A guide to using gender pronouns to demonstrate LGBTIQA+ allyship at work, from someone with lived experience.
“Which pronouns make you feel the happiest?”
This was the question that a friend asked me one day, as we were sitting on my front porch, which led me to adopt they/them gender pronouns.
In my early 40s I knew I was gender-diverse, but I hadn’t quite felt bold enough to change my pronouns.
Trans and gender-diverse are umbrella terms used to describe people whose gender is different to the legal sex that was assigned to them at birth. Non-binary is a term used to describe genders that sit within or outside the spectrum of the male and female binary.
As someone who came out as bisexual at 36, I didn’t feel courageous. I had plenty of support, but it wasn’t easy by any measure. It took some time to build up the resilience to deal with my gender diversity, in part because I had a sense of what was to come.
Coming out is not something you do once. Most LGBTIQA+ people find themselves having to come out on a regular basis – and each time the result could be positive or awkward (and sometimes really bad). For gender-diverse and trans people, this process has many extra layers of difficulty. One of them is pronouns.
From a young age I thought about gender almost every day of my life. I knew I never fit in as a girl, but I also knew that I wasn’t a boy. If I was a young person in 2021, I might have realised there were other options; visible role models and social media have helped in that regard. But in the 80s and 90s in regional Victoria, you were a boy or you were a girl, and that was not up for debate.
Out, loud and proud as me
When I was sitting on my porch having a conversation with my friend, it dawned on me that it was now time to be me in all aspects of my life. But even though I work as an LGBTIQA+ inclusion consultant, and was already part of the queer community, the prospect of asking people to use my new pronouns was terrifying.
Imagine how someone in your workplace might feel about coming out as trans or gender-diverse. Not only do they need to figure out who to tell first, there’s the added pressure of wondering whether it will negatively impact their career aspirations or, more importantly, their safety at work.
Now that I have come out as genderqueer – which fits under the non-binary umbrella – and embraced they/them as my pronouns, when someone gets it right, I smile – every single time. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be out, loud and proud as me – no longer masquerading as a woman.
On the flip side, when I hear myself referred to as ‘she’ or ‘her’, I’m reminded of the difficulties I’ve had with gender.
I’m often distracted in the conversation, wondering whether to correct them or let it slide, and hoping someone else might do it for me. If I do correct it, how should I do it and when? Are they going to get defensive? Do I have the energy for another slightly problematic story about how much they love their gay cousin Gary (not kidding – it happens so many times).
“From a young age I thought about gender almost every day of my life. I knew I never fit in as a girl, but I also knew that I wasn’t a boy.” – Dr Bree Gorman, Founder, Bree Gorman Consulting.
Being misgendered (the term used when people use the wrong pronouns) can be painful. When it happens in the workplace, it can be difficult to stay focussed, productive and engaged.
It’s also worth noting that many gender-diverse and trans people’s experiences are much more painful than mine.
Learn about the organisations that are creating truly inclusive cultures at AHRI’s 2021 Award Ceremony. Who will take home the LGBTQIA+ inclusion award? Register to attend the virtual event on 25 November to find out.
Avoid misgendering people at work
One of the common reasons employers or employees make mistakes when it comes to offering support to gender-diverse or trans employees is a lack of education, or fear of saying the wrong thing. Neither are good enough reasons to stick your head in the sand.
Your organisation can’t promote a diverse, inclusive and equitable culture if it’s not factoring in the experiences of gender-diverse and trans people.
With this in mind, how can HR professionals help their organisations to reduce the number of times someone is misgendered in the workplace?
Here are some things that have worked for me in the past, but it’s worth keeping in mind that other people might have different preferences.
1. Introduce yourself with your pronouns.
Using your own pronouns when you meet me signals that I am safe to be myself with you. It may feel awkward initially, but you’ll get used to it. For example, you could say, “Hello. I’m Safat and I use she/her pronouns.”
Do this with everyone, not just people you think are trans or gender-diverse, the benefit is realised when we normalise pronoun use. It becomes something we do and no one is singled out or made to feel different.
To take your allyship one step further, if people query why you introduced yourself with your pronouns, take that as an opportunity to educate them.
2. Where possible, use people’s names.
Language is habitual and, often without meaning to, we default to incorrect gender pronouns. One tactic to avoid this is to use people’s names wherever possible.
Get into the habit of saying: ‘That report is with Chen for review’ or ‘Fran has gone home early today.’ As a rule of thumb, never assume someone’s pronouns and always default to ‘they’ until you know for sure.
If you’re worried that it won’t sound grammatically correct, remember that we actually use ‘they’ to describe a single person all the time. Think about – “They left their phone on the table” or “They can just leave the parcel at the door”.
3. Add your pronouns to LinkedIn profiles, video call names and email signatures.
While you’re at it, why not add pronouns into your recruitment process? Interviews are intimidating at the best of times, asking pronouns upon application can reduce the stress for trans or gender-diverse candidates.
4. When you get it wrong, quickly correct yourself and move on.
In that moment the person most likely doesn’t need you to roll off your LGBTIQA+ ally credentials or make a big fuss about how hard it is to get it right. Just a simple, “Oh sorry, I meant they….” is enough to signal that you made a mistake, you’re sorry and you’ll keep trying.
5. Avoid using language that suggests gender identity is a choice
Often pronouns are referred to as a preference which is similar to how some people refer to diverse sexualities as a ‘lifestyle choice’.
This can be very hurtful. People don’t choose to be gender-diverse or gay – they just are. Avoid saying ‘preferred’ or ‘chosen’ pronouns and instead just refer to them as the person’s pronouns. For example “Sofia uses they/them pronouns” not “Sofia’s preferred pronouns are they/them”.
Getting pronouns right in your workplace is only one small part of the LGBTIQA+ inclusion puzzle, but it’s a simple and effective way to make life easier for trans and gender-diverse people.
Dr Bree Gorman is a Diversity and Inclusion consultant who works with organisations to create meaningful, measurable and sustainable change. Bree had a career in science and research management prior to becoming the Diversity and Inclusion manager at Deakin University before founding Bree Gorman consulting in 2019.
Comments on this article have been disabled. While we usually encourage discussion on HRM articles, in this instance the protection of our writers and staff comes first. HRM is a safe space for the LGBTIQA+ community and we intend to keep it that way.