The currently accepted term for explaining gender pronouns is Preferred Gender Pronouns (PGP). While the distinction I am about to make is nuanced, it is none the less critical. We recommend not using the term “preferred pronouns” due to people generally not having a pronoun “preference." Generally, people simply have “pronouns” as a normal course of societal interaction. Using the word, “preferred” can accidentally insinuate that using the correct pronouns for someone is optional. It is not.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (like I or you) or someone or something that is being talked about (like she, it, them, and this). Gender pronouns (like he and hers) specifically refer to people that you are talking about.

It is a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender. If you have this privilege, yet fail to respect someone else's gender identity, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful but also oppressive.

What are appropriate gender pronouns?

A gender pronoun is a pronoun that a person chooses to use for themself. For example: If Xena's preferred pronouns are she, her, and hers, you could say "Xena ate her food because she was hungry."

What are some commonly used pronouns?

She, her, hers and he, him, his are the most commonly used pronouns. Some people call these "female/feminine" and "male/masculine" pronouns, but many avoid these labels because, for example, not everyone who uses he feels like a "male" or "masculine."

There are also lots of gender-neutral pronouns in use. Here are a few you might hear:

  • They, them, theirs (Xena ate their food because they were hungry.) This is is a pretty common gender-neutral pronoun... And yes, it can, in fact, be used in the singular.

  • Ze, hir (Xena ate hir food because ze was hungry.) Ze is pronounced like "zee" can also be spelled zie or xe, and replaces she/he/they. Hir is pronounced like "here" and replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs.

  • Just my name please! (Xena ate Xena's food because Xena was hungry) Some people prefer not to use pronouns at all, using their name as a pronoun instead.

  • Never, ever refer to a person as “it” or “he-she” (unless they specifically ask you to.) These are offensive slurs used against trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

Why is it important to respect people's pronouns?

You can't always know what someone’s appropriate pronoun is by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone's preferred pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric (or, often, all of the above.) It is a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender. If you have this privilege, yet fail to respect someone else's gender identity, it is not only disrespectful and hurtful but also oppressive.

Appropriate pronouns as a leader?

As a leader of people, you are often in a position of power. Asking those you lead what their preferred pronouns are and consistently using them correctly can determine within the first few minutes if they will feel respected or not. You will be setting an example for your entire team. If you are consistent about using someone's appropriate pronouns, they will follow your example. For many of the people you lead, the introduction of appropriate pronouns will be new to them. This will be a learning opportunity they will keep forever.

Discussing and correctly using appropriate pronouns sets a tone of respect and allyship that trans and gender-nonconforming students do not take for granted. It can truly make all of the difference, especially for recently hired employees that may feel particularly vulnerable, friendless, and scared.

How do I ask someone what their appropriate pronoun is?

  • Try asking: "Which pronouns do you like to hear?" or "Can you remind me which pronouns you like for yourself?" It can feel awkward at first, but it is not half as awkward as getting it wrong or making a hurtful assumption.

  • If you are asking as part of an introduction exercise and you want to quickly explain what appropriate pronouns are, you can try something like this: "Tell us your name, where you come from, and your pronoun–the pronoun you like to be referred to with. For example, I'm Xena, I'm from Amazon Island, and I like to be referred to with she, her, and hers pronouns. So you could say, 'she went to her car' if you were talking about me."

What if I make a mistake?

It's okay! Everyone slips up from time to time. The best thing to do if you use the wrong pronoun for someone is to say something right away, like "Sorry, I meant she." If you realize your mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on. It can be tempting to go on and on about how bad you feel that you messed up or how hard it is for you to get it right. Please, don't! It is inappropriate and makes the person who was misgendered feel awkward and responsible for comforting you, which is absolutely not their job. It is your job to remember people's pronouns.

Taking an active role

You may hear one of your team members use the wrong pronoun for someone. In most cases, it is appropriate to gently correct them without further embarrassing the individual who has been misgendered. This means saying something like "Actually, Xena prefers the pronoun she," and then moving on. If other team members or leaders are consistently using the wrong pronouns for someone, do not ignore it! It is important to let your people know that you are their ally.

It may be appropriate to approach them and say something like "I noticed that you were getting referred to with the wrong pronoun earlier, and I know that that can be really hurtful. Would you be okay with me taking them aside and reminding them about your preferred pronoun? I want to make sure that this group is a safe space for you." Follow up if necessary, but take your cues from the comfort level of your student. Your actions will be greatly appreciated.

Based on materials written by Mateo Medina for Hampshire College.


Devin Halliday is a veteran, founder and chief executive of Ally Cooperative, author of Belonging Factor, inspirational speaker, and executive and business coach.

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