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Using Pronouns in the Workplace with Gaëlle Ivory of Howard University

Discover the importance of pronoun usage in the workplace

When meeting others for the first time in the workplace, pronouns like "he/him" and "she/her" are often assumed based on a person's name or appearance, but those assumptions are not always correct and can lead to those who identify differently feeling rejected or uncomfortable. In striving for an environment that welcomes everyone, staying mindful of the pronouns of colleagues and clients is essential. We connected with Gaëlle Ivory, Assistant Director of Intercultural Affairs at Howard University, to discuss the importance of proper pronoun usage, what pronouns infer about a person's identity, gender-inclusive language and tips on how to use pronouns in the workplace to create a more inclusive environment.

Let’s start with your background, your work and your pronouns.


My name is Gaëlle Amazan Ivory and my background is in higher education, student affairs and diversity and inclusion. My pronouns are she/her and they/them. I began working in higher education as an undergraduate at Temple University in 2007. I worked as a Ph.D. teaching assistant at Syracuse University in 2013 and then I began working professionally in higher education in 2014. In each of these positions, I’ve worked in student affairs and was involved in inclusion work. Currently, I work at Howard University as the Assistant Director of Intercultural Affairs.


What purpose do pronouns serve?

Generally, the purpose of pronouns are to replace nouns. Examples of pronouns are she, it, we, and I. In higher education, we use pronouns to give others a way to describe us both when we are present and we are not. Typically, I use names to address others. When I choose not to use a name, pronouns are helpful to refer to others.


Why are pronouns important, both inside and outside of the business world?

Pronouns are important because identity is important. Each person has qualities that make up who they are and these qualities matter to them. I use she/her and they/them pronouns because I feel that these pronouns capture a part of who I am. Each person has a right to decide for themselves which pronouns they use and they have a right to be addressed by the pronouns they’ve decided upon. Both in and out of the business world, people interact with one another, and pronouns, if used appropriately, can assist with these interactions.


Consider each time you use pronouns. Consider each time you say words like “he”, “she” or they”. These words arguably make up a majority of the words we use, at least in the English language. This is another point: that there are languages where pronouns look differently or don’t exist at all. Pronouns are particularly important in the English language. Because in English, pronouns make up such a large part of language, they are important to understand and use correctly. Most importantly, it is important to address others using the pronouns they share with you.


What is Gender Inclusive language?

Gender Inclusive language refers to the notion that gender is not binary. Oftentimes, people make references to “both genders,” “opposite sex” or say “he or she”. Gender Inclusive language submits that gender is fluid and includes genders other than men and women. The binary language suggests that gender only includes men and women and this erases nonbinary genders. Gender Inclusive language allows for an environment that recognizes and celebrates all genders.


What are some tips for using pronouns in the workplace?

Be mindful that people often make assumptions about gender based on the way others look and behave. These assumptions can be harmful. In the workplace, it is best to establish inclusive spaces in which all genders feel safe and celebrated. When all genders feel safe and celebrated, pronouns can be a natural part of the environment.


Tip 1: Ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is included in workplace policy to ensure an environment that does not tolerate discrimination.


Tip 2: If a person is not sure of a person’s pronouns, they can introduce themselves using their names and their own pronouns, then ask the other person what their pronouns are.


Tip 3: If a person is sure of another person’s pronouns, it is because that other person shared them previously.


Tip 4: Just because a person shared their pronouns with you does not mean they shared them with others. When you receive a person’s pronouns, also ask if this is information that can be shared with others.


Tip 5: Include pronouns in workplace documents where other optional demographic information is asked. This helps to normalize the use of pronouns. Also, include pronouns in email signatures.


Tip 6: Don’t get discouraged if you make a mistake. If you misgender someone, apologize, make a commitment to not repeat the mistake and continue to do better.


Tip 7: If you think you know a person’s gender and the pronouns are different than you thought they would be, recognize that your thoughts are a reflection of your own assumptions about gender and not a reflection of what their correct pronouns should be. Accept a person’s pronouns without question.


Tip 8: Do research about pronouns. Language is always changing and it is helpful to remain current on DEI work.





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