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    What are Pronouns and Why are They Being Talked About?

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    by Meredith Mani, DEIB Team Chair, AWC Amsterdam and Mary Stewart Burgher, DEIB Team, AWC Denmark


    The increased use of gender pronouns can be confusing. New social norms and etiquette are dotting the linguistic landscape and can make it feel like you are playing a game you don’t know the rules to. That’s okay. The important thing is to educate yourself on pronouns and how and when to use them. Without knowing the “how” and “why” of pronouns, the landscape can feel like a battlefield. Armed with knowledge, you will have the tools to navigate any landmines and the confidence to engage, should the situation arise.

    PronounsSocial media and the entertainment industry are highlighting pronouns and LGBTQ+ issues at the moment. However, finding a reliable source of information surrounding pronouns and why/when to use them can be a challenge. We hope to provide you with an overview of practical applications for inclusivity and a guide to applying and using the terminology in your personal life, in your community and in your club.

    A new social custom – in which people tell others which pronouns to use in addressing them – is becoming commonplace in many areas. Business and the professional world often expect people to use and know each other’s pronouns. High schools and colleges across the world regularly kick off the year by asking students to tell everyone their pronouns and put their pronouns on their electronic signatures. We can also implement this change so we don’t appear exclusionary or discriminatory – as well as discourteous.

    While some may find this scary and challenging, and feel unsure how or why to correctly use pronouns, adopting this custom shows respect for everyone in our organization. We have men, women and non-binary members who deserve to be spoken to and referred to as they prefer. We also recognize that our friends and fellow members may have non-binary or trans friends and family. 

    According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), gender expression is the “external manifestations of gender, expressed through a person’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice and/or body characteristics.”

    It’s easy to make assumptions about someone’s gender based on their appearance or name. These assumptions may be incorrect, and the very act of assuming someone’s gender identity sends a harmful message: it categorizes and stereotypes people through the implication that they need to look and act a certain way to denote their gender.

    Respecting all people creates an inclusive and accepting environment. Using someone’s preferred pronouns is a way of respecting them and showing that your group is inclusive and tolerant. Just as none of us would refer to another by a racial or ethnic slur, refusing to use a pronoun that the person referred to doesn’t identify with is both offensive and harassing. Actively ignoring someone’s pronouns is an act of aggression that implies that transgender, nonbinary, intersex and gender nonconforming people are bad or wrong and somehow do not or should not exist.

    What can I do to be inclusive?

    Gender pronouns are the terms people have chosen to refer to themselves and their gender identity. Commonly used pronouns include she/he, he/him and the gender neutral they/them. Using people’s chosen pronouns shows respect and value for the other person and encourages inclusion. You already commonly employ they/them, which has been done in English for over 400 years – including by Shakespeare. For example, say there’s a coat left behind in the coatrack after a meeting. You would probably think:

    One of our members left their coat here. Let’s keep it safely aside for them until we can send out an email letting them know we have it. It’s beautiful, I’m sure they will be looking for this.”

    Gendered pronouns would have sounded weird and disjointed. You wouldn’t say:

    Someone left his or her coat here. We should keep it aside for him or her because I’m sure he or she is looking for it.” We use the singular “they” and it works.


    Sex and gender can be different

    We often use the terms sex and gender interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. Sex refers to the physical traits of someone female, male or intersex. Typically, people have their sex assigned at birth based on physiological characteristics such as genitals and the composition of their chromosomes. Sex is completely different from gender, which is a social construct and a role within culture. Gender has been defined as binary in many cultures, especially the West, although gender falls across a broad spectrum.

    While people are assigned a sex at birth, some people may not identify with that gender or may identify with several different genders. These gender identities include transgender, nonbinary and gender-neutral. A person’s gender identity can only be determined by that individual, and they have the right to change how they identify over time.


    Using the right pronouns matters 

    It’s valuable for organizations like FAWCO, and its clubs and members, to support people’s usage of self-identifying names and pronouns. Try not to assume another’s pronouns based on sex assigned at birth or on perceptions based on physical appearance. Being misgendered or misnamed is invalidating, othering and disrespectful to the person experiencing these microaggressions.

    Let’s start small with things you and your club can do now to incorporate pronouns into everyday life. The easiest thing to do is start with YOU. Begin to normalize pronoun use by sharing your own pronouns. It’s as simple as saying, “Hi, my name is Frances and I go by the pronoun ‘she’” or “I’m Rick and I’m referred to by ‘he/him’ pronouns.”

    If you have a meeting or a conference, write your pronouns on your nametag next to your name or in the corner. For example, “Alison (she/her).”

    Include your pronouns in the signature line of your email next to your name. 

    When attending an online meeting, like Zoom, make sure your name includes your pronouns next to it; this encourages others in the meeting to include theirs.

    If you have business cards, include your pronouns near or below your name.


