The pronoun question: How companies can acknowledge gender in all its forms

The phrase “What’s your pronoun?” is fast becoming an indicator of the degree of inclusive practices an organisation and its people follow.
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Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2019 was “they”- a pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary. The American company found an increasing and shifting use of the word, with lookups for it rising 313% compared to the previous year, taking it to the top of their data findings. A harbinger, one might add, of things to come.

In recent times, one of the most significant and controversial topics has been around gender identities. For many people, gender is so intrinsic and core to a person that it is immediately obvious. However, the last few years have turned that idea on its head, and the conversation has now moved back to the very basic - what is gender?

Gender has long been mixed up with biological sex and viewed as a neatly slotted, two-dimension part of identity - someone was either male or female, with all the traditional power equations and stereotypes that were attached to that particular sex. However, new advances in science, as well as a greater willingness on the part of people in speaking up, have led to the now common understanding that gender is not a male or female binary - it is a spectrum, with people occupying various points of the “gender spectrum”. They may identify as “gender-fluid”, and may even choose to reject being slotted into one gender, with all the limitations it brings.

This has led to people increasingly stepping up and challenging not just the stereotypes around the gender they were assigned at birth (appearances, attire, behaviours) but challenging gender itself. People are choosing an entire lifestyle that may not conform to their assigned gender - and in some cases, they are even choosing hormonal and surgical interventions to change their gender.

Most people would have heard of the term 'transgender'. Simply put, it refers to someone who chooses to change their gender from the one assigned at birth (and many countries now have laws that help people change their assigned gender on official documents). However, referring to someone as “transgender” or “trans” may be alienating without there being a similar term to describe those who conform to the gender assigned to them at birth. This is why the term “cisgender” or “cis” has come into prominence. A cisgender person is someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth, and this has gone a long way in normalising the fact that you need to qualify whether or not you identify with your assigned gender.

An entire generation - the much-maligned millennials, and even those born later - has grown up normalising this, and is also completely attuned to the idea that a person’s gender is not binary, and is not immediately obvious – it needs to be explicitly stated and articulated. A couple of years ago, Time magazine’s cover article “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’- How a new generation is redefining the meaning of Gender” - held that “the erosion of these binaries could have profound implications for the many systems that prop up the two-gender reality most people are accustomed to”. 

Recently, data from a Pew Research report revealed that 59% of Gen Z believe that gender options in forms must not be binary but must include options that are more inclusive. These patterns signify direct implications for organisations. Given the fact that Gen Z are the workforce - and consumers - of the future, companies must confront their understanding of gender and take steps to keep up with the winds of change. If organisations want to attract and retain employees and give them a workplace free of discrimination and harassment, acknowledging gender in all its forms is a logical place to start.

With the adoption of Diversity and Inclusion(D&I) in core company values, in leadership playbooks and across organisational policies and processes, more companies are now ensuring that nonbinary employees feel accepted and included. Gender-neutral washrooms, trainings on awareness and sensitization on gender neutrality, medical insurance for same sex partners, and counselling services are all progressive ways of practising equality and inclusion at the workplace. However, to signal D&I at both the internal and external level, companies are realizing that they need to redefine their understanding of gender - and one place to begin is with gender pronouns. 

Often mistaken as an “obvious” grammatical question, the phrase “What’s your pronoun?” is fast becoming an indicator of the degree of inclusive practices an organisation and its people follow. Pronouns - like names and their spelling - are intensely personal and connected to identity. They may also differ from what the name or physical appearance may suggest. 

Most people associate pronouns with early grammar lessons, as words that replace a noun and follow certain rules. But in the world of diversity, inclusion and belongingness, they take on newer forms, translate into third person gender neutral terms and are far from exhaustive (e.g. they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, he/him/his, and even less common, but emerging pronouns like “ze/zir”).

What companies can do 

To start with, companies can understand that many employees would like to pick their “preferred pronouns” and any company that wants to establish the culture of “live and let live”, and create awareness on inclusive practices, should let employees have the option of stating their preferred gender pronouns. This could be on the company intranet, in e-mail signatures, or on social media handles, and by doing so, the company is facilitating many things for the employee. It lets the employee choose how they want their gender to be identified and how they want to be referred to, but more importantly it sends the message that the reader’s gender is respected. It helps normalise the fact that pronouns need to be explicitly articulated and cannot be immediately assumed. It also reduces the instances of “misgendering”, which can lead to people feeling alienated. 

There are several examples of organisations acknowledging this new reality. Recently, Japan Airlines dropped the age-old “Ladies and Gentlemen” for a more gender-neutral greeting in its airport and in-flight announcements to passengers. Last year United Airlines started offering nonbinary booking options. For the first time, the labour codes in India make it mandatory for industrial establishments to provide washrooms and locker rooms for transgender employees (Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions Code, 2020).

To normalise gender pronouns, companies must start at the hiring stage. Asking for pronouns in the job application form is a first step to position the company as an inclusive employer to a candidate.  At the interview and onboarding stage, asking a direct question like “What are your preferred pronouns” puts all genders on an equal footing and helps all genders feel safe. 

Icebreakers that include pronouns in meetings and the option of conference name tags with the preferred pronouns further help make pronouns routine and familiar. Maintaining employee records with the chosen name and preferred pronoun in the HR Information system and company directory allows for communication directed to an individual employee to reflect the same. Finally, the pronoun culture should be explained in the employee handbook and actively championed by the leaders in the organisation.

Much like the philosophy behind the start of many inclusive policies: if even one segment of the organisation or candidate group feels awkward or uncomfortable about any aspect of work or perceives biases (spoken or unspoken; conscious or unconscious), there is a case to change that perception or experience through deliberate action. Organisations must ensure that policies and processes include the minority and are not just created for the so-called “mainstream”.

The evolution of language, historians argue, reflects social truths of the times. So also, in the case of the gender identity and gender pronoun. Across social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, people are going ahead and displaying their pronouns, signifying a growing trend on how gender is perceived. These are fundamental shifts and if employers and decision-makers don’t pay heed to the changing mindset, they risk losing out on the future, becoming irrelevant and forever playing the catch-up game. 

This writer is an independent Human Resources consultant based in Bengaluru. She works with small and medium enterprises on all aspects related to HR, especially POSH and D&I. She is an alumnus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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