Gender Pronouns: A Linguist’s Approach to Acceptance in the Workplace

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As someone with a dual degree in English and Communication and a penchant for eradicating grammatical errors, I have a deeper love for language and its laws than most.

However, regardless of coursework regaling the necessity of the Oxford comma and hours spent pouring over manuscripts to remove all perceived error and clunkiness, I must bend to the omnipotent truth: all language is made up.

Language is a construction crafted to convey meaning. And much to my occasional dismay — such as when my Pennsylvania Dutch husband drops the copula to say “these clothes need washed” — if the meaning is conveyed without obstruction, language, regardless of rules, has served its purpose.

No one likes to assume the position of linguist more than someone fighting against the singular pronoun “they.”

Much to my nitpicking, English-loving delight, the third-person gender pronoun has become the talk of the town. While I would love if people chose to become sticklers for the English language for language’s sake, I am sorely disappointed that their cause is rooted not in creating clarity but in spreading their hate and transphobia.

Let’s take a look at why these keyboard warriors are not only wildly insensitive but also grammatically incorrect.

The History of Gender Pronouns

The pronoun “they” has been used as a singular pronoun since before it became a widely accepted option as a chosen pronoun.

“Where is Sarah?”

“They’re over there getting some ice cream.”

Even though my pronouns are she/her, the use of gender-neutral pronouns still works.

“We’re looking for a candidate with a passion for this position. They need to have experience in AutoCAD and drafting submittals.”

The person in search of a candidate uses the pronoun “they” because they are unsure of the gender identity of their applicant.

And I used the pronoun “they” because I don’t know the gender of this fictional hiring agent I created as a hypothetical.

Even people strongly against the use of they/them use it daily, sometimes in their very argument about gender identity and people’s pronouns. They just don’t like when it’s applied to a person by choice.

They/them pronouns are grammatically correct. And even if they weren’t, Dennis Baron, a famous professor of linguistics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, elegantly states that language is a “dynamic democracy,” not a stronghold ruled by experts.

Language is fluid and is molded frequently by the people who use it. Its purpose is to work for the people, not sit locked away in a tower, unchanged by time.

And if we need to break rules to make language work for the people, then I’ll gladly take my place in line to tear down the iron gates.

Gender Identity in the Workplace

Whether or not they have come out to you, chances are you work with someone who identifies as non-binary or transgender. For safety reasons, trans and non-binary people may pass as their assigned-at-birth gender in professional spaces for fear of varying forms of discrimination, from ostracization to losing their job.

Think about your workspace and try to see it through the eyes of someone with a gender identity different from what they were born with.

Would they feel unsafe because…

  • There’s a strict attendance to traditional gender roles?
  • People with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual experience microaggressions or are the subject of jokes?
  • People talk about the gender binary as though there are only two genders?

Probably one of the most common reasons people choose not to reveal their correct pronouns?

No one asked.

In order to create an inclusive environment, asking someone’s pronouns should be as commonplace as asking their name. You don’t approach someone you’ve never met and make a wild guess about their name.

How strange would it be if someone approached you and said “Nice to meet you! You look like…a Deborah,” and they continued to call you that every single day for the rest of your employment?

So why would you make a guess about a person’s gender?

When you ask, you show that you have an interest in treating them in accordance with their true identity. By asking, you show that you care about making someone comfortable, opening up the office space for them to be their true selves.

Treat asking pronouns like you’re asking someone for their name. First, introduce yourself, then ask if they don’t mind sharing their pronouns with you.

“Hi, my name is Todd, and my pronouns are he/they. Would you mind sharing with me how you would like to be addressed?”

And when asking, do not use the phrase “preferred pronouns,” as it is outdated. A person’s gender isn’t a preference.

They might not immediately give you their true pronouns. They might want to first assess the office and see if it is truly a safe space for them to be themselves. Whatever pronouns they give you, use them.

Here are some things you should do and things you should not do to create a welcoming office space.

  • Do: Put your pronouns in the signature of your email. Even if you are a cis individual, adding your pronouns helps normalize the practice.
  • Don’t: Assume trans and non-binary people need to present as their true gender. Don’t assume a male with a traditionally masculine appearance uses he/him pronouns. She doesn’t owe you a traditionally feminine look to be accepted as her true gender identity.
  • Do: Put your pronouns on name tags. In a meet and greet situation, putting your pronouns on your name tag encourages others to do the same and makes the event more gender-inclusive.
  • Don’t: Repeatedly apologize for using the wrong pronoun. People make mistakes. The best practice after using the wrong pronoun is to quickly apologize, correct yourself, and move on.
  • Do: Use gender-inclusive language when talking about hypothetical individuals. For example, when discussing a client that hasn’t been acquired or a hire that hasn’t been chosen, use they/them pronouns. You don’t know who you’ll be working with, so don’t pigeonhole them into a gender while they’re still hypothetical.
  • Don’t: Let people in the office get away with sexist, homophobic, or transphobic jokes and comments. You never know who is hearing these remarks. Maybe someone a cubicle over is transgender and hasn’t come out yet. Maybe someone passing by has a brother who is pansexual. People making these comments will continue to do so until someone stands up to them, and they only create a divisive, hostile, discriminatory work environment when they share these beliefs, whether or not anyone is in earshot.

Be an Ally and Use the Correct Gender Pronouns

Everyone at every level of a company has the power to influence the culture of the organization. You don’t need to be a manager to ask someone’s pronouns, gently correct a coworker when they misgender someone and speak up when a coworker says something transphobic.

People select their pronouns because it’s the language that they feel most comfortably encompasses their relationship with their gender identity. It’s a sacred moment when someone chooses to let language speak for them, and it’s truly something special when non-binary or transgender people choose to share those pronouns with you. Thank them for their trust in you; you respect that trust every time you refer to a person with the language they gave you.

People have no problem calling Margaret by her chosen nickname Maggie. We won’t reach gender equality and acceptance until we have the same attitude towards chosen pronouns and chosen names for trans people, too.

Sarah Margaret Henry
Published in Career, Featured Articles, Life

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