Those she/her/hers at the end of email messages are more than a passing trend

No assumptions.
No assumptions.
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At the end of May, TIAA, the financial services and investing giant, rolled out new gender-identity awareness guidelines for its client-facing consultants. The guidance included: “Never assume someone’s gender identity” and “Be aware that a person’s pronouns can change over time. They may also change based on context.”

More remarkably, it stated: “Create the space for gender inclusion by asking for a client’s preferred name and pronouns and/or by sharing yours (‘Hello, my name is Jane and my pronouns are she/her. It’s very nice to meet you.’)”

Corie Pauling (she/her/hers), TIAA’s chief inclusion and diversity officer, says this style of introduction is a way of indicating that the client should feel welcomed, that “your desire is to include them.”

Arguably, it’s also one of many signs that the corporate world is waking up to the power of inviting everyone—customers and employees of every gender identity—to explicitly state their pronouns and be seen for who they are.

To many people, that may sound like an obvious, long overdue move. But it has taken eons for western mainstream culture to recognize that gender is not binary, and not everyone’s person’s gender conforms to the sex they were assigned at birth, or to either gender, or one static gender. And not everyone is on board with the concept yet.

Nevertheless, companies are forging ahead. Though data is scarce, the anecdotal evidence that progressive workplaces are finally shedding outdated binary pronoun norms—in the same way several colleges already have—is fast accumulating.

Pronouns are appearing in email signatures, Slack profiles, and employee directories

At the software firm Intuit, a staff engineer recently took it upon himself to introduce an optional pronoun field to employees’ Slack profile, winning kudos and gratitude from peers, says Scott Beth (he/him/his), chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Mountain View, California-based company. (More than 400 of the firm’s 8,000-plus employees have completed LGBTQ ally-ship training, which includes education about gender identities and pronouns, he adds.)

In the past year, Workday, the human resources and payroll management platform that counts Amazon, Target, and Bank of America among its clients, made it possible for people to log into its dashboard and update their profiles with their pronouns and gender identity, the latter of which incorporates 20 options, including cis gender, non-binary, and gender fluid.

Because Workday sits as a third-party guest inside so many companies, Carin Taylor (she/her/hers), the company’s chief diversity officer, says she thinks the new menu “can have ripple effects across organizations around the world.”

IBM, which uses Workday, is one of the companies that has embraced the optional update, thus aligning its HR software system—and employee directories in about a dozen countries so far—with a gender identity company policy first announced in 2002, says Joy Dettorre (she/her/hers), global leader at IBM’s office of diversity and inclusion.

The company’s LGBTQ allies were first to take advantage of the pronoun options, Dettorre reports. But her team has also welcomed an unintentional consequence: Pronoun sharing makes collaborating across cultures easier for IBM’s globally distributed workforce, who may not be familiar with the names and associated genders of their colleagues.

“She/her/hers” or “Zi/zir/zirs” are also materializing on name tags at all kinds of networking or professional development events, Dettorre points out. If they’re not printed next to a name, she adds, people sometimes write them in. “I’ve seen people notice that others have their gender pronouns on their labels, so they run back to the registration table and grab a marker to add their own,” she says, calling the will to be inclusive this way “contagious.”

Indeed, examples of such edited name tags are easy to find on social media:

TIAA, meanwhile, is planning to formally invite employees to add pronouns to their email signatures, as part of a series of efforts that have already been “soft launched,” Pauling says.

“Is this respectful?”

Jessi Hempel (she/her/hers), a tech journalist and host of Hello Monday, LinkedIn’s podcast about work, has also noticed the sudden uptick in people sharing their pronouns in workplaces. This feels like “the spring that the gender pronouns migrated into email signatures,” she says.

Hempel’s response to the shift is particularly instructive, however. She modernized her email signature last fall, when she was still new at LinkedIn, inspired, she says, by the small signs clarifying that the single-stall bathrooms at the office were gender neutral.

But Hempel says she was first struck by a new attitude toward gender identity in a professional space at conferences a few years earlier, where she saw speakers introduce themselves with their name and pronouns, including people who looked heteronormative and who you’d assume would have the gender pronouns you’d expect them to have, she says. At the time, Hempel had just finished writing a feature story for Time magazine about her brother’s experience as a pregnant trans man. She felt the process had opened her eyes to “all the ways the world was reflected back to him.” So when she heard people stating their pronouns as a matter of course, she thought, “That’s interesting.”

The extra information about gender identity was, she says, “making it possible for that conversation to happen in a room.”

Before adding “she/her/hers” to her new work email signature, Hempel called her brother to ask if that would be respectful or whether normalizing that practice would be appropriating his way of representing himself. “It would be so respectful,” she remembers him saying. “It would be a way for me to tell somebody, before they botched it up, what I like to be called.”

