Pronouns. If you’re a cisgender person (someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth), pronouns are probably not something you think about day to day.
If you’re a man, you probably go by he/him pronouns, and have never considered using she/her, or any other alternative to describe yourself, because you associate yourself with the identity the pronouns “he/him” embody to you.
Imagine, now, that for your entire life, people have been referring to you as she/her. You feel male, you dress masculine, and you want to be perceived as such, but nobody is addressing you the way you want. In your head, all day, you’d probably be silently correcting them, feeling less and less seen, and frustrated that nobody is using language reflective of how you see yourself. Equally as frustrating, you don’t know how to correct them, or how to ask for what you need, because, as we’ve established, pronouns are not something most people think about, or even know how to discuss.
So, what do you do?
You might tell a few friends or family members, but in a business context, you’d probably push your need to correct others down so you’re not seen as unprofessional or difficult. I’d argue, however, that asking to be addressed in a way that’s reflective of your reality isn’t unprofessional at all. It’s a basic human need. Additionally, what are we risking in terms of disengagement and turnover if we don’t openly address an experience that affects roughly 1.4 million American adults?
The loss of a lot of game-changing talent.
Not everyone identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. Past that, there are more than two genders, and there are more than two sets of pronouns. We can’t assume someone’s pronouns based on how they look and we can’t assume their gender, either. I think we can all agree that no two men look the same, no two women look the same, no two humans look or act or are the same, and that in all contexts, it’s beneficial to ask about someone’s reality rather than assuming.
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Understanding different types of genders
So, to start, let’s talk about binary vs. nonbinary genders.
Binary means two: either/or. Most of us have been raised to see gender as only a binary, and something that’s tied to our bodies at birth. Sure, some people are the gender they were assigned at birth (these people are called cisgender) but some people aren’t (these people are called transgender). Binary transgender people are people who were assigned either male or female at birth, but are the opposite. Binary trans people will often (but not always) use she/her or he/him pronouns.
Nonbinary genders are exactly how they sound—they are genders outside of the male/female binary. These include (but are not limited to):
- Nonbinary: an identity/umbrella term for anyone outside or between the binary of male and female. Some people simply identify as nonbinary, while others identify as nonbinary in addition to some of the following definitions.
- Nonbinary transgender: people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, but also don’t fit neatly or exclusively under the male or female umbrella.
- Genderfluid: those who move between male and female, as well as sometimes other genders.
- Genderqueer: an identity/umbrella term often used interchangebly with nonbinary, however not always.
- Agender: someone who doesn’t have a particular gender. Some agender people identify as not having a gender at all.
- Bigender: those who are either male or female depending on the day/situation.
As you can see, some of these definitions (and there are many more) can be used interchangeably. It all depends on what’s most comfortable for the person introducing themselves.
How to be inclusive of people’s identities
You may be thinking, “OK, great, there’s a ton of genders out there. You’re telling me I can’t assume someone’s pronouns based on their gender or even how they look, so how the heck do I know how to address them?”
Great question! Like any forward-thinking approach, the answer is to lead by example. When introducing yourself, include your gender and preferred pronouns. It will sound something like this:
“Hi, I’m Maya. I’m bigender, and today my pronouns are she/her. How about you?”
Truly, it’s that simple.
Some people will only use she/her, some will use he/him, some change their pronouns day to day, some use they/them, some go by ze/zir, as well as many, many other variations. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, offer yours, and they’ll most likely reciprocate. If they don’t, then simply refer to that person by their first name so you don’t have to use pronouns at all.
If you have a relationship with said person, you can also ask them their pronouns privately. Or, if you wanted to ask them in a group setting, please ask everyone else in the group as well so this one person who is confusing to you doesn’t get singled out.
It’s important to normalize making everyone’s pronouns more visible, an activity that trans people need cis people to take the lead on. Cis people need to lead this effort because when trans people do it, they’re often seen as the “other,” something that trans people have to deal with all the time anyway.
If everyone at your company is open about their pronouns, then everyone will feel included. A good rule of thumb is if it doesn’t hurt anyone, and can help make even a few people more comfortable, you should probably do it. Include your pronouns in introductions to new people, use them in team meetings, and add them to your email signature. You don’t know how much it means to us.