Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),
I’m a white cisgender woman and am chairing a search committee for an academic position. Would it be appropriate for me to ask finalists their pronouns (and let them know mine) when arranging their on-campus interview? I want to use their correct pronouns, but I don’t want them to feel like their gender identity is an issue.
—Puzzled by Pronouns
This is a common theme in questions about ally skills: “I’d like to follow the latest best practices for inclusivity, but I’m worried that because they are new and not yet standard, I’ll do it in a way that makes marginalized people feel singled out or puts them in an uncomfortable spotlight.” I’m glad you are thinking ahead and trying to imagine what it is like to be the marginalized person!
In this situation, I usually recommend building a system where everyone gets asked the same questions or offered the same resources, regardless of their privileges, in a way that it is obvious this is the standard procedure for everyone, and if possible in a way that benefits other groups. One example of doing this is the “curb-cut effect,” where adding ramps to sidewalk curbs for wheelchair users at all intersections gives everyone the same accommodation in a way that doesn’t single out wheelchair users. Curb cuts also benefit many other groups: people pushing strollers, people using wheeled shopping carts to carry groceries, people using walkers, people for whom stairs are painful, etc.
You can create a solution that is inclusive of people whose gender pronouns are not easily guessed by others by creating a system that clearly asks for pronouns from everyone, including people whose gender pronouns are usually correctly guessed by the people around them. In your specific situation, candidates for an academic position have to fill out at least one form, so you can add a “What are your gender pronouns?” question to one of the standard forms that every candidate has to fill out. (If you are reducing hiring bias by hiding the names and biographical details of candidates during the first part of the process, don’t ask for this information until after that phase is over.) In the rest of this post, we’ll talk about a few other ways to do this in the more general case.
Lead by example and share your pronouns first
In the general case, a good first step is to make a practice of telling other people your gender pronouns when you introduce yourself, as you mention in your question. In addition, you can systematize telling people your own gender pronouns in a number of ways: including them in your email signature, on your web site, on your business cards, on your office door name plate, on name tags, etc. Once you’ve shared your own gender pronouns, the other person can share their own gender pronouns without feeling singled out, because at least one other person has done so.
Directly ask for pronouns while sharing that you ask everyone
You can also directly ask for someone’s gender pronouns while making it clear you’re making it a habit to ask everyone: “I’m trying to develop a habit of always telling people my gender pronouns and asking for their gender pronouns when we first meet. My gender pronouns are [YOUR PRONOUNS]. What are yours?” Of course, if they don’t want to share them with you, don’t insist that they do. In general, for people whose pronouns you don’t know, use singular “they” until you do know their pronouns. And if you mess up and use the wrong gender pronouns, just apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Telling people your pronouns and asking for theirs may feel uncomfortable and weird at first, but after you do it a hundred times, it will feel normal and routine.
More resources about gender pronouns
If you’d like to go deeper, there are some excellent resources written by people who regularly experience other people guessing their gender pronouns incorrectly. “Good Practices: Names and pronouns” is part of the TransTerps project at University of Maryland, which includes many other resources for being more inclusive of trans people. (“Terps” is a reference to the terrapin, a local turtle and the nickname for the university’s students.) For more on why sharing your gender pronouns is helpful even when other people are likely to guess them correctly, read “Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns On Your ‘Hello My Name Is’ Name Tag” from Sinclair Sexsmith, a nonbinary person.
Ally skill: Avoid singling out marginalized people by creating systems that help everyone
When you want to be more inclusive, but are worried that you might unintentionally single out marginalized people, take a step back and ask how you can create a system that applies to everyone regardless of privilege. A good starting question is, “What additional benefits could come from applying an inclusive practice in a broader way?”
For example, many employers want to know if pregnant employees will want to travel less during and after their pregnancy. Asking if there would be a benefit from asking everyone about their travel preferences more often results in the recognition that everyone changes their travel preferences over time in unpredictable ways. Now the question becomes “How do we make it easy for our employees to tell us when their travel preferences have changed, and make it easier for everyone to travel less if they want to?” This question does not single out pregnant people and does not reinforce harmful stereotypes about pregnant people becoming less valuable employees. It also increases inclusion of employees who prefer to travel less for other reasons (disability, difficulty getting visas, bereavement, family care taking, immigration status, pet care, just not liking travel, etc.) and improves happiness and retention of all employees.