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Today, most companies are looking to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace for their employees, helping everyone feel comfortable and supported at work. This is a great goal, but getting there can be complicated. It takes effort, practice, and plenty of leadership from the top to make all your employees feel free to be themselves in your workplace.

One of the best ways to make sure everyone feels included and comfortable in your workplace is to enable conversations about people’s preferred gender pronouns.

This helps everyone feel like they can bring their whole selves to work and be accepted. Why does sharing gender pronouns at work matter, and how can your company do it effectively and inclusively? Read on to find out.

What are gender pronouns?

Gender pronouns are the words that a person wants other people to use when talking to or about them.

The most common pronouns are “she, her, hers” and “he, him, his,” but these are not the only options. People who are transgender or gender-nonconforming may use other pronouns, like “they, them, theirs,” that don’t conform to traditional binary gender categorizations. Here’s a great video from Buzzfeed on why pronouns matter.

While these preferred gender pronouns might seem confusing if they’re new to you or your team at work, it’s worth making an effort to use them correctly. It just takes a little learning and sometimes a lot of practice.

According to SHRM, learning preferred gender pronouns s not just the kind thing to do, but it’s also a right for people to be called by the correct pronoun.

Why does sharing gender pronouns matter?

Pronouns are very personal. Imagine sitting around the lunch table with your colleagues, and one of them insisted on referring to you as “she” when you are a man who is accustomed to going by “he” or calling you Julia when you go by Joey-it doesn’t feel right or good.

Most of us are accustomed to looking at a person and making a guess about their pronouns instinctively and then calling them by what we assume they prefer—considering that it can be inaccurate and harmful.

A person’s name, clothes, or other outward appearances don’t tell you how they identify themselves. This is true for many transgender people and people of any gender identity.

And guessing, or assuming, incorrectly makes the person being misgendered feel uncomfortable, and it’s not a pleasant experience for the person doing the misgendering either. Even though it’s not done on purpose, it’s still alienating and unkind.

Check out this TED Talk on how to talk (and listen) to transgender people for more details on why gender pronouns matter.

Cultural change starts from the top

So how can your business start to break out of the default binary gender assumption and start making your workplace more inclusive for everyone? Changes in your culture must be modeled from the top.

A study has found that having trans-supportive policies at a company only decreases workplace discrimination and makes people feel more open about their identities when leaders consistently model this behavior.

What are some ways you can make sure all the employees in your business or group feel comfortable being open about their gender identity at work and sharing their pronouns? Here are some suggestions. You can find some more welcome ideas in the Human Rights Campaign’s Trans Toolkit for Employers.

1. Share your pronouns

More and more leaders are pre-emptively sharing their pronouns to set a good example. You can add your pronouns to your email signature, LinkedIn profile, or internal social media channels to set a strong example.

2. Ask directly

In introductions and icebreakers with people from other teams, you can start by asking people to share their names, roles, and pronouns if they’re comfortable breaking the ice. Singling out one person to ask while not asking anyone else in the group is also uncomfortable for gender-nonconforming people, so make sure to avoid doing that in group settings.

In one-on-one conversations, you can ask, “what are your gender pronouns?” or “could you remind me which pronouns you go by?” Just remember not to ask what they prefer because pronouns aren’t a preference. They’re a part of that person’s identity.

3. Don’t assume

Not in a position to ask right away, which pronouns someone uses? Then don’t use a gendered one at all until you can check. Instead, you can opt to use something neutral like “they/them” or refer to the person by name.

4. Add it in apps

As more businesses realize the importance of creating an inclusive environment for employees, their tools become more inclusive. For example, Asana, which makes workflow and task management software, has added a profile setting that allows users to share their pronouns and see what others have shared as theirs.

5. Commit to a communications plan

Set your policy clearly on pronouns when you onboard new employees and communicate with current ones. For example, Goldman Sachs has created an internal campaign to ensure employees know the importance of using preferred pronouns and encourage colleagues to share them proactively.

What to do when you make a mistake?

Not used to asking for preferred gender pronouns or using gender-neutral language often? That’s okay if you make a strong and sincere effort to do better next time.

There are also a few steps to take after slipping up and misgendering someone that will help.

  • ✅ Fix it quickly at the moment in a real-time conversation.
  • ✅ If it’s in an email chain, shoot the person a quick message saying something like, “Hey, I noticed I messed up there, and I’m sorry.”
  • ✅ Please don’t dwell on it to the person you’ve misgendered. If you keep bringing it up or apologizing, you’re requesting that the person you’ve misgendered comfort you, and that’s not fair to them. Just own your mistake and move on.
  • ✅ If you feel you need further education, take on the burden of doing that yourself. Your trans and gender non-conforming employees and colleagues shouldn’t have to do that themselves when plenty of resources are available (like this great Trans Toolkit for Employers).
  • ✅ Practice! People easily slip into using gendered terms or making assumptions - but this all gets easier with reflective practice. Keep making an effort to offer your pronouns, ask people about theirs, and own up to and move on from mistakes; the easier it will come to you.
  • ✅ Keep holding each other accountable on your leadership and HR teams, especially since you’re setting the example. At Nuna, a healthcare technology company, employees started a #watch-your-language Slack channel so employees could ask questions and support each other along the way.

Getting the gendered language out of the workplace

In many workplaces globally, there is still a large amount of gendered language used in casual conversations between colleagues and supervisors, internal communications, and how employees are trained to talk to customers.

While this bias might not be conscious, it can affect employees who don’t fit the dominant genders. It can make colleagues and management more ignorant of the spectrum of gender identities around them.

Gendered language can mean using male pronouns as a universal signifier in communications - like turning to “he” as the default pronoun or using the term “salesman” instead of “salesperson.” It could also mean assuming someone referred to as an executive, doctor, or lawyer is male.

This kind of bias is important to root out of your communications and speaking because it alienates or ignores the many successful women, transgender, and non-binary people at your workplace.

You should also make a concerted effort to remove language that creates a false binary on gender - using only he/she, for example. This change avoids alienating any employees who don’t identify with either gender.

And changing your company’s communications to be gender-neutral has well-studied benefits. Not only are you being more inclusive, but you’re also reducing gender stereotypes and contributing to LGBTQ equality, according to a study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Increasing tolerance builds diverse teams

Why is it so important to build a tolerant workplac] that acknowledges and celebrates diversity? It can feel like a difficult task to change attitudes in workers and leaders who are unused to considering the gendered language and gender pronouns. But it’s much more than just an attempt to be politically correct.

Employees of all genders, identities, and sexual orientations deserve a workplace where they feel safe to be themselves.

According to Harvard Business Review, sufficient equity and diversity practices improve productivity for all employees, not just LGBTQ employees. 

It’s the right thing to do - to treat people with kindness and consideration - and it’s also good for your business. It might be a little uncomfortable to start, but it’s well worth it to create an inclusive, welcoming workplace culture for your valued employees.

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Kathleen O'Donnell

Kathleen O'Donnell LinkedIn

Kathleen is a freelance writer and employee communications and culture expert, with 6+ years of experience in corporate internal communications.