Guide to Gender Inclusive Pronouns

A Guide to Gender Inclusive Pronouns

Color shapes with various gender inclusive pronouns.

What are pronouns?

Pronouns are used to refer to someone. Pronouns are the easiest way to acknowledge someone’s identity. The most common pronouns used today are she and he. Not everyone identifies as female or male. Some people identify their gender somewhere in between or nothing at all. The use of gender inclusive pronouns is important. I would like to acknowledge that not everyone uses pronouns and prefer to be referred to by their name; not using pronouns is also important. There are many gender neutral pronouns including they, ze, ey and the list goes on. A common gender neutral pronoun is they.

El is my coworker, they design things. I sit next to them. That is their desk.

But wait, that must be grammatically incorrect. Isn’t they a plural pronoun?

☝️ Actually, singular they have been used since the 14th century. Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary have supported the use of the singular they for a person whose gender is not known. As of September 2019, Merriam-Webster officially added singular they as a non-binary–neither female or male–pronoun.

*Important note, not every non-binary person uses gender neutral pronouns.

Example of they used as a singular pronoun:

Someone left their wallet on the chair.

I bought this gift for my secret Santa, do you think they will like it?

Fun fact: Many languages around the world already have a nonbinary pronoun. My parents speak Ilocano and Tagalog, both dialects from the Philippines, include a nonbinary pronoun. In Ilocano, “isu” or “isuna” and in Tagalog, “siya” are used to refer to a person regardless of gender.

* Important note, NEVER refer to a person as “it” or “he-she.” These terms are offensive and used against trans and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Sam loves her coffee. One day, she picked up a mug that wasn’t hers and spilled tea all over herself.

Sam loves his coffee. One day, he picked up a mug that wasn’t his and spilled tea all over himself.

Sam loves their coffee. One day, they picked up a mug that wasn’t theirs and spilled tea all over themselves.

Sam loves hir coffee. One day, ze picked up a mug that wasn’t hirs and spilled tea all over hirself.

Sex and Gender

It is important to highlight the difference between sex and gender to understand what it means to be female, male, or gender non-conforming. Often times people associate sex and gender as the same thing but they are not. According to this article by Stanford Medicine:

Sex is a biological trait that is determined by the specific sex chromosomes inherited from one’s parents. People with one X and one Y chromosome, or variants like XXY or XYY, are typically male, while those who have solely X chromosomes are usually female. A gene on the Y chromosome directs the differentiation of the fetal gonads into testes, resulting in the production of testosterone — which affects many of the body’s tissues — early in development.

Gender, on the other hand, is socially, culturally, and personally defined. It includes how individuals see themselves (gender identity), how others perceive them and expect them to behave (gender norms), and the interactions (gender relations) that they have with others.

Why are gender inclusive pronouns important?

“It feels so good when people get it right. It can make my whole day better when I hear someone refer to me with they/them pronouns. I feel vulnerable, and cared for, and seen.” Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them)

The experience of being misgendered–being referred to as the wrong pronouns–can be hurtful, angering, and even distracting. It can make someone feel invisible, invalidated, and take away any sense of belonging. It could also trigger gender dysphoria. According to this Vice article, to be denied gender recognition can have lasting emotional effects.

Using the correct pronouns is a sign of respect and basic courtesy. Acknowledging someone’s identity can make a person feel seen and validated. This can lead to meaningful moments of affirmation and normalcy. Promoting gender neutral pronouns ensures the language is inclusive for everyone.

“Practicing gender neutral pronouns is both an exercise in language and a chance to grow as a more empathetic and respectful communicator.” — Tristian Jimerson (he/him)

It takes immense courage and vulnerability for someone to express their authenticity in a world that doesn’t affirm their identity. For some people, they grapple with their gender identity for a long time in fear of being rejected by society and those close to them. Something as simple as using correct pronouns goes a long way in honoring their existence.

