The Significance of Pronoun Use and Etiquette in the Workplace

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By Steve L. Evener, MPH and Margaret Foster, HR Business Partner

What is a pronoun? Merriam-Webster defines a pronoun as a word people use instead of a noun. Pronouns help us understand who people are talking about, whether the subject of a sentence is a single person or group of people. In some cases, it’s important for people to know whether actions are being done by a male or female, and pronouns help us clarify that. Singular pronouns include I, he, she, you, they, and it, and plural pronouns include we, you (y’all in the south), they, us, and them.

Pronouns have become a topic of debate over the past few years. There have been concerns about how to use them and if people should use pronouns that don’t align with how others might perceive their gender and/or sex. Included in the debate is the use of gendered pronouns. A recent Pew Research survey indicates that the U.S. population has mixed feelings about gender identity and how, if at all, it can differ from sex. To start understanding how the use of pronouns align with the outward appearance of people’s sex and/or gender, we must understand what sex and gender are.

People often use sex and gender interchangeably; however, they are two different things. The word “sex” describes a person’s biological sex, which is determined by the 23rd pair of chromosomes, also called the sex chromosomes. Biological males have the XY chromosome combination, and biological females have the XX chromosome combination.

The word “gender” describes how an individual behaves based on his/her/their sex or how masculine or feminine he/she/they are. People typically expect biological males and people who appear to be male to use the male pronouns (he/him/his), while biological females and people who appear to be female are typically expected to use the female pronouns (she/her/hers). People also communicate their gender by the styles of clothing they wear or by the toys they play with. Males are typically seen dressed in pants or suits and playing with toy trucks and guns, while females are typically seen wearing dresses and high heels and playing with dolls.

However, people are more frequently identifying themselves as “gender queer”, “non-binary”, “gender non-conforming”, and “gender fluid” instead of using the traditional male and female pronouns. Instead, they use neutral pronouns, such as they/them/theirs. Some people who identify as something other than the traditional gender binary can also be comfortable using a combination of pronouns. For example, someone may wish to use he/him/they, or she/her/ they, or he/she/they. This can be confusing for some people to understand because it goes against how we are taught to behave as children. It can also be hard for some people to use plural pronouns (they/them/theirs) to refer to a single individual.

To add more confusion, there are also neopronouns, such as ze/hir/hirs and xe/xem/xyr, that are being used more often among people who do not wish to use gendered pronouns. The Human Rights Campaign published an article on its website to help people understand these “newer” pronouns. I use quotations because neopronouns have been used throughout history by different civilizations and are not as new as some people might think. People’s use of pronouns has evolved just as languages have evolved. They also have different meanings in different cultures, just like different cultures define gender differently.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, youth reported that they feel a sense of validation and support when their correct pronouns are used. They also reported feeling less stress. Another study published in Youth & Society supports these findings and adds that using correct pronouns reduces suicidal thoughts and depression while it increases self-esteem. I personally understand these findings because I had a high-pitched voice as a kid and was always referred to as “Ma’am” or “Miss” by people. I was bullied and teased as a child because I wasn’t as masculine as the other boys and experiencing that made me think that strangers who misgendered me were also making fun of me on purpose, as other kids did. Though this was not an accurate interpretation, it was how I felt and caused me to feel very sad as a child, and I had low self-esteem. These feelings have stayed with me even into adulthood.

Feelings like these can also exist in the workplace for many reasons. Many businesses have added diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs to prevent these feelings of not belonging. DE&I programs help ensure all employees are treated fairly, feel valued, and that others understand the experiences of those who have been historically discriminated against. Similar acts have happened in the past, including the fight for equal pay, protections for Americans with disabilities, and the prohibition of discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and/or religion, just to name a few.

One thing supported by businesses’ DE&I programs is including preferred pronouns in email signature lines. This is an easy way for businesses to build gender inclusiveness into their company culture. Just as we are inclusive and respectful of other people’s age, religion, race, and sex, we should be inclusive of gender identity as well. People who include their pronouns in their email signatures help others feel comfortable sharing theirs. Businesses that encourage pronouns and do not require them ensure employees can comfortably share them when they are ready without having to hide a part of themselves.

Adding pronouns to your email signature is a great way to tell people how to address you, especially if your name is not a common name. It also lets people know that you and your company understand diversity and inclusivity.

Another way to let people know your preferred pronouns and to allow them to tell you theirs is to state them when making an introduction. For example, if I were meeting people for the first time and asked to introduce myself, I’d say, “Hello. My name is Steve, and my pronouns are he/him/his.” This helps us build a culture that is inclusive of everyone’s gender identity.

At Karna, we work to improve the physical, mental, emotional, and social health of people by using evidence-based approaches. Karna’s mission is to deliver impactful solutions that empower our customers while providing a safe and supportive environment for all our employees. Through our DE&I program, we support our mission by having a mix of voices, fair treatment and opportunity, and empowerment for all employees.

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