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Gender Neutral Pronouns in the Workplace: A Legal Overview

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on December 10, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Hello humans. We are at the start of a new millennium, a complex and tense time in which speech matters a great deal. How do you communicate correctly with so many types of people and tools for exchange and evolving notions of what's okay?

The answer is, you should communicate consciously, acknowledging that we all make mistakes. The sages all say that the wise only know how little they know, so -- accepting that -- let's consider communication in the postmodern workplace from a human and legal perspective.

Brief Guide to Gender Neutral Pronouns in the Workplace

To avoid using gendered pronouns "he" or "she," the gender neutral or gender inclusive pronoun "they" can be used in the singular. Other gender neutral terms have also appeared recently, including the two pronouns made famous at Harvard University: "ze" and "e."

If coworkers prefer a gender neutral term, it's best to respect their wishes. It's not only the respectful thing to do, it may also help businesses avoid potential pronoun-related lawsuits.

Gender Neutral Speech vs. Sexist Speech

We are products of conditioning, so language matters. When we change our speech patterns, we also change our thinking. Thinking must evolve because the world does and it demands flexibility.

Once upon a time there were workplaces with people of one gender and race who all grew up in the same way and saw the world more or less alike. Now that is no longer the case. So we all must be able to accommodate everyone's experience of the world in our language.

How do you do that? Just listen to others, of course. If they express preferences about how they wish to be addressed or referred to, respect them. But also make your language inclusive.

An Alternet piece entitled, "Why Sexist Language Matters" points out the prevalence of male dominant language in everyday American speech. We don't notice the cumulative impact of saying "you guys" and "oh man" and "freshman" and "fireman" and "chairman," but it does reinforce a worldview where men are superior and dominant and where, frankly, being a man is better.

"We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways -- which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. Do we want a truly inclusive language or one that just pretends," asks Sheryl Kleinman, who teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina. She jokingly suggests that you address a male chairman of the board as a "chairwoman" or an incoming male student as a "freshwoman" and see how pleased they are about gender exclusion.

Jokes aside, to fix this we must all listen to ourselves. Especially in a workplace setting, each of us must become more conscious of the things we say and the linguistic choices we make.

A Meta Moment With Gender Neutral Language

Being conscious is not complicated. You just try to notice things more than before. But it does mean paying attention. Even in writing these sentences, I notice, it takes a moment to find an expression that is not gendered.

For example, rather than greeting with "Ladies and Gentlemen," I address us all as humans. Not so difficult but definitely conscious. Without being conscious of gendered speech, this female writer is often surprised to find how often her own mind is inclined to a male turn of phrase.

Transgender Colleagues and the EEOC

The principle of respecting preferences also applies to a person transitioning genders, per HR attorney Siobhan Kelley of the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group. She says, "It's okay to ask the employee what gender pronoun they prefer."

What is not okay, however, is discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, among others, and has successfully prosecuted cases on behalf of transgender employees in the workplace.

It writes, "The EEOC has held that discrimination against an individual because that person is transgender (also known as gender identity discrimination) is discrimination because of sex and therefore is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Discrimination in the Workplace

The EEOC enforces a slew of federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information, as well as reprisal for protected activity. The Commission's interpretations of these statutes apply to its adjudication and enforcement in the public and private sectors.

Discrimination based on gender amounts to unequal treatment in the form of working conditions, salaries, hiring, performance expectations, promotions, and bonuses. It is illegal to use different criteria for men and women. To many, that is now obvious at least in theory, if not always in practice.

Sneaky Sexism

Beyond the obvious, there's another sneakier and more dangerous form of sexism. That which manifests in how women's speech is received. Studies repeatedly show that women are caught in "the abrasiveness trap." In other words, women must sound super nice and sugar and spice to succeed.

A study of hundreds of men and women's performance reviews for Fortune showed that women were caught in a double bind. They cannot be seen as bossy even while trying to become bosses.

So what do you do? Ask yourself if you are expecting the ladies to coo. Maybe you are and just never noticed. Now is the time to start.

Mixed Messages

Do your part to make the world more accommodating for all humans by using inclusive language. But also, take the advice of the sages, and accept that you cannot know it all and neither do your colleagues. So be vigilant with yourself, but also, forgiving when other people are not perfect.

Trouble Brewing?

If you do believe that your workplace is discriminatory, speak to an employment attorney about possible claims. Counsel will hear your story and help you determine what steps to take.

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