Comments from gender-nonconforming folks:

“I struggle on the days when I can’t just introduce myself; when my introductions become explanations of the words I’m using and why they’re so important to me. I never knew that explaining who I am could cost me my emotional, mental, and physical safety. It’s harder to live in a world when people don’t know how to talk about you or to you.” — Adi Barretto (they/them)

“Being misgendered happens countless times in a day, and that builds up really quickly. It can really be difficult for a person to hear over and over again because it invalidates your identity over and over again.” — Hepps Keeney (they/them)

“In my opinion, gender is a universe. It is a broad spectrum of planets, and stars, and sky that truly cannot be contained into a binary [ just male and female]. So when someone identifies with a pronoun, they are taking their little piece of that broad universe and identifying with that. And so in using their correct pronouns, we’re validating, ‘Yes. You are right in your identity and you’re important and we’re respecting you.” -Leah Juliett (they/them)

Drawing of a solar system
Drawing of a solar system

Examples of how companies embrace gender inclusive pronouns

Announcing gender in the workplace may seem foreign and unnatural at first. In an effort to become more inclusive, companies are already practicing gender inclusive language. Here are some examples of how they practice it:

  • Pronouns are baked into introductions in interviews, introducing new employees, and meetings. Pronouns are announced along with names.
  • Pronouns are included in email signatures, name tags, stickers, and pins.
  • Gender inclusive pronouns used in greetings such as “Hey folks” instead of “Hey ladies”.

“As a hiring manager, I generally set the tone by shaking hands and introducing myself, announcing my own pronouns, and asking for theirs. More holistically, I put them in my Slack and LinkedIn profiles. It helps that our CEO is deeply invested in DE&I issues, and actually went out of her way to ask me how I’d like her to respond when people misgender me. But ultimately, any new habit is hard to habituate, but if people are really struggling with it, it’s because it’s not important enough to them.” — Damion (they/them)

“I went on a recent round of job interviews in SF. Some companies did it round-robin style, introducing themselves with their names and pronouns. It was just baked into their interview process rather than a decision any one single contributor had to make. They also had gender neutral signage on their genderless bathrooms. Those little details make a difference!” — Danielle (she/her)

“At events or company-wide events, we have pronouns on name tags that help. Also, in some meetings, when people do intros, they start off with name/pronouns. Having stickers and pins with pronouns. Using inclusive language in the workplace like not using “hey guys/ladies”. Also, telling ppl to use names as a good rule or if they really suck at remembering pronouns.” — T (they/them)

Now, here are some helpful tips.

1. Don’t make assumptions.

The way someone looks or acts or is named does not define someone’s identity. You can’t assume someone’s name by the way they look. It is insulting. The same goes for gender. When you assume someone’s gender by the way they look, you risk the chance of misgendering. Keep in mind, gender identity is not the same as gender presentation or gender expression. For example, someone may look feminine but identify as nonbinary. In addition, someone may appear androgynous but identify with she/her pronouns.

Gender identity is what a person identifies with.

Gender presentation and expression are reflected through a person’s behavior, mannerisms, interests, and appearance that are associated with gender in a particular cultural context.

Pro tip: Don’t assume everyone is comfortable with gender neutral pronouns.

Pro tip: Don’t assume everyone uses pronouns. Not everyone is comfortable with using any pronouns and may choose to be referred to by their name.

2. If you don’t know, ask.

Asking for someone’s pronouns can be as natural as asking for someone’s name when you meet.

Drawing of two people meeting
Drawing of two people meeting

“Hi my name is Sam. I use she/her pronouns. How about yourself?”

“Hi, I’m El. My pronouns are they/them. Nice to meet you!”

Other ways to ask for pronouns:

“My pronouns are she/her, what are your pronouns?”

“I go by they/them. Thanks for asking.”

“We’re going to go around the room to introduce ourselves. Please say your name, the department you work in, and, if you want, your pronouns.”

“My name is John Smith. I work in Quality Control. My pronouns are they, them, theirs.”

Pro tip: Share your pronouns first. Sharing your pronouns when you meet someone ensures you are not singling them out and welcomes them to share their pronouns.

Pro tip: When asking someone for their pronouns be sure to ask, “what are your pronouns?” NOT “what are your preferred pronouns?”

Asking someone, ‘what are your preferred pronouns?’ can be disrespectful. “Preferred” implies a person might identify with multiple gender pronouns when they only identify with one set of gender pronouns. Preferred pronouns are ONLY applicable when a person identifies with multiple gender pronouns but has a preference. For example, a person who is nonbinary and feels a connection with masculinity might use he and they. So when asking for this person’s preferred pronoun this person might prefer “they” instead of “he” but is comfortable with both.

Pro tip: When in a group, make sure to ask everyone for their pronouns. Singling out one person sounds like, “You look weird. Do you use weird pronouns?”

DO ask “What are your pronouns?”

DO share your pronouns first

DO ask everyone

DO NOT single out one person to ask for pronouns when in a group

DO NOT say “what pronouns do you prefer?unless they have indicated two different gender pronouns

3. Just do it, use the correct pronouns.

Making the effort shows consideration and compassion.

What if I mess up?

The best thing to do is to correct yourself and move on. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Talking about how bad you feel only calls more attention. It also puts pressure on the person you misgendered to comfort and console you in an already awkward situation. People slip up from time to time. It’s okay! Just apologize and make it brief.

As Sinclair puts it in this article:

“Treat it as if you mispronounce someone’s name — it’s a little disrespectful, so be sure to be sensitive, but it’s ultimately no big deal.”

Three people collaborating in front of a poster.
Three people collaborating in front of a poster.

The best apology is to get them right next time. If you notice you are getting it wrong repeatedly, speak to the person in private and say you are working on it. Never tell the person you misgender to be patient. It is offensive.

It is very common for people to correct themselves when they misgender someone’s pet. Making this mistake is no big deal. We can work towards this when referring to people.

4. Practice makes normal.

Everything feels unnatural at first but with time becomes normalized. Using the pronouns they/them may not feel as natural as using she/her and he/him. Understand it will not happen overnight. Just like riding a bicycle for the first time, it will take time. It might feel foreign and uncomfortable at first but it is more uncomfortable for the person you misgender. The only way to get better is to practice!

Practice Exercises: Say the person’s pronouns along with the person’s name 100 times to nail down association. Try referring to everyone as they until specified. Say your pronouns and ask other people’s pronouns.

5. Be an ally.

When you hear someone use the wrong pronouns, politely correct them. As a nonbinary person, constantly correcting and educating people on pronouns is exhausting and emotionally taxing. Part of being an ally is to correct others when they make mistakes even if it makes you uncomfortable.

To get an idea of different scenarios, I highly recommend reading “A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns” by Archie Bongiovonni and Tristan Jimerson.

Pro tip: Just like correcting yourself, don’t make it a big deal.

Pro tip: Have a conversation. Ask the person how you can be an ally. You might not know if this person wants you to stand up for them on their behalf.

Pro tip: Take it a step further and be an example. Set the tone and introduce yourself with pronouns. Take opportunities to help educate people and advocate for gender inclusive language.

6. Include pronouns.

Include pronouns in email signatures, employee directories, and social media networks. Include the option to put pronouns on name tags or name badges. Include pronouns as part of the introduction process. Creating opportunities to share one’s pronouns helps normalize gender inclusive pronouns and shows you acknowledge gender variance.

A collection of different types of name tags.
A collection of different types of name tags.
Image Description: Name tag sticker that says “Hello my name is:” and “Pronouns I use are:”, an employee badge with a headshot photo of El; four small pins with various gender pronouns, and a large pin that says, “Ask me about my pronouns.”

Bonus Materials

Diagram describing negative and positive greetings.
Diagram describing negative and positive greetings.
Image Description: Diagram drawing with two columns. The first column says, “Do not use hey guys, hi gals, hello ladies, and gentlemen.” The second column says “Do use hey ya’ll, hi all, hello folks, hey friends, hi everyone, hello humans.”
Drawing of script emphasizing “Just say thank you.” Do not add ma’am or sir at the end.
Drawing of script emphasizing “Just say thank you.” Do not add ma’am or sir at the end.
Image Description: Hand-drawing script that says “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you, sir.” Ma’am and sir are crossed out with a red line. “Just say thank you” is highlighted in green.

Additional resources on gender pronouns:

Videos

Gender pronouns, Get Them Right! MTV

Gender Identity Song

Why Gender Pronouns Matter

What are Gender Pronouns?

Sharing Your Pronouns

Why You Should Stop Saying ‘Hey guys’

Articles

Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns On Your “Hello My Name Is” Name Tags

How to get better at using a coworker’s nonbinary pronouns

Talking about Pronouns in the Workplace

FAQ about Pronouns & Trans People

Gender Neutral Pronouns Usage

Inclusive Language Primer

5 Ways to Make Your Organization More Welcoming to Non-Binary People

Books

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns

Seeing Gender

Website

mypronouns.org

Resources on how to be an ally:

Support & Donate to:

They/Them. Doodler. Design Systems Designer. Design for Inclusion.

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