A reader writes:
I’m a queer person working in a mid-sized, politically progressive organization.
Recently our management team has been attempting to shift norms around pronouns at work. Our chief HR executive sent an email encouraging everyone to add pronouns to their Slack profiles and email signatures. Managers have begun asking new hires to state their preferred pronouns when they introduce themselves in our town halls.
I understand these changes are intended to make our office a more inclusive environment for queer and trans folks, but being asked to declare my pronouns makes me extremely uncomfortable.
The thing is … I don’t know what I am. I was assigned female at birth and am married to a woman. Friends and family use female pronouns because I’ve never asked them to do otherwise. I have short hair, wear men’s clothing, am sometimes mistaken for a teenage boy, and often think of myself as more of a man than a woman. But I’m not a man.
In other words, my relationship to gender is ambivalent at best, and I find being asked to discuss such a fraught, deeply personal topic at work distressing. Even typing out the previous paragraph was pretty embarrassing!
Right now my colleagues all assume I use female pronouns because my name is feminine. This works for me; it requires no active intervention on my part and allows everyone, especially me, to stay focused on work.
Being asked to publicly state my preference for female pronouns, on the other hand, makes me angry. It feels like I have to either lie or come out of the closet, when I’m not even sure what to come out as! I’m starting to resent the well-meaning leaders who are pushing these changes. It’s easy for cis people to pick their pronouns; gender is straightforward and obvious for them.
Complicating this issue is the fact that I’m about to be promoted to a management role, and all the managers in our org proudly share their pronouns in their profiles.
So, should I:
(a) bite the bullet and add “she/her” to my profile for the sake of conforming and handle my frustration the same way I handle my feelings about mansplainers and interrupters (a punching bag is involved).
(b) share my perspective on this with my boss or HR in the hope that they’ll reconsider asking people to state their pronouns, especially in large meetings.
(c) adopt “they/them” pronouns … but only at work? I’ll be the only manager using “they/them” in my workplace.
(d) adopt “he/him” pronouns but keep my feminine first name in the spirit of giving corporate gender interrogators the middle finger (kidding!).
(e) continue silently omitting pronouns from my profile until someone asks me about it.
I’m Still Figuring It Out, Boss, But I’ll Be Sure To Keep You Posted
Thank you for an excellent illustration of why companies need to be thoughtful about the way they signal inclusivity around gender identity and pronouns. Employers should encourage people to share their pronouns if they want to, make clear it’s welcome, and ensure it’s safe for people to do so … but requiring it (or “encouraging” it to the point that it’s essentially required) is a bad idea for exactly the reasons in your letter.
You should not need to declare pronouns that you’re not comfortable with or don’t identify with, nor should you need to figure it out on anyone’s timeline but your own.
And no one should feel pressured to out themselves as trans or non-binary just to comply with a corporate edict.
Your company’s efforts are no doubt well-meaning, but their implementation is bad.
As for what to do, if you are willing to talk to your boss or HR (or the person/team charged with working on diversity and inclusion issues, if you have one), that would be ideal. They likely haven’t thought about what this requirement means for people who are grappling with gender identity or simply don’t want to out themselves at work, and if they’re reasonable they’ll be open to changing their approach once they’re aware of the problem.
You wouldn’t even necessarily need to make it about you — you could say that you’ve heard the concern expressed in other contexts and wanted to bring it to their attention that the most inclusive practice is to encourage people to share their pronouns if they want to, but not to require it. That said, you might get more traction if you’re willing to personalize it. That shouldn’t be the case, but sometimes it is.