy players’ names, but they can’t learn how to address someone the way they identify themselves.
“Nobody wants to be misidentified about who they really are. Think about what your gender is, and then imagine that somebody would just constantly never get that right. I think everybody can imagine what that feeling would be like. Well, that’s what trans people go through every day and from multiple people,” says Ball.
In workplaces across the globe, there is evidence of a growing understanding that gender is complicated, that pronouns are personal and that everybody has a different relationship with them. Many workplaces are working on policies to make everyone feel welcome and included.
Adding pronouns to email signature blocks and social media profiles has also been growing in popularity, both as an effort to educate people that not everyone identifies as male or female, as well as showing support for colleagues in their choices.
“I think the important thing to understand is that language evolves all the time, and we are moving towards greater acceptance of the use of diverse pronouns. I know for trans, non-binary and gender fluid folks like myself, adding pronouns to an email block shows solidarity and support, but it also might put pressure on someone else,” says Allen.
It is important to give people a choice, and to be aware that it is effectively asking someone to “come out” in a similar way to expressly coming out about their sexuality, they add.
“I’m a big believer that no organisation should force people to put their pronouns on their email signature for a whole range of reasons. I’ve seen that happen where people may not be ready to publicly identify their pronouns.”
Emily Jaksch, founder and managing director at HR Gurus, says that, while there may be good intentions behind a policy to add pronouns to communication methods, it may cause more harm than good if not done properly.
“When an organisation implements the pronouns in signatures without any education or change process, it is fraught with danger. The key is in the messaging, and using this strategy will help all employees understand the importance of respect, understanding and accepting differences in the workplace.
“Discrimination is still an issue, and there is still work to do in educating people about the diverse nature of our workforces. Younger generations in particular are very much on board with this concept, and it is only going to increase in need,” says Jaksch.
What does the dictionary say?
Language is dynamic and always evolving. Going back in time, the singular “they” and “their” were commonly used in English from the 14th century onwards, and can be seen in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, among others.
The shift towards gendered personal pronouns is a relatively recent phenomenon, gaining in popularity among grammarians in the 19th century. Now the tide is shifting again, with the Merriam-Webster dictionary declaring “they” as the 2019 word of the year, in part because of the return to non-binary pronouns.
Tiger Webb, language specialist and editorial policies adviser at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, says some people have strong feelings that “grammatical gender” should match “biological gender”.
“This is misguided – about half the world’s languages do not have grammatical gender at all,” Webb says.
Webb also points out that people can accept the appearance of new nouns and verbs, but pronouns are often treated like a “closed” class of words that don’t change.
“Some people feel a bit of a disjunct between using ‘they’ to describe a single person or referent, because it is often taught as only being a plural pronoun. However, ‘they’ has referred to grammatically singular antecedents in English for hundreds of years,” says Webb.
“The English second-person pronoun ‘you’ was originally solely plural, too, and has over time shifted to being both singular and plural. ‘Thou’ was used for singular referents and ‘ye’ for plural referents – this is relevant, because it demonstrates it’s perfectly grammatical to say ‘They are the new design lead on the team’ when referring to one non-binary person, just as it is grammatical to say ‘You are the new CEO’ to one person.”
Make the effort
The effect of being addressed by the wrong pronoun varies from person to person. For some, it is just a matter of receiving an apology and moving on, while for others the impact on mental health can be severe.
Ball says Switchboard Victoria regularly receives calls from people seeking advice on how to have a conversation about their pronouns, and that some people face hostility when they ask others to address them using a different pronoun.
“We hear from people that the conversation is still weaponised and volatile, and it is pretty awful to think that people are worrying about that. How do we make it easier, so that people are not so stressed that they are worrying about that? It should be as simple as being able to say, it’s an extension of your name.”
Ball offers some advice for those who worry about getting it wrong with others. You can try by simply asking them which pronoun they prefer. If you take a guess and make a mistake, simply apologise and move on.
“I’m a transgender person, and the most important thing for me is that, if someone gets my pronouns wrong, they just say sorry. It doesn’t need to be a big performance – don’t go into a shame spiral. Just treat it as if you had just called the person the wrong name – that’s embarrassing, but you can get over it.
“I think for me, as a trans person, as long as I feel that the intention is good and it’s not bullying – they’re not deliberately getting it wrong – then I will be fine.”
Computer says "yes"
A common answer to queries about why the collection of data is limited to the binary options of “male” or “female”, or “Mr”, “Mrs” and “Ms”, is that the computer system won’t allow it. While this might be true if the data collection form is a basic one purchased “off the shelf”, this doesn’t mean the technology doesn’t exist. Adding alternate options is possible, and is something businesses should consider when deciding which system to use.
Andrew Apostola, CEO of digital agency Portable, which works with clients to make transformational change using research, design and technology, says it pays to do your research and find a solution that provides alternatives.
“Your choice of technology is really important. When you are considering the platform to use, you need to be clear that you want the technology that takes into account all sorts of diversity,” says Apostola.
“Updating your CRM has very little to do with the technical implementation and as much to do with engaging with the organisation and understanding the diversity you want to be able to capture. It is not hard to update
Gender-neutral language around the world
Languages around the world have evolved their grammatical forms differently in an effort to recognise and accommodate diverse identities.
English: English grammar does not distinguish between genders, except in assigning a masculine or feminine singular pronoun. English speakers can use “they” and “them”, or other gender-neutral pronouns like “ze”, “hir” or “xey”, in order to avoid gendering someone.
Spanish: Spanish has feminine and masculine cases added to all nouns. In the US, some people use “x” or “@” to create a gender-neutral noun: “Latinx” or “Latin@” instead of the binary “Latino” and “Latina”.
Swedish: The word “hen” was added to the country’s official dictionary in 2015 as an alternative gender-neutral pronoun to the male “hon” and female “han”.
Genderless: Genderless languages include Armenian, Bengali, Persian, Turkish, Georgian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and most Austronesian languages (such as the Polynesian languages).