    Pronouns to know 


    She/Her: “She is an artist and made those earrings herself. Those designs are hers. I like both her and her jewelry.”

    He/Him: “He is a musician and plays the accordion himself. That music is his. I like both him and his music.”

    They/Them: “They are a lawyer themself. Those documents are theirs. I like both them and their legal mind.” Remember that although “they” pronouns here are singular and are referring to an individual, the verbs are conjugated in the same way as the plural “they” (e.g., “they are”). 

    Ze/Hir: “Ze is a teacher and taught that hirself. Those lessons are hirs. I like both hir and hir method of teaching.”  

    No Pronouns Use My Name (example for someone named  “Erin”): “Erin is a chef and made that cake. Those cakes are Erin’s. I like both Erin and Erin’s yummy cakes.”

    Gender Neutral Pronouns

    There are nonbinary or non-gendered pronouns for people who identify outside of the gender binary or as gender non-specific. These include they/them/their used in the singular, ze (pronounced zee) in place of she/he, and hir (pronounced here) in place of his/him/her. Pronouns are a personal thing, but everyone has the right to use pronouns that match their individual personal identity. Keep in mind, a person’s pronouns may or may not line up with their gender expression, like how they dress, look, act and what their name is.

    There are other sets of pronouns people might use (e.g., ze/zir, per/pers, ey/em, xe/xem, etc.). If someone tells you they use one of these just ask how to properly utilize those pronouns. Still others might use a combination of pronouns. Again, check in with them on how best to use these pronouns and if you slip up, acknowledge the mistake and go on. What’s important is that you are being supportive and doing your best. 


    If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

    Making changes to how we speak isn’t easy. Expect that you will be cautious at first and that you will slip up on occasion. Just keep at it and it will get easier. Here are a few tips for you and your members as you are adapting to inclusive language.

    1.   Don’t assume anyone’s gender or pronouns. You can’t know someone’s pronouns by their name or by how they look.

    2.   Share your pronouns when you introduce yourself. By you stating your pronouns you give the other person permission to express theirs. This type of inclusive language is welcoming to people who use pronouns outside of the binary.

    3.   Ask someone their preferred pronouns. By asking, you are showing respect to that person and giving them the space to be who they authentically are.

    4.   When you get it wrong, apologize and move on. Mistakes happen. It’s no big deal. Simply apologize and continue talking with them, making a concerted effort to use the correct pronoun.

    5.   Try not to use binary-gendered language. Avoid addressing groups as “ladies and gentlemen,” and instead say something like “members and friends” or “everyone.” If you are sending an email or formal communication, use gender neutral language.

    6.   Be a gentle reminder. Other members may need more practice using a person’s correct pronouns or using gender neutral language. If someone uses an incorrect pronoun, a quick and simple correction will help.

    7.   Try on new pronouns. Practice in a mirror if you aren’t comfortable using they/ them yet. Mastered they/ them? Try using “ze.”


    Inclusive language

    Instead of calling on a person using “man” or “woman” try saying:

    •     The person in the green sweater
    •     The person with their hand raised
    •     The one in the back row
    •     You with a pen in your hand

    In place of “ladies and gentlemen” or other language that assumes only two genders, try:

    •     Friends
    •     Colleagues
    •     Friends and colleagues
    •     Esteemed guests
    •     Members

    Instead of “he or she” (when speaking of an unknown person) you could communicate:

    •     They
    •     That person
    •     The member
    •     The guest

    Instead of “men and women,” you could say:

    •     Everyone
    •     All people
    •     People of all genders
    •     Women, men and nonbinary people


    Singular pronouns don’t make sense and aren’t proper English. Au contraire, mes amis.

    There is a long and distinguished history of using singular pronouns in the English language. Major dictionaries have recognized the singular “they” as grammatically correct for years, including the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and the online These are not new grammar rules or new words. Even the AP Style Guide allows the usage of the singular “they” in cases where a subject doesn’t identify as being male or female. 

    Let’s go even further back, though. Neopronouns like “thon” and “hir” have been used throughout history. Nearly 250 gender neutral English-language based pronouns have been used and advocated for since the 1780s. Major literary texts throughout history have also used gender neutral pronouns. Jane Austen used “they” in Pride and Prejudice, and the 1375 French poem “William the Werewolf” uses singular pronouns.


    How can someone be both she and they? Shouldn’t they choose one?

    Pronouns are a personal thing. What’s right for one person doesn’t resonate with another. Everyone’s gender identity is unique to them. Some people may identify as non-binary and like to use “they/them” pronouns. Someone else might feel the use of a combination of gendered and gender-neutral pronouns best expresses who they are to the world. Pronoun pairs are as unique as people themselves and often give insight into how a person sees themself. 


    You are now armed with the facts and information around the use of pronouns. When we make an earnest attempt to use the correct pronouns and to show we are an ally, new doors and opportunities open.






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