Gender-Neutral Pronouns: A Comprehensive Guide for Leaders

Gender-Neutral Pronouns: A Comprehensive Guide for Leaders was originally published on Ivy Exec.

Using proper pronouns, including gender-neutral pronouns when you don’t know people’s pronouns, is important for creating an inclusive culture at work.

But while there’s a growing awareness of the need to use gender-neutral pronouns in the workplace-driven, in part, by the increasing visibility of and advocacy for non-binary, gender-queer, and gender-nonconforming folks – using gender-neutral language doesn’t necessarily come easily to everyone. 

Traditional gendered language is so deeply ingrained in our daily discourse that unlearning this language and learning gender-neutral alternatives requires a conscious effort for many people. As a leader, you can (and should) help foster an inclusive environment where workers feel safe and supported in sharing their pronouns and where they feel comfortable and curious enough to communicate in ways that don’t alienate others.

Using gender-neutral language at work can create a more welcoming and inclusive atmosphere that, ultimately, helps prevent gender-based discrimination and promotes employee well-being. All of this translates to higher levels of job satisfaction, which boosts both productivity and performance, as well as retention and results. 

Here’s a guide to gender-neutral language to help you create the kind of gender-diverse culture that includes everyone.


❓ Why are pronouns important?

Pronouns are what we use to refer to ourselves and others, such as in face-to-face conversations, via emails, and on communication channels like Slack.

For example, some pronouns are he/him/his and she/her/hers. 

However, not everyone uses he/him/his or she/her/hers. And some people use pronouns that do not correlate with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Someone who was assigned female at birth and identified as a girl or woman, or who was assigned male at birth and identified as a boy or man, may be considered cisgender (or cis). Someone who was born with a vulva and assigned female at birth but who identifies as a boy or man might consider themselves transgender (or trans). 

Those who don’t identify with preconceived male or female gender roles, who identify as neither male nor female at all, nor who identify as both male and female may also consider themselves gender-queer, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, gender-fluid, agender, or another term.

The reality is that there are many words and phrases to help us identify ourselves and others, and there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all language. Different people identify with different labels or lack thereof. And therefore, different people use and/or prefer different pronouns.

Assuming people’s pronouns and misgendering can feel disrespectful, invalidating, dismissive, embarrassing, and worse. It can also cause gender dysphoria, which Planned Parenthood defines as “feelings of distress, discomfort or despair that some people feel as a result of their gender identity not matching important aspects of their body (like voice, genitals or chest) or how they are treated socially.” Of course, dysphoria can take a significant toll, which can affect their workplace productivity and performance.

It’s always important to ask people for their pronouns and use gender-neutral pronouns when you don’t know or are talking to groups to be sure to include everyone.


❓ What are gender-neutral pronouns?

Literally, gender-neutral pronouns are pronouns that we can use to refer to people without specifying their gender. 

We use gender-neutral pronouns to avoid assuming people’s gender identities and potentially misgendering them. We also use these pronouns to include everyone when speaking to groups, such as in a conference meeting. And we use gender-neutral pronouns to respect the gender identity of someone who refers to themselves with gender-neutral pronouns. 

Adhering to someone’s personal pronouns shows respect for their existence and allows them to feel safe in expressing themselves how they are. While learning people’s pronouns and committing to using them correctly may take time or feel uncomfortable at first, it’s hugely important as a basic form of respect (never mind that it’s typically company policy).  

Contrary to popular belief, they/them/their is not the only gender-neutral pronoun set there is. It’s worth noting that not everyone who uses gender-neutral pronouns uses they/them/their. “They” is a nominative plural pronoun of “he,” “she,” and “it” and, therefore, has binary roots. Many people choose neopronouns – a category of new (neo) pronouns that are increasingly used instead – to avoid any indication that gender is binary.

Some common gender-neutral pronouns include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • They/them/their
  • Ze/zem/zir
  • E/em/eir
  • E/em/eir
  • Xe/xem/xyr

❓ When might you use gender-neutral language at work?

If you think about it, we use gendered pronouns and language quite a bit.

For example, you may have started a meeting with “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” or, “Hey, guys!” with an honest intention to be inclusive. But those kinds of phrases alienate nonbinary folks and those whose pronouns don’t match ladies and gentlemen or guys.

Instead, you can use gender-neutral language like, “Good morning, everyone,” or “How’s it going, team?” when speaking to groups. And, when talking to specific people, you can use gender-neutral pronouns unless that person shares other specific pronouns with you.

In short, here are some examples of times when you should use gender-neutral pronouns:

  • When you don’t know someone’s pronouns but want to refer to them
  • When you do know someone’s gender-neutral pronouns and want to refer to them correctly
  • When someone uses multiple sets of pronouns, including gender-neutral pronouns
  • When you want to avoid specifying the gender of someone to whom you’re referring
  • When you’re talking about humans in general
  • When you want to keep someone’s gender anonymous
  • When you’re speaking to a group of mixed genders and want to include everyone

❓ When should you not use gender-neutral pronouns?

There is indeed a time when it’s actually inappropriate to use gender-neutral pronouns.

That’s when someone has expressly told you that they have other pronouns. For example, if a trans man tells you that his pronouns are he/him/his, then mentioning him using they/them/their can be offensive. 

Similarly, if a cis woman tells you that her pronouns are she/her/hers, then you should not refer to her with they/them/their or another set of pronouns that can feel invalidating of her identity. Respecting people’s pronouns always is key to fostering a safe and collaborative workspace.

❓ How do you use gender-neutral pronouns at work?

Here are some top tips for using gender-neutral pronouns.

  1. Always confirm someone’s pronouns. Some people include their pronouns in their email signatures. You can check online resources like signatures and company or social media bios, or you can just ask them. You can share your own pronouns to help others feel comfortable sharing theirs.
  2. Practice incorporating gender-neutral pronouns into your everyday speech. The more you use them, the easier it will become for them to just roll off your tongue. While it may feel forced at first, requiring a lot of thought, using gender-neutral pronouns will eventually come naturally to you.
  3. Correct yourself if you misgender someone (or you notice someone else misgendering someone). If you refer to someone with the wrong pronouns by accident, restate what you said with the correct pronouns. Being intentional and admitting fault shows respect and care, and it also helps enhance your own memory, so using the right pronouns comes easier to you the next time.
  4. Be receptive to feedback if someone corrects you. If someone feels comfortable enough to correct you, it’s important that you show them support and acknowledgment. Respond with understanding and humility to continue to foster that safe space and build an even better bond between you and that person.
  5. Be considerate of others’ feelings. Not everyone is going to feel forthcoming about their pronouns. Some people may have had poor experiences in the past when sharing their pronouns or expressing themselves authentically. Gender-based discrimination can take a lasting toll on people. Be mindful of people’s feelings when communicating about their pronouns—and avoid singling people out when asking.

The bottom line


Using gender-neutral pronouns in the workplace is an important step toward creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all employees. 

By including the necessary use of gender-neutral pronouns and the correct use of people’s personal pronouns in company policies, you can help set some ground rules. From there, providing proper education and training for all employees can also help people understand how to ask for and use pronouns properly. 

At the end of the day, practice makes progress, and leading by example is always best.

By Ivy Exec
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