What to be Aware of When Using Pronouns for Inclusion at Work


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As much as LGBTQ+ people and allies alike have tried to professionalize the concept of pronouns, the reality for many non-cisgender people is that they are messy!

A question we often ask in our programs is: who is denied the privilege of authenticity in the workplace? It is most often marginalized community members who must choose whether to hide things like lack of wealth, disability, sexual orientation, etc. because bringing “personal problems” into work is not considered appropriate. For those who physically cannot hide their identities, they are instead asked to conform to white, upper-class, gendered standards of dress, speech, and even interests. For example, the claim that Black people’s natural hair is not professional and should be controlled is rooted in racist ideas that Black people are barbaric/ dangerous and must be literally “tamed”.

While many companies have started to reckon with their historically oppressive policies and cultures, we, unfortunately, see a demand for “quick wins” on inclusion endeavors that lack the analysis to deeply understand the needs of those marginalized communities. One of these well-intended policies is the implementation of “mandatory pronouns’’ in email signatures, Zoom names, or introductions.

As much as LGBTQ+ people and allies alike have tried to professionalize the concept of pronouns, the reality for many non-cisgender people is that they are messy! While the expansion of pronoun options is exciting and necessary for many people, pronouns themselves have become conflated with people’s gender identities, placing many gender variant folks in the uncomfortable position of disclosing very private, complex, and fluctuating information about themselves. Meanwhile, cisgender folks rarely have to consider how their identity conforms with someone else’s perception upon first introduction, ultimately making their experience of sharing pronouns an easy and risk-free action in our culture.

As with many inclusion endeavors, people might have the urge for a straightforward solution, and wonder how they can use the right pronouns for someone if that person doesn’t disclose them. But I encourage you to lean into that discomfort and consider how this small moment of confusion for you compares to the lived reality of gender-variant people asking this question of themselves every day. Further, let’s think about how the anxiety over clear-cut projections of people’s gender is rooted in cis-normativity. Cissexism (the belief that the sex one is assigned at birth must align with one’s gender) not only inspires violence against transgender people but also determines the priorities and bounds of our discourse. It is what drives seemingly innocent (but gendered) questions to children about what they will be when they grow up, or people’s fervor in defending cissexist comedians like Dave Chapelle because the prospect of a lost laugh is more threatening to them than the erasure of someone’s existence.

As a result of cissexist policies and behaviors, an alarming 60% of trans and non-binary youth engage in self-harm, and about half have considered suicide, as the Trevor Project reports. However, a study in Canada found that suicidal ideation was reduced by 66% for people in gender-affirming environments where people used the correct name and pronouns. But while we have the data to show how we can improve some gender-nonconforming people’s mental health outcomes, it still does not account for the crucial in-between periods of gender questioning and exploration.

We have already seen the harm caused to LGBTQ people globally by assuming they need to use the Western narrative of “coming out.” While it can be a real gift to publicly celebrate one’s identities, pushing things like “International Coming Out Day” onto a diversity of communities can negate the way queerness has always and continues to exist in many different cultures. There is an assumption in this initiative that for someone’s identity to be respected, it requires the same “progressive” language as cultures that prioritize self-identification rather than communal context and privacy. This ultimately homogenizes people’s relationships to their sexuality and furthers the false idea that transness and gender variance are new, when in fact many indigenous communities have accepted a multiplicity of genders throughout time.

Even within Western contexts, coming out will always be more dangerous for those who already sit at other sites of inequity. The BBC highlights how coming out is still risky in the workplace:

For those who can “pass” as heterosexual or cisgender, coming out can often mean choosing between paying a psychological price for the relative safety of invisibility, and paying a potential social and economic price for being open about one’s identity. For others, especially those who are gender nonconforming, being closeted at work isn’t an option. This can have significant detrimental effects: people who are perceived as falling outside of conventional gender norms are at higher risk of career-disrupting workplace harassment and discrimination.

We have to hold these complexities when we push forward policies intended to be gender-inclusive. Of course, this is not an excuse for cisgender people to opt out of sharing their pronouns, which would only perpetuate the idea that we can erase people’s identities in the workplace. So how do we continue educating our colleagues about appropriate pronoun usage while also maintaining the spaciousness to respect the intricacies of people’s gender journeys?

It is certainly an important step for cisgender allies to shift the burden of normalizing pronoun usage onto themselves, but the real work will be the challenging of gendered assumptions in our daily interactions. Oftentimes it is those reflexive judgments we first make about people that engage us in the duplicitous game of putting people into predetermined boxes. If you find yourself scrutinizing someone’s gender expression to identify their genitals, kindly ask yourself why that feels appropriate, and how you can move away from this invasive and violent thought process. Again, while many of us have binary gender norms deeply embedded in us since childhood, these can and should be unlearned. One place to start is reflecting on why you think you need to know someone’s gender. If it is to navigate certain conversation topics or social cues, you could instead use it as a growth opportunity to practice engaging with people beyond the limited perspectives of femininity and masculinity that prescribe somebody’s interests, partners, career goals, or personality.

Queerness provides an alternative lens through which we can visualize and appreciate people’s gender presentations separate from the implications attached to them.

Like with any initiative that pushes against artificial and whitewashed boundaries of “professionalism”, you cannot expect those who sit at sites of inequity to do all of the emotional labor of educating the rest of the workplace. If you are committed to shifting workplace norms and culture, you will pay people to speak about their experiences with marginalization. Undoing the gender expectations that pervade our workspaces and communities is a slow and multi-layered endeavor, but it begins with questioning our desire for classifications that only reinforce sexist and gender-normative structures of power.

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