Why inclusive gender pronouns matter

Tips from NAIT’s office of equity, diversity and inclusion

In February 2021, toy company Hasbro announced that it would remove the honorific “Mr.” from its Potato Head line to create a more gender-neutral version of the plastic spud.

While some 2SLGBTQIA+ advocacy groups applauded the move for bringing the 1950s-era toy into the 21st century and helping kids see toys as toys and not genders, the decision sparked a debate about whether “cancel culture” was out of control.

Whether or not Hasbro’s decision was half-baked, it is an example of language evolving and adapting to a changing culture.

Take, for example, the pronouns “he” and “she.” Both have been used for centuries, however they alienate anyone who doesn’t neatly fall into male/female gender categories. As the conversation about inclusive language progresses, it’s not just Potato Head that’s changing with the times.

It’s not just Potato Head that’s changing with the times.

In fact, both the Canadian Press and American Press style guides, used by news organizations across the continent, now accept “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Merriam Webster officially added “they” into its online dictionary as a grammatically correct nonbinary pronoun (it was also its Word of the Year for 2019). 

This conversation is also happening in the workplace as organizations place greater emphasis on making language more inclusive. Air Canada has altered its greeting to say “everyone” rather than “ladies and gentlemen.”

While changing our language doesn’t solve prejudice or guarantee acceptance, it still makes an impact. We talked to Tim Ira and Madlen Christianson from NAIT’s office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to discuss language inclusivity, including how to start having these conversations and help create meaningful change at work.

Techlifetoday: What are gender pronouns and why are they important to consider in how we communicate?

Madlen Christianson: For me, for example, I am a straight CIS woman. My pronouns align with my gender expression [the physical manifestation of gender identity through clothing, hairstyle, voice, etc.] and my gender identity [one’s internal sense of being male, female, neither of these, both or another gender or genders]. But that’s not everyone’s lived experience.

For some folks, how they present on the outside may not match their gender identity or their pronouns while others may not identify with any gender. These folks may regularly experience being misgendered. It’s a lot of work and a lot of emotional labour explaining their identity and justifying their identity on an ongoing basis to help people understand.

Why are we seeing people increasingly self-identify their gender in email signatures and on social media?

Christianson: This is an act of inclusion. When I choose to use my pronouns, I am communicating to other people that it may be safe for them to do the same. It also normalizes the use of pronouns in general. 

Is it appropriate to ask someone their pronoun after sharing yours?

Tim Ira: It’s important to remember that when you share your pronouns, don’t set the expectation that everyone else has to share theirs. When you ask folks to share their pronouns, you might be forcing someone to out themselves or you’re asking someone to closet themselves again.

Person places pride floral crown on someone's head

Like many types of change, there’s often hesitation about learning new language or behaviour. How do we engage in the conversation in an educational way?

Christianson: One approach is to help people build empathy for the lived experience of others. You can ask them to imagine how it might feel if folks repeatedly referred to them using the wrong pronoun or name.

This can lead into a discussion about the impact these misgendering experiences can have and the actions that folks can take to avoid these situations, such as using the pronouns and name that reflect someone’s identity.

What would you say to people who are worried about accidentally being offensive or saying the wrong things when having a conversation about gender?

Ira: Inevitably we’re going to mess up and make missteps. If you get someone’s pronouns wrong, the best thing to do is say thank you and promise to do better and use their pronouns moving forward. As your relationship grows with someone, you’re going to get better at using their pronouns.

“Inevitably we’re going to mess up and make missteps.”

Christianson: I speak from a place of privilege but if you approach those conversations with humility and with the intention to learn, I have found people are open to having a conversation. However, there’s a lot of emotional labour that goes into having those conversations on a regular basis, so be respectful of that person's boundaries if they say no.

How would you address criticisms that language is getting too picky?

Ira: Language is fluid and creative and generative and always evolving. I like pointing out history and how recent things are. For example, “hello” wasn’t a greeting a hundred years ago. “Hello” was considered an interjection, while “hey” was the greeting.

The whole act of sharing your pronouns or considering when to use more specific language is not driven by a politically correct mission to punish people. It’s motivated by wanting to be more intentional in our language and more precise so that we can actually help people.

How can we continue to show support to the 2SLGBTQIA+​ community even if you’re not part of the community itself?

Ira: One of the important factors of allyship is communicating it and letting people know that you support a community. Include your pronouns in an email signature or introduce yourself with your pronouns or your name in web meetings or in your social media handles.

For example, it’s important for students who join a class to see their instructors’ pronouns and feel like they’re someone they can talk to or someone who would be comfortable broaching that subject.

Practising cognizance of your own pronouns is the number one way to do that. Even introducing yourself to someone and saying, “Hi, my pronouns are …” goes a long way. For the majority of people, they might just respond back with their name, but for others for whom that really matters, it’s going to communicate support and will help them feel welcome.

To close, what do you think is an important takeaway for people and how should they start seeking more information?

Ira: Inclusion starts with each one of us. It means exposing ourselves to learning about the lived experiences of gender-diverse people. Find an influencer online who you really connect with and listen to a few of their posts. Read some books, go to some events or speaker series.

“Inclusion starts with each one of us.”

I also really want to emphasize the power of queer language around pronouns and words around naming our communities. That’s oftentimes the foundations of identity and communities. Being able, for a young gender-diverse person, to divorce themselves from a gender binary that has been repressive and hurtful to them can be so beneficial and liberating.

It’s really our duty to support that boundary as an institution, as instructors and staff. It might seem small but it makes a world of difference. It supports them personally and academically because they’re encouraged to be themselves.

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