Many of us have seen pronouns in people’s email signatures, name tags, and social media bios. It’s not uncommon, but it’s far from widespread. A recent Pew Research Center survey found a rising number of U.S. adults say they know someone who is transgender or uses general-neutral pronouns. These numbers are increasing among all demographics and political affiliations, and are likely to continue to rise. It is important that lawyers, law firms, and employers develop policies and take individual actions in response to these evolving gender realities.
An estimated 1.4 million Americans are transgender, and 1.2 million adults identify as nonbinary in the United States. About 42% of Americans know someone who is transgender, and about 25% know someone who prefers using a gender-neutral pronoun. In general, younger adults, Democrats, and college-educated Americans were more likely to report knowing someone who is transgender or uses gender-neutral pronouns. Among U.S. adults 18-29 years of age, 53% said they know someone who is transgender, and 46% know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
In response to these gender shifts, federal and state governments are increasingly recognizing nonbinary identities. Applicants for U.S. passports may self-select “M” or “F” gender, even if the selected gender does not match the gender on a birth certificate or other documents. The State Department has announced plans to offer a gender marker option for nonbinary persons in future passport applications. At least 20 states and the District of Columbia allow residents to mark M, F, or X on their driver’s license.
Companies are also recognizing nonbinary identities. Most major airlines offer nonbinary gender options when booking tickets. Apple iPhones come in six colors, none of which are associated with gender, and beauty and fashion brands such as CoverGirl, Gucci, and Levi’s are moving toward gender-neutral products.
Despite these increasing gender shifts, Americans’ comfort level with using gender-neutral pronouns has not changed much since 2018. Almost half (48%) of Americans are very or somewhat uncomfortable using gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “them.” Younger adults ages 18-29 are more comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns (61%) compared to those ages 50-64 (46%).
Using an individual’s pronouns makes our workplace more inclusive. Everyone I interact with knows what my pronouns are. I’ve never been questioned about my gender identity. Yet, I disclose my pronouns. Adding my pronouns helps normalize discussions on how we like to be referred to, and encourages others to do the same. Not every transgender or nonbinary person feels comfortable enough to start sharing gender pronouns, especially if there aren’t many others who do. If enough people use pronouns, it will seem normal and common.
There’s also a practical side. You can’t assume someone’s gender by their name or just by looking at them. In an email, it’s unclear if Alex, Jaime, and Sam identify as male, female, or another gender. In addition, nonbinary people don’t all use the same pronoun. “They,” “ze,” “xe,” “he,” “she” and other pronouns can be used as well. The only way to know for sure the correct pronoun is to ask them in private. If this feels awkward, disclosing pronouns upfront helps. Include pronouns in your email or introduce yourself with your pronoun. (“My name is Elena and my pronouns are she and hers. What about you?”). It’s also okay if a person chooses not to share their pronoun. In that situation, it is appropriate to refer to the person by their name.
Once a person discloses their pronoun, it should be used properly. Most of us grew up using binary terms, so it’s not easy to use “they” and “their” when referring to someone in the singular. We may not know how to pronounce “ze” (it’s “zee”). It requires practice to feel comfortable. A variety of free internet sources are available for those who want to practice using pronouns. Knowing someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun also makes a big difference. The Pew study found that those who know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun are much more likely to feel comfortable using those pronouns (69% vs 44%).
Mistakes happen. If you misgender someone, a simple “I’m sorry and I will try harder next time” is enough. If someone corrects you, try not to be defensive and don’t draw a lot of attention to what occurred. Most people appreciate a simple apology.
If this all seems too much to do, you can begin by taking small steps. Support your colleagues by speaking up when you hear or see someone using the wrong pronoun. Think about how to incorporate pronouns into your employer culture. Try adding a pronoun to your email, LinkedIn bio, or other social media platforms. Use pronouns on your name tag at your next meeting or introduce yourself with your pronoun. Share resources with others and begin conversations about respecting people’s identities and pronouns. Individually and collectively, we can create spaces where clients, colleagues, and employees can bring their full selves to work.
An individual may use many different sets of gender pronouns. These are not preferred pronouns. They just are their pronouns. The three traditional ones remain the most common:
- He/him/his: used for someone who says they identify as male or masculine.
- She/her/hers: used for someone who says they identify as female or feminine.
- They/them/theirs: used for someone who doesn’t identify with female nor male pronouns. These pronouns are generally regarded as gender-neutral and are used in the singular form.
- Ze/hir/hirs – (pronounced “zee/here/heres”) can replace both he/him/his and she/her/hers
Helpful chart of pronouns: Pronouns: A How-To
About the Author
Elena Nethers is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the State Bar of Arizona and is co-chair of the National Association of Bar Executives Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.