What Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns? (And Why They Matter)
It is important for professionals to feel comfortable and accepted in the workplace, and there are a variety of strategies employers may use to promote an inclusive environment. Since companies may hire individuals of all gender identities, it is essential for them to address their team members appropriately. Understanding the right pronouns to use when addressing their employees can help organisations promote positive company culture and ensure all professionals feel welcome at work.
In this article, we define what gender-neutral pronouns are, explore why it is important to use their pronouns in the workplace, provide a list of examples, describe how to learn more about a professional's pronouns and offer helpful tips.
What Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns?
Gender-neutral pronouns are third-person nouns you can use when referring to another person without denoting a specific or singular gender. You may use these pronouns when referring to a group of people, and use the plural "they," or when talking about an individual, and use the singular "they." There are a variety of individuals who may use these pronouns, including professionals who are gender-nonconforming. Referring to others using these pronouns can prevent you from making assumptions about another person's gender, and help you promote an accepting and inclusive professional environment.
Related: What Is A Diverse Workplace? (Definition And Benefits)
Why Is It Important To Use These Pronouns?
It is important to use these pronouns to foster an inclusive company culture and show professionals that they can be themselves in the workplace. Learning others' pronouns and using them correctly is an important aspect of respecting your colleagues. Pronouns can hold a significant meeting for some people and committing to remembering them can help you show you appreciate the people around you. Assuming others' gender based on external factors, such as their hair, clothing or physical characteristics, can make others feel uncomfortable and you risk the possibility of misgendering them.
Using these pronouns is just one step in implementing inclusive language. Other commonplace phrases like "Hey guys" or "ladies and gentlemen" can inadvertently exclude certain identities. Practise using gender-neutral language to get into a habit of being affirming and not making assumptions. For example, say "everyone" or "team" when speaking to a group instead of using a gendered phrase.
Related: Verbal Communication Examples In The Workplace (With Tips)
Examples Of Pronouns That Are Gender Neutral
"They" is one of the most widely used pronouns that are gender neutral, but other neopronouns are becoming more common so it is important to familiarise yourself with them. Neopronouns mean "new pronouns," but many neopronouns have been around for hundreds of years in various languages and cultures. Pronunciation varies from person to person, so ask first if you are not sure how to pronounce it. Here are examples of these pronouns and how to use them:
"They/them/theirs" is a good pronoun set to use when you do not know someone's pronouns and are not able to ask. While some people have trouble using "they" pronouns because they associate them with groups of people, the singular "they" is both inclusive and grammatically correct. Here are some examples of how to use the singular they and its forms:
"Allison left their binder at home, so they are driving back to get it."
"I had a great time talking to Bernardo today. I really respect them and their opinions."
"Is this book yours or theirs?"
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"Ze" is a common pronoun in the genderqueer and nonbinary communities to indicate that someone does not identify with a binary gender. Though, not everyone who uses "ze" pronouns is genderqueer. Here are a few ways you can use ze pronouns in conversation:
"Ze is studying to be a lawyer and is about to take zir bar exam."
"Ze taught zirself how to play the piano. Will you come with me to zir first recital?"
"Michael asked Christy to babysit and ze said yes. We should write a thank-you note for zem."
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"E/em/eirs" is part of a set of pronouns called Spivak pronouns coined by mathematician Michael Spivak in the book "The Joy of TeX." Although that book was published in 1983, scholars have found examples of this set of pronouns as early as 1890. Some people use "ey" instead of "e" when using the pronoun in its subject form.
"E loves camping, skiing and walking eir dog around the lake."
"I gave em a copy of my resume and ey said ey would call me tomorrow."
"We met in eir office to review last month's finance report."
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"Xe/xem/xyr" is another gender-neutral pronoun that has become more popular in recent years. Examples of this pronoun set are:
"Xe took night classes to earn xyr college diploma."
"Xe is my closest friend in the office, so I am excited to work with xem on this project."
There are also several other pronouns that are gender neutral, such as:
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Using honorifics and titles in conjunction with someone's name is a common practise in professional situations. Honorifics like "Mr." and "Ms." also imply someone's gender, but there are gender-neutral titles you can use instead. Examples of gender-neutral honorifics you can use are:
Some people prefer not to use honorifics at all, so when in doubt, just use someone's name.
How You Can Ask For Someone's Pronouns
It is important to use the correct pronouns when referring to another person. Though, some professionals may not feel comfortable sharing their pronouns in the workplace, especially if they are unsure if it is an inclusive and accepting environment, or if other professionals do not share their pronouns with their colleagues. When meeting a new person, it is a good idea to introduce yourself by stating your name and the pronouns you use. For example, "My name is Akash and my pronouns are he, him and his."
Introducing yourself in this way shows the person you are speaking to that they can share their pronouns with you if they wish. It also allows them to decide not to share their pronouns if they feel uncomfortable, since you are not asking them outright. If your role or task requires you to refer to another professional in the third person, you can ask "Akash, I just want to confirm that your pronouns are he, him and his—is that correct?" If you want to avoid using third person pronouns altogether, you can always just refer to someone by their name.
Related: How To Introduce Yourself Professionally
Tips For Using Others' Pronouns In The Workplace
Whether you are using gender-neutral or gender-specific pronouns to refer to your colleague, it is important to be mindful of others' identities and refer to them respectfully. Here are some tips for using others' pronouns in the workplace:
Avoid isolating your colleagues
Avoid targeting a particular person in a group by only asking them about their pronouns. If you are going to bring up the topic of pronouns in a group setting, make sure you ask everyone to avoid making assumptions or making people feel isolated. You may want to begin by offering your pronouns and inviting others in the group to do the same, rather than asking individuals directly. This allows professionals who feel uncomfortable sharing this information to avoid stating their pronouns without making it obvious or drawing attention to themselves.
Related: What Are Diversity Skills? (Definition And Examples)
Correct yourself if you make a mistake
If you accidentally refer to someone using the wrong pronouns, correct your mistake and then continue the conversation without requiring the other person to accept your apology or acknowledge your error. For example, you may say "Gita went to get her—I am sorry, I meant 'their'—Gita went to get their bag from their car to get their address book. They will be back soon." Identifying your mistake and using the correct pronouns in the same sentence can show others that you are committed to using someone's pronouns correctly, and do not expect others to correct you or excuse your error.
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Thank others for sharing their pronouns with you
If someone shares that they want to start using new pronouns or corrects you if you accidentally misgender them, thank them for sharing this information with you. Try to avoid making the situation about you by explaining or justifying why you referred to them using other pronouns or how their new pronouns may affect you. Instead, expressing gratitude and moving on shows the other person that you are happy to use the correct pronouns when referring to them.
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