Getting the language of identity right has never been so complicated, or important.
University academics are increasingly asking students to introduce themselves with their names and ‘preferred’ pronouns.
This well-intentioned attempt at inclusiveness is not without challenges, of course, and the business community might learn some valuable lessons from their experiences.
While the public’s awareness of gender diversity has increased, there are still some technical aspects that many people struggle with, not least the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
Australian universities have often been first movers in creating more inclusive environments.
It prompted some academics to try to address the challenge associated with the lack of gender-neutral pronouns in the English language.
The pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers all come with a set of assumptions about how someone should express their identity and interact with others.
Some students have a gender identity that is non-binary. In other words, not all students identify as exclusively male or female.
Conventional pronouns have the effect of assigning a person a binary identity, which they often find upsetting and frustrating.
Enter the gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns: the ones that do not link gender with the individual.
Many students from the transgender, genderqueer and gender non-conforming communities prefer the use of they/them/their/theirs/themself.
However, there are a range of alternatives including ze/hir/hirs and ey/em/eir. And anyone can use these pronouns, should they prefer to navigate the world without gendered expectations.
The practice of starting a class at the beginning of the term, trimester, or semester by asking students which pronouns they prefer is one way academics can signal an inclusive, safe, and respectful classroom.
But pronoun introductions are not without challenges; pronouns are personal and everybody’s relationship with them is different.
Asking questions about pronoun use can be upsetting to the students the practice is designed to support, particularly if the students are still in the process of working through their gender identity.
Pronoun introductions can pressure them to out themselves, choose between a gender identity when they are unsure, or lie about their identity. This is especially the case when students are being introduced to others for the first time.
Also, a student’s pronouns may change over time as they discover the right language to describe themselves. How individuals describe themselves early in a teaching period may change some months later.
And while some university teachers may be inclined to dispense with the introductory practice if confronted with students who appear to be gender-normative, there may be students whose choice of pronouns does not match their gender presentation.
Such challenges have left many academics questioning whether their well-intentioned attempt at inclusiveness is becoming problematic rather than useful.
Some experts believe the best way to make classrooms more inclusive is to ask students how they would like to be addressed, rather than asking students directly for their pronouns.
The broader question invites everyone to provide as little or as much information as they feel comfortable to divulge.
There is even the option for an academic to introduce themselves using their name and pronouns to set the scene for the others to follow suit if desired.
This approach should be supplemented with in-class discussions about the importance of pronouns, privacy, and of not making assumptions about anyone’s identity (at the beginning of a teaching period and along the way, too).
Over time, it may be possible to create the type of inclusive environment where students can choose to share what they want about themselves at a time that suits the individual.
And before deciding on exactly what works best within their own institutional context, academics are advised to access the wealth of resources at their fingertips – their students – on what may work best.
Importantly, businesses can learn from the experiences of those in the university sector when it comes to the use of pronouns with clients, key stakeholders and, of course, their own staff.
While those working across all industries will make mistakes trying to make their professional environment more inclusive, it is important to realise that pronouns are no longer preferred but simply correct or incorrect for someone’s identity.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA