The idea of sharing gender pronouns in social and professional settings is far more common now than it was ten years ago. You’ve likely seen someone’s pronouns in their email signature, on their social media, or in their Zoom username — but not all of us have the same level of comfort when it comes to understanding gender pronouns and when and how to use them.

Luckily, no matter where you are on the comfort (and gender) spectrum, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we’ll be covering key concepts to help you better understand pronouns and how to help your organization set a level standard for their use across the team.

What are gender pronouns?

Pronouns signify gender identity — man, woman, neither, both, or a combination of — and how a person wants to be acknowledged by others. A person’s pronouns have nothing to do with sexual orientation, but rather specifically refer to how a person feels about their gender (or nongender), on the inside. These sets of pronouns have increasingly been appearing in work settings, with people stating their preferred pronouns at meetings, events, and in email communication. But why is that?

The answer: companies want all their employees — wherever they are on the gender spectrum — to feel seen, heard, valued, and respected for who they are. By honoring an employee’s wishes to use preferred pronouns, a company is both fostering a culture of inclusiveness and being an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community.

Why are pronouns important?

Just as learning a co-worker’s name and pronouncing it correctly is a sign of respect, so is addressing a colleague by their correct pronouns. According to a study by The Trevor Project, one in four LGBTQIA youth use pronouns outside the gender binary (i.e. they do not exclusively identify as a “man” or “woman”). Some people outside the LGBTQIA community might be somewhat mystified about the concept of gender identity. Most people identify as what’s known as “cisgender” or “cis,” a term applied to individuals whose gender identity matches their gender assigned at birth. So, gender identity may be relatively new or foreign to the majority of the population, including older generations with mixed views on the matter.

We believe in sharing pronouns because gender identity is not something that can be seen (or assumed). It’s not physically evident, since it’s divorced from a person’s appearance, chromosomes, mannerisms, sexual orientation, or the sex assigned at birth. Rather, it’s the deep, internal identification with a particular gender.

A cisgender person might not give two seconds of thought to gender identity because theirs conforms with (and is reinforced by) societal gender norms. But it’s a different story for those who feel their internal gender identity either doesn’t match their outward appearance or doesn’t fall into traditional categories. Preferred pronouns help employees avoid confusion and make the work environment a more welcoming space for everyone.

Important gender terms to know

Important gender terms that illuminate the nuances of pronouns include:

  • Cisgender: Describes a person who identifies as the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Heteronormative: The idea that heterosexual behavior is the norm.
  • Gender fluid: Describes someone who has a changing gender identity, which shifts and flows.
  • Nonbinary: Describes someone whose gender identity is outside the gender binary of man or woman.
  • Transgender (trans): Describes someone who has a gender identity and/or outward gender expression different from their gender assigned at birth.
  • Gender-neutral: Describes a phrase, word, or objects—like clothing—that do not have a male or female identity connection.
  • Gender nonconforming: Describes someone who does not conform with traditional gender roles.
  • Agender: Describes someone who does not identify with any gender.
  • Intersex: Describes someone whose natural body does not fit into traditional definitions of male or female.

Examples of gender pronouns

Some people have been making introductions with their preferred pronouns for years, so the concept is easy to understand. Others are less familiar and find listing their pronouns in social and professional situations altogether new.

If you identify as cisgender, this might be relatively easy since your pronouns of choice are likely already being used correctly. But it’s still helpful to identify what they are and share them with your colleagues, so they know how to address you and might feel more comfortable sharing their pronouns with you. Some examples of gender pronouns are:

  • She/her/hers: Pronouns for someone who identifies as a woman.
  • He/him/his: Pronouns for someone who identifies as a man.
  • They/them/theirs: Pronouns for someone who identifies as neither a man nor a woman. (Or they identify as both, or gender-fluid, but they prefer to be called by neither.). These are gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Ze/zir/zirs: A set of gender-neutral pronouns, pronounced “Z”/”zhere/”zheres.”
  • Ey/em/eirs: A set of gender-neutral pronouns, pronounced by removing the “th,” from they/them/their.
  • She/they: Pronouns for someone who prefers feminine and nonbinary pronouns; either pronoun works.
  • He/they: Pronouns for someone who prefers masculine and nonbinary pronouns; either pronoun works.

Why is it important to use preferred pronouns in the workplace?

The willingness to state one’s own pronouns, ask others what their pronouns are, and use them helps everyone feel equally seen and accepted. It’s simply a form of respect.

Although an increasing number of employers are using pronouns in the workplace, there are instances when introducing them causes some friction with employees who may not be familiar with sharing pronouns. New concepts–especially those that come with new, expected workplace behaviors–can make people feel self-conscious, fearful, and sometimes, even embarrassed.

For employees who feel self-conscious about—and puzzled by—personal pronouns, remember that gender identity is real (we all have one), and by leading by example, you’re contributing to a more respectful and inclusive workplace. Many people who are gender nonconforming have faced bullying and discrimination in both their personal and professional lives, so starting from a place of empathy and respect is helpful. We all make mistakes, so if a colleague uses the incorrect pronouns to refer to another, gently correct those co-workers, and encourage your teammates to correct you if you slip up. We suggest doing it quickly, in the moment (mistakes happen), or pulling your colleague aside soon after. However, if a colleague is deliberately misgendering, acting disrespectful or demeaning someone, reach out to HR.

In addition, you’ll likely find making pronouns more visible has additional benefits, especially in introductions. For example, if a colleague or professional connection has the name Alex, Pat, Dana, Jamie, or Jesse, or an unfamiliar foreign name, adding pronouns to an email or LinkedIn profile removes any potential confusion about who they are and how they want to be addressed.

4 tips for getting pronouns right in the workplace

One can feel a little uneasy stating pronouns and asking for a colleague’s preferred pronouns the first time. But like anything else, it gets easier with time and practice. Likely, the use of pronouns will feel strange before it feels comfortable. Keep these four tips in mind for gender-sensitive communication:

  1. Don’t assume a person’s pronouns. If you’re ever unsure of which pronouns a colleague prefers, rather than asking them outright, lead by example. Start by stating your own preferred pronouns: “My pronouns include … .” It’s okay to encourage people to share their pronouns if they feel comfortable doing so. (Again, the easiest time for this is in introductions.)
  2. Use gender-inclusive rather than gendered language. It might be second nature to say, “Ladies and Gentleman!” to rally the team. But those who don’t fall into either category might feel dismissed. A vivacious: “Hello Everybody!” or “Greetings!” does the trick.
  3. Apologize if you use the wrong pronoun and be willing to change behavior. No need to make a pronoun faux-pas all about you. Instead, just say, “Oops, sorry, I meant to say ‘they’ instead of ‘she.’”
  4. Rest assured, “they” is grammatically correct for singular use. You may not realize it, but you probably use “they” to refer to someone more often than you think. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is clear that “they” is correct to use in the singular.

Final thoughts

Using preferred pronouns at the workplace is a way to make everybody feel welcome and respected. Gender identity may not be a concept everyone is familiar with, but taking the time to learn about using correct pronouns can help create an inclusive work environment where people feel appreciated, seen, and included. The simple act of stating one’s pronouns, or inviting a colleague to share their pronouns and using them correctly, can make an apprehensive, non-gender-conforming co-worker feel more at ease.