I was recently at a seminar at a large university where the speaker stood at the podium and stated, “Hi, my name is... and the pronouns I most identify with are “ze, zirzirs.” The next speaker did the same, only this time the pronouns were “ze, hir and hirs.” A couple sitting next to me whispered to each other, “What’s a pronoun?” “Pronouns are he or she.” “Why did she say he?” “I think she said ze.” The rest of the speakers’ words were lost while I listened to the couple debate whether the speaker was female or male and whether the speaker was from New Zealand, because they thought everyone from New Zealand started English words with the “z” sound.
After the session, I spoke with one of the speakers about the choice of introduction. The speaker explained that people make assumptions, sometimes incorrect and hurtful, about a person based on their appearance or name and the use of the gender neutral pronoun is an attempt to curb the incorrect assumptions as well as an attempt to be more inclusive.
The Gender Binary Pronoun v. Gender Neutral Pronoun
For those of you who have not been to grade school in the past few decades, a pronoun is a noun that can substitute for another noun. In the context of people, the pronouns that most-readily come to mind are gender specific, such as he, she, him and her. These pronouns are referred to as gender binary pronouns.
While most people still use the gender binary pronoun, many are choosing to use gender neutral pronouns. The alternative gender neutral or gender inclusive pronouns used most often include ze/hir/hirs and ze/zir/zirs. These pronouns make no implication as to the gender of the individual.
In use, these pronouns substitute for the traditional he/she or him/her pronouns:
“She (he) has the book” would instead be “Ze has the book.” “Give the book to him (her)” would instead be “Give the book to hir(zir).” “The book is hers (his)” would instead be “The book is hirs (zirs).”
Other possible gender neutral pronouns include ne/nir/nirs, ey/eyr/eyrs, vi/vir/virs and xy/xyr/xyrs. This list is certainly non-exhaustive and the list of potential pronouns is growing. Yet, each set of gender-neutral pronouns has the same purpose of not associating a gender with the individual who is being discussed.
Gender Pronouns in the Work Place
As an employer, you need to be mindful of the gender neutral pronouns. Figuring out pronouns can be tricky in the workplace. People often make assumptions about the gender of another person based on a person’s appearance or name and then apply those assumptions to the pronouns and forms of address used to refer to a person. These assumptions may have existed for years and usually only change when someone has expressly requested that they be identified by a different pronoun. Regardless of whether these assumptions are correct, the very act of making an assumption can send a potentially harmful message -- that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not or that their apparent gender is how they are defined.
While the gender neutral pronouns are still evolving and have not yet been fully indoctrinated into the English language, the gender neutral pronouns are becoming more widely used among the LGBT community and gaining popularity among college students and the younger work force.
As employers, you know that you have the legal obligation to assure that your employees are not discriminated against on the basis of their gender. While the law has not gone as far as to find that an employer must refer to its employees with a gender neutral pronoun, respecting the employee’s desire to be addressed by a different pronoun is one way that an employer can help to create a gender neutral work environment. At a minimum, it shows respect for your employee’s desire to be addressed as a person without regard to a specific gender.
Best Practices for Employers in the Workplace
What may seem awkward at first may eventually become mainstream. It was not that long ago that it was considered proper to refer to a married woman as “Mrs.” Now, most people prefer to use “Ms.” regardless of marital status. The English language may evolve to accept more gender neutral pronouns and eventually the gender neutral pronouns may become the preferred personal pronouns.
You do not have to delete the gender specific pronouns from your vocabulary. Rather, familiarize yourself with the various gender-neutral pronouns so that you will be better educated to respond to a request by an employee who chooses to be referred to by a gender neutral pronoun. And, if someone asks you what your preferred pronouns are, you will be able to provide an answer.
Contact Kristin Tauras at McKenna Storer for questions about this evolving topic and any other workplace and employment law defense related questions. Ms Tauras focuses her practice on advising businesses on employment policy and defending employers with employment related matters.