For those who don’t have to worry about being misgendered, pronouns may not seem especially important. For those that have diverse gender identities, however, constantly being misgendered can feel exhausting and invalidating.

Imagine you’ve just spent the last hour getting ready for work, choosing an outfit that feels comfortable and represents who you are. On your commute, first the bus driver and then the barista misgender you and this happens again later in a meeting at the office. If you identify as a female, you are called sir. If you identify as male, you are called miss or ma’am. How might this make you feel? Do you correct them or let it go? Imagine having to think about this day in and day out.

Misgendering, unfortunately, happens often, and it can affect someone’s feelings of safety in the workplace. So, how can we create a more inclusive environment that makes people of all gender identities feel safe and welcome?

First, it’s important to acknowledge and respect diverse gender identities.

Traditional gender language privileges people who identify as binary, and until very recently, it has not successfully included those who identify differently. As we progress, it’s important to continue to be curious, to listen to how people are speaking, and to learn the language. Below are some key terms around gender to become familiar with.

Key Terms Explained

This list of terms is not comprehensive, but it’s a starting place to begin to understand different experiences of gender and how they may be expressed in the workplace.

  • Gender Identity: Who someone feels they are regardless of biological sex/sexual anatomy.
  • Gender Expression: How someone demonstrates who they are in terms of gender.
  • Gender Expansive: Someone whose experience and expression does not match up with expected societal norms. They may feel both a man and a woman, neither a man nor a woman or somewhere in between and this may or may not be fixed.
  • Cisgender: Someone whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth match.
  • Transgender: Someone whose gender identity does not correspond with their sex assigned at birth.
  • Non-binary: People who describe themselves and their genders as not fitting into set binary category of either male or female.

Pronouns & Their Rules

Pronouns are words that people use when referring to the gender of others—she/her, he/him or they/them. Some people use a combination like he/they or she/they, which may mean that they identify both ways, or it may be driven by context related to safety. If they don’t feel safe, they will opt to use the binary pronoun he or she.

The rules around the way we use pronouns in relation to other’s gender identities may feel like they are constantly changing as we all learn more, and this is ok. This just means that we need to pay attention and be mindful about the way we speak as the shift toward more and more inclusivity will take time.

Why Do Pronouns Matter in the Workplace?

Pronouns are used to reflect someone’s gender identity—a fundamental aspect of who a person is. Using a person’s name and their pronouns correctly is a form of respect and validation that should always be expressed in the workplace.

A recent study found 1.2 million people identify as nonbinary in US (the majority being under 29, white and live in urban areas). Additionally, according to Harvard Business Review:

  • More than 12% of U.S. millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, and a majority believe that gender is a spectrum rather than a man/woman binary.”
  • In the U.S., 56% know someone who uses a gender neutral pronoun and 59% believe forms should include options other than “man” and “woman.”

This means that, in most workplaces, there is likely representation of diverse gender identities, and it’s important that, at work, we learn to talk about gender and use pronouns in a way that creates a sense of psychological safety for all employees. Getting misgendered can feel like one’s identity is being compromised, and if this happens over and over, it can take a huge emotional toll. At work, all levels of leadership should set examples for becoming allies to shift the culture toward inclusivity.

First Steps to Becoming an Ally at Work

To contribute to an environment of safety for all employees, each person has a part to play in respecting one another’s pronouns. Here are some easy ways you can be an ally in the workplace.

1. Make it easy for people to communicate their pronouns

It’s key to discover other’s pronouns so you can use them correctly. You can find out a person’s pronouns by introducing yourself with your own: “Hi, I’m Sam and my pronouns are she/her, what are yours?”

Now, this may be awkward at first, but the more we lead with this, the more it will feel natural. When asking for pronouns in a group setting, ask everyone at the table and be careful not to single anyone out.

Remember: how a person appears on the outside, does not necessarily reflect how they experience their gender. For those who use multi-pronoun like he/they, she/they: ask which pronoun the person would prefer you use to create communicate a sense of safety.

You can also make it easier for people to share their pronouns by placing your own pronouns in your email signature. The more people who do this, the more opportunity it creates for people to share their pronouns easily and comfortably.

2. Handle mistakes gracefully

It’s important to realize that you will likely make mistakes when using other people’s pronouns, and that’s okay as long as there is a commitment to improving.

When you make a mistake, apologize briefly and correct yourself, making a mental note about that person for the future. Be careful to not over apologize—when you do this, it puts extra spotlight on the person they may not want. The key is to always be respectful and commit to learning and getting better together.

3. Be curious without being intrusive

Curiosity can show you care about someone enough to get their pronouns right, but there is a distinction between being curious to learn and being intrusive or inappropriate at work.

If you’re unsure about someone’s pronouns, you can ask sensitively and let them take the lead in the conversation. If it seems like they don’t want to elaborate on their answer, don’t pry. If they begin to explain more about their pronouns, listen with humility and be willing to learn in the moment.

No matter your starting point along this journey, working toward more inclusivity will take a collective effort from your organization to make the workplace a welcoming, safe place that dignifies each individual person. The more we look to respect, validate, and include our colleagues, specifically those with diverse gender identities, the more human our business becomes.