Our language, a shared communication tool, reflects our society. As such, we can use it to create a more inclusive environment where all belong. Part of this work is actively and continuously creating a space where gender and pronouns are not assumed. For lawyers especially, this is a critical part of ensuring a healthy workplace and happy clients.
Gender is a complex social status, often with societal and cultural expectations around characteristics and behaviors. According to the Human Rights Commission, gender identity is “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.”
- Gender: People are assigned a sex at birth—male, female, or intersex—based off hormones, genitalia, and chromosomes. For some, their actual gender does align with what they were assigned at birth (cisgender). For others, their gender does not match what they were assigned at birth (transgender). Transgender is an umbrella term for myriad gender identities including trans men, trans women, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people.
- Pronouns: Pronouns are the words we use in place of someone’s name when referring to that person in conversation. For example, she brought up good points; we should contact her. Examples of pronouns include but are not limited to: they/them; xe/xir; ze/zir; or not using pronouns and solely using a person’s name.
Everyone should have the agency to determine for themselves what pronouns they use. Pronouns are not a preference; they are a marker of a person’s identity.
Inclusivity at Law Firms and with Gender-Diverse Clients
It is imperative that workplaces become more accustomed to the ways in which our language is evolving to reflect our society. If we don’t, we are invalidating someone’s identity, which puts a strain on how that person moves about the workplace and how they interact with you and others. Normalizing and using the right pronouns is a critical step in acknowledging the humanity of gender diverse coworkers and clients.
Misgendering is the act of assuming someone’s gender and using incorrect pronouns to refer to that person. For example, if someone uses xe/xir (zhee/zhir) pronouns and you say “I need that report from him,” instead of “I need that report from xir,” this creates a harmful environment that can have detrimental and long-lasting effects on people’s mental health and contribute to gender dysphoria, or the inner turmoil someone experiences when their assigned sex and gender do not match. Even if the act was unintentional, the impact and harm to coworkers and clients cannot be minimized. Some might find it equivalent to being told their identity is not being respected.
What You Can Do
We can all, in law firms and when meeting with clients, actively foster a culture of inclusivity by being attentive to how others refer to someone, introducing ourselves with both name and pronouns, and asking for pronouns during screening calls and on client intake forms. Other ways to use pronouns to foster a more inclusive law practice include starting meetings by having everyone state their name and pronouns and including your pronouns in your email signature.
If you do make a mistake and misgender someone, make sure you are centering the person harmed in your response. Apologize, do not get defensive, and begin using the correct pronouns. Also, practice! Whether or not the use of gender-neutral language is familiar to you, continuously practicing and making gender-inclusive language an automatic part of your speech can go a long way—in the workplace and with clients.
Respecting gender-diverse clients at your office is the first step. This also extends to clients you represent in court. You can include the correct pronouns in court pleadings—using a footnote to explain if needed—and inform the bailiff and opposing counsel how your client should be addressed. Being proactive in creating inclusivity helps establish rapport with the client and, more importantly, respects your client’s identity.
As a point of reflection, there are many questions we can and should be asking ourselves as we continue to deepen our knowledge surrounding identity and belonging. Some things to consider are how might the impact of your words differ from your intent? How might your own comfort level, assumptions, expectations, and prior experiences influence beliefs and decisions? Additionally, how can we call out the behavior while calling in the person causing harm? Part of calling out the behavior is ensuring that we are actively creating a space outside of the gender binary, so people are not excluded. When we are calling in the person, it’s to more deeply explore their behaviors and imagine different possibilities.
It is also important to understand the why: Why are we putting pronouns in social media bios, email signatures, and Zoom names? The goal is to create a place where people under the trans and/or gender-nonconforming umbrellas are able to be their authentic selves.