Have you ever noticed a "pronoun line" line in a colleague’s email signature and wondered why it’s there? Then this article is for you!
A "pronoun" line might be followed by "she/her," "he/his," "they/them," or other designations. It indicates how the person identifies and wants to be referred to in communications. It can be an easy-to-implement tool in your efforts to create an inclusive culture at your nonprofit, but it shouldn’t stand alone.
Why do pronouns matter?
Pronouns are adjacent to our names. They’re a part of how people refer to us at home, work, and in community spaces. It is a sign of respect to ensure we’re getting someone’s pronouns right, just like it is a sign of respect to spell and pronounce someone’s name correctly. It is their identity, and it matters.
Explicitly including pronouns in email signatures, staff bios, and name tags can be a great way to normalize the idea that we should not assume someone’s gender based on their name or appearance.
Good intentions, poor execution
M. is a nonprofit professional who works in a social service organization as a staff attorney, and who uses "they/them" pronouns. As the only out transgender non-binary person at their organization, M. has direct experience with organizational missteps.
Sometimes, they do feel supported. One year, there were some negative experiences involving the restrooms at a venue that the organization was using for a fundraiser. When M. pushed the organization to address it, the fundraiser was moved to a new venue—a good move on their part, M. said. But other times, M.’s employer has missed the mark.
"My organization decided to implement pronoun usage for everyone, in email signatures," M. told Idealist Careers.* But while M.'s employer said it was optional, they didn’t do any background work or training on pronoun usage with the staff.
"When we updated our email signatures, an administrator filled in the pronoun signatures for everyone based upon memory instead of asking, which totally defeats the purpose of giving each employee the choice to select their own pronouns," M. said. "Pronouns can change, especially if someone is transitioning. It is important to normalize asking, so that the employee can decide to disclose or not disclose."
Pronouns in email signatures may signal a welcoming environment for trans employees. But M. says proper training on transgender issues is needed to bring these concepts into practice.
"The organization may put on the misleading appearance of being a safer space without actually doing the work to create one," they said. "Although we have pronouns in our email signatures, I still occasionally get misgendered at work, and I have seen potential trans clients be misgendered."
Plus, there are the unintended consequences decision-makers may not have seen coming, like safety and professional bias. "Making pronouns in signatures mandatory outs me as transgender and non-binary to anyone I’m emailing, including clients and government officials," M. says. "It is not always safe for me to be out, and the last thing I want to do is have my trans identity raise prejudice against the clients I represent."
Four tips for adding pronouns to email signatures
So how can you make meaningful changes to your organization’s approach to pronouns without tripping yourself up?
- Involve transgender and non-binary folks—who this policy most affects—in the decision making and implementation process.
- Provide general gender identity/expression training for staff so they understand the basics and don’t mis-gender people they work with (or serve).
- Pronoun usage should always be voluntary. Making them mandatory may “out” folks who are not yet ready to share their full identity in their work life.
- Pronouns should be chosen and written by the person using them, never assigned by someone else.
Other things to consider
Pronouns can’t be the only tactic in your efforts to be more inclusive. Here are some other policy considerations to keep in mind as you work to build an affirming workplace culture for transgender staff and volunteers:
- Do you have gender-neutral bathrooms available? If not, do you have a policy ensuring people can use the restroom in which they feel most comfortable?
- Do you offer gender identity training to customer service staff who answer phones or greet clients and partners in person?
- Does your health insurance provider include trans-affirming surgery and/or hormones?
- For client-facing services, is your intake accessible? For example, do you have a place for "legal name", "preferred name," "gender pronouns," and more than two checkboxes under "gender?" These should be considered for volunteer application and employment forms as well.
- Do you actively recruit trans and non-binary folks to your organization? (Even if they don’t “pass” for the gender they identify as?)
When you’re doing it right
One organization I support implemented pronouns in email signatures last year. At the same time, they featured stories of LGBTQ+ folks in a social media series. A staffer who is beginning a gender transition sent organizational leadership this note:
"They/them/she/her are all A-OK with me for pronouns. And yeah, you'll mess up, it's fine. It happens. No hard feelings. I was telling someone recently that people often don't get to see firsthand how big of a deal it is to have co-workers who are welcoming and accepting. If I didn't work here, I'm honestly not sure what my life would be like. Getting to come into work and be myself is sadly not something that everyone has the ability to do. Having a space like this is immensely important to me and others like me, and I appreciate everyone here. You're a great work family, so thank you."
Pronouns are really the tip of a large iceberg. What lies underneath is the health and productivity of the people that power social change day to day. When we can show up to work as our whole selves, with reasonable expectations of safety and respect, we are all better for it.
*All quotes in this article are shared anonymously with permission as well as minor editing for clarity.
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Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.