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They, she, ze, he… Revisiting why pronouns matter.



We’ve been socialized to use gender as a filter when attributing traits, aptitude, and expected behaviors. Pink and blue paths tell the world how to treat us, and how we should interpret ourselves in society. Dr Jen O'Ryan argues it is now time to revisit personal pronouns.


She / her / hers,
He / him / his,
They / them / theirs,
Ze / zir / zirs.

Attending conferences typically includes wearing a name tag.

Attending conferences on inclusion and diversity typically includes listing your pronouns along with your name.

Forgetting to remove that name tag after the conference often sparks a lot of questions about pronouns. Although one very conscientious barista did take time to write out my pronouns on the cup. Which I thought was nice of them.

Our social understanding of gender is changing, as is the language we use to describe it. If your organization is hoping to engage with humans in a meaningful way, it’s time to become familiar with a new framework. The words you use and hear shape the way you think and perceive.

In recent years, there have been significant shifts in how our culture communicates gender. States are introducing gender-neutral indicators on licenses, identification cards, and providing for changes on birth certificates. Major universities offer alternatives to identifying as “male” or “female”, and style guides have adjusted to include “they” as an acceptable singular, gender neutral pronoun.

Personal pronouns, like examples at the top, have long been used in the transgender and gender non-conforming communities. Defining the words that describe you are a powerful way to reclaim this very personal, innate sense of self. As more people challenge the idea of gender being a strict male / female binary, using pronouns other than “him” or “her” is becoming increasingly common.

This does not mean that the options are “male”, “female”, and “other”. Think of gender as a spectrum — not categories with tick boxes. People tend to fall somewhere in between the two end points. Using they, them, theirs pronouns (instead of he, him, his) gives voice to express one’s own gender identity.

So, what now? Recognize that not everyone uses “she” or “he” pronouns. Rather than assuming your new employee or colleague uses gender specific pronouns, create space for them to tell you. Then remember to use the pronouns they’ve indicated. Even if you don’t fully understand it, honoring each individual’s pronouns is absolutely necessary.

We’ve been socialized to use gender as a filter when attributing traits, aptitude, and expected behaviors. This pink or blue path tells the world how to treat us, and how we should interpret ourselves in society. How liberating it would be to remove the limitations of being stuck in a single track. Owning the words used to describe us is an incredible step in that direction.

Imagine the untapped potential that becomes possible as we focus less who should or shouldn’t cry, take up space, fly jets into combat zones, pursue STEM careers, or hold their friend’s hand. If your visualization of any of these items changed when thinking about men and women, that’s gender as a social construct.🔷


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(This piece was first published in The Blog!)


(Cover: Flickr / Ted Eytan.)


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PhD in Human Behavior, specializing in gender & sexual orientation. She provides training & resources to organizations on developing their inclusion strategies. She helps parents & LGBTQ children.
Greater Seattle Area, WA, USA. Website

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