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Should employers mandate the use of gender pronouns in the workplace?

Dr Ashley Williams, psychologist - Pearn Kandola

Over the past year, the topics of gender and gender pronouns have received an ever-growing amount of attention within public discourse. Businesses have begun to incorporate the lessons from these discussions into everyday practice, and many have made significant strides towards the normalisation of pronoun diversity in the workplace. But even the best intentions can be misconstrued and the consequences of getting it wrong can be severe. For this reason, it’s vital that employers take a considered approach when developing new policies and best practice around gender pronoun use.

Normalise gender pronoun diversity but don’t mandate it
The simple fact that conversation around pronouns is picking up momentum is extremely positive. Mis-gendering a person can be hurtful, even if accidental. Therefore, normalising the act of considering the pronouns before you use them is a powerful step forward. Whilst many organisations mandate the sharing of pronouns on email footers with the best intentions towards transgender and non-binary communities, it’s important to acknowledge that this initiative can have some unintended negative consequences at two key points.

Firstly, for those who choose to conceal their gender identity at work, being asked to declare their pronouns can feel like a lose-lose situation: they must either out themselves in a way that may not feel comfortable or safe, or lie and risk being mis-gendered on a regular basis. For those who have not disclosed their gender identity to others, stating the wrong pronouns on an email footer can serve as a persistent reminder of the disparity between how they identify and how others perceive them. Those within the transgender and non-binary community who do conceal their identity may therefore feel further excluded by this move towards public sharing of pronouns.

Secondly, research shows that when aspects of our identity are made salient, stereotypes are more readily activated. The act of reminding somebody, or indeed simply reminding yourself, of your gender can increase the likelihood that stereotypes will be drawn upon in subsequent interactions. For example, we know that women are less likely to be offered a job if they include their gender on their CV. For this reason, the practice of including gender on a CV is now considered to be outdated. Sharing pronouns on email footers not only opens the door for discrimination and exclusion based on gender, but can also lead to self-stereotyping which can impact self-confidence and performance.

With this in mind, employers should avoid mandating the use of pronouns, but instead give their employees the option to do this if they feel comfortable. The best thing employers can do is to educate their teams on the importance of considering their use of pronouns and the impact of making automatic assumption. They should also encourage people to use more inclusive and gender-neutral language when communicating.

Make it part of your wider LGBT inclusivity strategy
The dilemma surrounding public pronoun-sharing is indicative of a wider conversation in which all businesses should be engaged. LGBT inclusivity should be a top priority, and all businesses should be operating effective inclusion strategies to ensure all employees are valued for their unique and individual skills and talents.

There are four key elements in an effective LGBT inclusion strategy: policy, education, data, and support. You should have a clearly outlined inclusion policy that includes all LGBT employees and does not assume that experiences are homogenous. You should also prioritise education: not all employees will be up to date on inclusive terminology and behaviour, so staff training should be an established element of your inclusion strategy.

You also need to be considerate of the way you use and publish data. Transparency is key here: being open about your business’ hiring and termination practices will help you stay on top of your commitments to an inclusive culture. Finally, you can show support by practicing inclusive leadership, engaging LGBT employee networks and encouraging open communication.

The recent shift towards pronoun inclusion is a significant step in the right direction, and should serve as a reminder of the importance of LGBT inclusivity within the workplace. Businesses can continue to show their support for their LGBT employees through actionable steps that will ultimately lead to a widely inclusive workplace culture, which benefits all members of staff by making all employees feel valuable to business operations.

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