November’s DEI spotlight focused on the harm we can unthinkingly cause with ableist language and some suggestions on more inclusive alternatives we can add to our vocabularies. Another area in which old habits are similarly hard to break, and where it’s easy to underestimate the harm we can unintentionally cause others, is in our use of gender pronouns and other gendered terms.
One way to surface how ubiquitous gendered language is in everyday speech and writing is to monitor your own speech or the speech of those you’re talking to for just five minutes and count the number of gender pronouns, or other gendered terms like “guys,” “sir,” and “ma’am” that crop up. (You can practice the same exercise by counting the number of gendered terms and pronouns in an email or other paragraph of written text.) Now pause at each of these occurrences to recognize that an assumption is being made—either an assumption that gender is binary and that everyone is either a “he” or a “she,” a “man” or a “woman”; or an assumption that knowing a person’s name or what they look like enables us to determine what gender they identify with, if any. That’s an awful lot of assumptions!
Of course, in some situations, we do know the gender identity of the person we’re talking to or about because they’re a person we know well. But as lawyers, we’re often interacting with new people or people we don’t know well, whether they’re potential clients, witnesses, opposing counsel, court reporters, or court personnel. Not making assumptions about the gender identities of these many people who cross our paths is one concrete way to practice a more inclusive, inquiry-oriented mindset in our everyday lives.
You may feel comfortable asking everyone what pronouns they use when you first meet them, but for many of us that may feel like an awkward or overly personal question, especially as norms around discussing gender pronouns are still evolving. One way to speed that evolution is for all of us to use gender pronouns when we introduce ourselves, and including them in our email signature files. This both models the behavior and opens a dialogue about gender with the people we’re talking to and corresponding with by email, implicitly inviting them to share the same information. Meeting facilitators often include their gender pronouns as one of the questions they ask as part of round-robin introductions, along with where each meeting participant is located and other such ice-breaker questions. Including our gender pronouns on our Zoom and Teams usernames, or on our social media profiles, are other ways of making the exchange of pronouns as unremarkable as the exchange of names.
What should we do if the person we’re talking to or corresponding with by email hasn’t had a chance to tell us yet what pronouns they use, or chooses not to do so when given the opportunity? IN this situation, using gender-neutral language (such as the person’s name) is always a respectful option, as is retreating to formality and using professional terms like “counsel” or “the witness.” If you’re addressing an email to more than one person, look for gender-neutral plurals like “all,” “folks,” and “everyone.”
If someone tells you their pronoun and it isn’t what you expected it to be, don’t say “how interesting” or ask a bunch of follow-up questions, at least not until you’ve gotten to know them well enough for a more personal exchange to be appropriate. And take the information seriously, writing it down if necessary so you’ll remember it—also a good tip for remembering name pronunciations that don’t come naturally. Misgendering is a harmful act, and calling people what they want to be called is a sign of respect that we can all take some extra time to practice, even if it means getting used to phrasings that may sound strange the first few times we use them, like using “they” as a singular pronoun. (Indeed, one good way to practice a couple of these skills—using singular “they” and not making assumptions—at the same time is to refer to everyone you’re talking about as a “they/them” until they tell you their gender pronouns are something different.)
Below are a few resources on gender-inclusive language. As with many DEI practices, the first step in becoming more intentional about the way we approach gender is to be mindful of what assumptions we may be making and what harm we may be causing without intent. Introducing ourselves with pronouns, or deleting “he” or “she” from an email where we realize we don’t know the gender identities of the people we’re talking about, may feel like another thing to think about when we’re already busy, or it may simply make us feel uncomfortable. But like any new skill, it will get easier with practice. And as lawyers who have mastered all manner of complex concepts, we are up to the challenge!
Guide to Gender-Diverse and Gender-Inclusive Pronouns – Emily Post, https://emilypost.com/advice/guide-to-using-pronouns-and-properly-addressing-our-gender-diverse-world
Inclusive Language 101: Gender, https://www.thenovacollective.com/inclusive-language-101-gender/
Gender-Inclusive Writing: Letters and Emails, https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/gender-inclusive-writing-letters-and-emails-new