Pronouns are personal

Address people the way they wish to be identified

Inclusion at Work

Sandra S. Yamate

Sandra S. Yamate is the CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. The institute is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to creating a more diverse and inclusive legal profession through its research and education programming.

February 2020

Have you been receiving emails where the sender’s signature block includes objective, subjective and possessive pronouns: She/Her/Hers, He/Him/His or They/Them/Theirs?

What, if anything, did you think about it? Did you find it strange? Were you unconcerned? Bothered? Something else?

Our society is recognizing that not everyone identifies as “male” or “female,” or cis-gender (someone who identifies with the gender that was assigned at birth). Some people feel that their gender identity is not binary; it may sometimes be male, sometimes female or sometimes or all the time, neither, both or something else entirely. For those who grew up believing that the world is divided solely into male or female, this shift can be disconcerting, confusing or even threatening.

While such reactions may be understandable, as we move into a new decade, acknowledgement that ours is a nonbinary world is becoming increasingly recognized and accepted. We can no longer assume that if one half of the world is male, the other half is female, or vice versa. It’s not.

Indeed, for those applying for a driver’s license in California, Maine, Oregon or Washington state, when it comes to identifying gender, they now have a third option: a nonbinary option. Still, not everyone adjusts well to change. There will be plenty of people who will try to ignore or undermine the nonbinary world. Objections tend to fall into one or more of three categories:

Majority rules. It’s too small a group: Some point out the numbers of those who do not identify as solely male or solely female are small — something we do not know with certainty — and that therefore, marginalizing them so that those who feel more comfortable with a binary world can continue to enjoy that comfort and the privilege that it brings makes sense.

Maintaining the status quo, they would posit, is easier, traditional and/or logical. That may be true for those resistant to change. But the emphasis upon numbers — the size of the population of individuals who are nonbinary — is a red herring. There is no magic number at which any group that has historically been overlooked, ignored, marginalized or excluded suddenly merits representation.

Should we overlook Native Americans as a minority group because their numbers are relatively small compared to other minority groups or citizens from states like Wyoming because their populations are nowhere near as large as other states? It’s not about numbers but acknowledgement of people’s identities.

It’s too hard to remember everyone’s pronoun preferences: Some say that they can’t possibly be expected to remember the pronoun preference of everyone they know. As someone who is guilty of not remembering the name of everyone I’ve met, I can sympathize. It’s still an inadequate excuse. When I forget someone’s name, I apologize and I try to remember for next time.

Furthermore, just as it may take me awhile to remember that “Gregory” dislikes being “Greg” or Katherine prefers “Kate,” so, too, I’ll try to remember that Cori wishes to be “they/them/theirs.” And if I make a mistake, again I’ll apologize and try again. No one enjoys being corrected when they make a mistake, but it’s not about our egos as much as exerting a little effort to respect, value and acknowledge someone else. It’s simple kindness.

It’s too much extra work: As lawyers, words are our tools. We make an effort to write well, including our use of grammar. While we might adjust to using opposite pronouns for people we initially see as one gender or the other, using third person plural for a single individual can be especially daunting. Sentences read and sound incorrect. Or do they? We stumble over which pronouns or verbs to use.

Or do we? Using the third person plural for a single individual may initially seem awkward but try it. It may require some extra thought, but it’s not any more work than choosing the precise verb or adjective to convey every nuanced meaning. It’s worth it and using the pronouns someone prefers is worth it, as well.

So, how do we include nonbinary acceptance into our diversity and inclusion efforts?

Including one’s pronouns in an email signature box is a simple step, especially for those who work in large organizations. There, it is particularly important that leadership make clear that everyone is to be valued. Setting a standard that signature blocks should include the individual’s pronouns of choice is a simple way to send that message.

Cis-gender privilege isn’t something that gets much attention. But for anyone who is not cis-gender, being forced to choose between two inaccurate choices is the equivalent of being asked to lie. As a profession that values honesty and integrity, we should take the lead in supporting gender choices for nonbinary people.