The case for not rushing into this

Note, however, that Hempel did not mindlessly add pronouns to her email or embrace pronoun-sharing without exploring the possible implications for members of the community the practice is meant to support. Companies need to be just as conscientious, says H. L. “Lou” Himes (they/them/theirs), a clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in gender and sexuality.

While Himes appreciates that recognizing diverse pronouns and gender identities is a small, but significant step toward equality, they say it also calls for caution. “With murder rates rising among black trans women, attempts of suicide at a rate nine times that of the general population, and 30% of transgender people reporting harassment, discrimination, or violence in the workplace, well-meaning institutions must consider the safety of their transgender employees first and foremost,” Himes tells Quartz at Work.

Any company nudge to share pronouns has to be, and feel, optional, otherwise what looks like inclusion will manifest as a forced outing or forced closeting, Himes argues. They suggest starting with more fundamental training about gender, and in that session reviewing several ways of showing solidarity with trans or non-binary and gender-fluid people—including through their approach to pronouns.

Lisa Kenney (she/her/hers), executive director at Gender Spectrum, which provides gender training and consulting for organizations and youth groups, underlines that publicizing pronouns must be genuinely voluntary. “If it feels like, this is a choice, but really it’s not a choice,’ that’s problematic,” she says—and not only because it wouldn’t respect where people are in their journey with identity. Companies shouldn’t forget that gender norms still vary wildly between organizations, regions, and nations, and that employees are frequently thinking about the cultures and environments they find themselves in, or will in the future, depending on where their careers take them.

Like Himes, Kenney proposes that companies start by improving gender literacy broadly, even if it’s with a short training video, before advancing to more ambitious gender-recognition plans. Companies with managers or HR officers whose “hearts are in the right place” have made grave mistakes putting together lists of gender identities for her to review, confusing sex for gender, or making other blunders.

What’s more, without establishing a shared language and understanding—the step “that people want to just leapfrog past,” she has noticed—companies can leave people feeling confused about what’s happening or why, and not seeing how sharing pronouns fits with the company’s values and strategies. People think: “This just seems like this new trendy thing we’re doing,” she says, and that can create tension and distractions. (Kenney recalls an inquiry she got from a Bay Area company several years ago that had hurried to create gender-neutral bathrooms when that topic was first in the news, sparking “pandemonium” at the office.)

And yet, despite the potential for the logistics to get complex, proactively accommodating all genders at work is both doable and essential, Kenney says. When clients beats themselves up for making an error, or expresses fear they’ll never get it right, she reassures them that their fact-checking and concern are signs they’re on the right track.

The complexity of gender is not the only reason that pronoun declarations are not going to infiltrate all offices with the same ease as, say, emojis, acronyms, and other additions to our lexicon. As Hempel points out, it’s extraordinary that companies are taking up the challenge, but it’s only a subset of the labor market that’s made gender inclusion a priority. “There are 17 states where it’s still legal to be fired for being LGBTQA+,” she says. There is “a sharp divide” to consider.

What’s more, the debate about whether gendered pronouns are progressive, or whether we’d be better off dropping all gendered pronouns instead, continues. We wouldn’t presume to say where we’ll land as language and customs evolve. For now, however, gendered pronouns remain entrenched, and the predominate view appears to be that when pronouns are spelled out by all, everyone benefits.

Gen Z will be fine with all this

Survey data suggests that increasing numbers of Americans will soon find gender literacy second nature. A 2017 study found that 20% of millennials place themselves somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum and 12% identify as transgender or gender fluid. Younger employees are also far more likely to be familiar with gender pronouns beyond “he” or “she.”  In January, a Pew study found that 35% of Gen Zs (aged 13 to 21 in 2018) say they know someone who uses a non-binary gender pronoun, like “they.” Just 25% of millennials, 16% of Gen Xers, and 12% of baby boomers said the same.

To corporate leaders, such numbers say it all. Sure enough, every week, it seems, more companies, such as Lyft, American Airlines, and MasterCard, announce new features that expand gender box-ticking possibilities for customers and allow users of their products and services to choose their own names.

To TIAA’s Pauling, and others, the “statistics jump off the page” as a call to respond to employees, too. Stating and understanding others’ proper pronouns is not a trend, but here to stay, she says. And as with other social issues, like women’s reproductive rights, progressive companies are setting the tone even in places where they are at odds with the prevailing politics.

Though uneven, the rate of change around pronoun literacy and acceptance is pretty staggering. Hempel compares it to the sea change that came with the legalization of same-sex marriages like her own, which led to her choosing “second parent” instead of “father” on her son’s birth certificate this year. That wording may mean so little to someone else, but it made the world feel more inclusive to her, she says, noting that none of this was on the table when she started her career.

The world, and workplaces, should be filled with such forms, and gender inclusivity ought to be both sensitive and commonplace. Future generations may look back with surprise that there was ever a time this wasn’t the case.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality in the workplace and beyond. Read more stories here.