There are many components of creating a workplace that is affirming of transgender and non-binary people, but one of the most important pieces comes down to a few small words, such as ‘he,’ ‘she’ and ‘they.’ Pronouns are one of the most common ways that people are referred to by their gender. This provides one of the greatest opportunities to help honor someone’s gender identity. While the words may be small, their impact is profound.
For those of us who last learned about pronouns in second grade and want a refresher, pronouns are the articles of speech that are used to refer to ourselves (I, me) or others (she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs). ‘They’ is a pronoun used by some individuals for whom neither ‘he’ or ‘she’ is affirming. For many non-binary people, ‘they’ is the most affirming option and its use is becoming more and more common. In fact, Merriam-Webster just declared ‘they’ the word of the year. (Pro tip: You use they/them/theirs in the same exact way that you would when talking about a group of people, except you are speaking about one person. This is called the singular they, and is now considered grammatically correct by most of the major writing style manuals. The first recorded use of the singular they was in the early 1400s!) Every transgender and non-binary person has to determine which pronouns work best for themselves, and for some, no pronouns (name only) is the best option.
In order to best understand how pronouns fit into an affirming workplace culture, it is important to understand what it means to be affirming. ‘Affirming’ is the word we use to represent the wide range of actions that result in transgender and non-binary people feeling fully seen, respected, and valued. One of the major components is always using a person’s affirming name, pronouns, and honorifics (e.g. Mr., Mrs., Ms., ma’am, sir, ladies, gentlemen).
Not using a person’s affirming name, pronouns, and honorifics is referred to as ‘misgendering.’
Misgendering is experienced by many transgender and non-binary people as a microaggression, which is a form of social violence, particularly when a person misgenders someone consistently or intentionally. Being misgendered is an experience that is generally uncomfortable, but in some situations, it can also be outright humiliating or dangerous. Cumulatively, the impact of being misgendered can really take a toll on a person’s spirit and lead to depression, anxiety, and lost work time. Misgendering in the workplace can create a myriad of issues including: being the subject of office gossip, being socially isolated by peers, left out of crucial communications, and passed over for promotions. Being outed or misgendered in the workplace can very quickly escalate and create a hostile working environment for transgender and non-binary employees. When this occurs, it impacts the productivity of all involved. In many cases talented employees decide to seek positions at more affirming companies.
While in an ideal world, transgender and non-binary people would always have their names, pronouns and identities honored, the workplace can be hostile. For example, surveys found that approximately:
Additionally, a significant majority (77%) of transgender and non-binary people report hiding or delaying medical transition due to non-affirming workplaces. As a result, many quit their jobs so that they can medically transition, which is another means by which talent is lost.
While there is no current data on the number of transgender and non-binary people who feel that their identities, names and pronouns are honored at work, it is likely small, but hopefully growing. One of the best ways to start striving for a trans-affirming workplace is to establish a cultural norm of honoring people’s pronouns. Here are some pronoun-related best practices and action steps that employees can take to help create a trans-affirming workplace:
Implementation tip: If you encounter someone who takes offense or is confused about why you are asking for pronouns, simply explain that you ask everyone for their pronouns because you don’t want to make assumptions about people’s gender and you want to be respectful of how people would like to be addressed.
Implementation tip: For this to be truly successful, it is important to not mandate all employees to include their pronouns, as this can create extra pressure for people who are not ready or wanting to share their identity in the workplace.
Implementation tip: In order for the practice to be effective, you will have to practice verbally. Since this is a skill, you do have to physically practice out loud, otherwise you will not remap the cognitive pathways needed to automatically call up the affirming language!
Implementation tip: Don’t worry about trying to explain why you used the wrong pronouns, it generally comes across as defensive or trying to justify the mistake. Often it leaves the transgender or non-binary person in the situation where they feel socially obligated to make you feel better about your having misgendered them.
Remember, in order for a workplace to be affirming, it’s critical that all members of the organization, at all levels of the organization, participate in supporting transgender and non-binary employees!
Examples of trans-affirming actions on the individual level include
• Using a person’s affirming name and pronouns
• Correcting colleagues when they use non-affirming language
• Advocating for the needs of transgender and non-binary employees and customers
• Uplifting the work of transgender and non-binary peers
• Advocate for transgender and non-binary colleagues to have leadership opportunities
Examples of trans-affirming actions at the organizational level include actions such as
• Implementing company-wide training about transgender and non-binary identities, that includes skills for supporting transgender and non-binary colleagues
• Making all single stall restrooms gender neutral with trans-affirming door signs
• Providing health insurance that includes full access to medical transition for employees and their families
• Providing life insurance through companies that do not use transgender exclusions
• Creating proactive medical leave policies to support medical transitions
• Actively recruiting transgender and non-binary potential employees
• Donating to or sponsoring trans-led/serving non-profits
Dr. Eli Green is the Founder and CEO of the Transgender Training Institute. TTI is a trans-owned training and consulting company, providing national trainings and consulting services that are facilitated/informed by transgender and non-binary individuals, for the benefit of transgender and non-binary people and communities. To learn more about TTI, visit their website at https://www.transgendertraininginstitute.com/