“We all have a responsibility to understand our own privilege and biases”
BY ANT JACKSON
How we talk about gender has really changed this year. For example, the UK Census truly reflected gender identity for the first time beyond the previous male and female only tick boxes, which formerly excluded trans and non-binary people.
It proved pronouns are important. Beyond using each other’s names, pronouns (she/he/they/zie/xe, for example) are the main way we identify people in everyday conversations. Our name and pronouns are key aspects of our identity. They articulate who we are and how the outside world should recognise and address us.
If you’re not trans, non-binary, genderqueer, or gender fluid, you might not understand why it’s important to use the right pronouns.
But imagine how it would feel if your friends or colleagues started to refer to you as “he” when you identify as “she”. It might seem trivial to start with, but if this misgendering continued it could eventually impact your emotions, sense of self and even your mental health.
Misgendering someone can make a person feel invalidated and that their identity isn’t respected or recognised. But by being open about your own preferred pronouns, you’re encouraging others to feel comfortable speaking up about being identified correctly.
Whether in the workplace or on social media, promoting the use of pronouns is vital for building a culture of respect and belonging – not just for the LGBTQI+ community, but also for anyone who challenges traditional models of gender identity and expression.
The growing number of companies now encouraging the use of pronouns in email signatures – and several social networks, including Instagram and LinkedIn, which have added pronouns to user profiles – is a good thing.
After a slow start, the growing number of companies now encouraging the use of pronouns in email signatures – a fundamental building block that guards against misgendering in all communications, including face to face – should therefore be acknowledged as a positive thing.
And the momentum is now set to continue, data from the Wunderman Thompson – the agency I work for – suggests.
People are getting more curious
So far in 2021, online searches for and around pronouns is up 52% year on year – a more than doubling since 2016. From these searches, the top three were for pronouns themselves, with people searching for “they/them pronouns”; “she/they pronouns”; and “she/her pronouns”.
Curiosity around how we should identify personally is increasing too, with the fifth most asked question on Google being: “what are my pronouns?”
Celebs are steering (and stirring) the conversation
Since Eddie Izzard publicly announced her pronouns, we have seen queries about the topic rising. Sam Smith’s pronouns also feature heavily in searches, and they’re also the most followed person on Twitter and Instagram to feature pronouns in their bio.
In fact, those in the public eye are far more likely to use their pronouns than the general public.
Verified users globally on Instagram are more than twice as likely to include their pronouns in their bios than non-verified users. This difference is even greater in the UK, with verified UK users 12 times more likely to include their pronouns in their bios than non-verified UK users.
Some conversations are more helpful than others, of course.
When singer Demi Lovato spoke out about their own pronouns, former Good Morning Britain co-anchor Piers Morgan quickly took to Twitter with a tweet that mocked Lovato’s gender identity, implying that they were an “attention seeking celebrity”.
When Piers Morgan posted, we saw negative sentiments around the topic increase by 9%, with many tweeting about pronouns being “stupid” and “confusing”.
Privilege might be influencing perceptions online
Whilst the majority of people on social media would never want to offend intentionally, those with lived experience of exclusion or oppression are more likely to empathise with others who may feel excluded or oppressed and are more likely to act as allies online.
It also explains why the most active supporters of pronouns tend to include rainbow flags and words such as “lesbian”, “BLM”, “bi”, “gay” and “queer” in their bios.
When we looked at privilege more closely, Caucasian people made up 66% of those using negative sentiments around pronouns, showing that perhaps people’s white privilege (and possibly lack of awareness about their own biases) could be impacting marginalised groups more than expected.
Caucasian people were also 5% less likely to discuss pronouns on Twitter, compared to Asian people, who are 72% more likely to discuss the topic.
There were similar themes between those who identify as male and female. Those who identify as female were 37% more likely to be driving conversations around pronouns than the Twitter average. No matter what your ethnicity, sexuality or gender orientation, we all have a responsibility to understand our own privilege and biases.
Change is positive
In the last year alone, there were 729,000 mentions of gender pronouns on Twitter in the UK, up 24% year-on-year. During these conversations, pronouns were twice as likely to be seen in a positive context than a negative one, with the main drivers of positivity around people celebrating the normalisation of pronoun use, supporting others for sharing their pronouns and the importance of using pronouns.
The main drivers of negative discussions were around people using the wrong pronouns to describe others, calling pronouns “virtue signalling” or saying that they do not care about them.
The more we educate one another about the importance of pronouns, the more we’ll be able to debunk negative perceptions – and you don’t have to be a celebrity to make an impact. We all have the power to positively influence others – no matter how we identify.
So, whether you choose to introduce yourself with your pronouns in your next conversation, add them to your email signature, update your Insta bio, or commit to calling someone out next time they make a “joke”, what change will you make?
About the author
Ant (she/her) is a senior copywriter at marketing communications agency Wunderman Thompson and lead at Wunderman Thompson Unite, the agency’s LGBTQ+ advocacy group. She also sits on WPP Unite’s central committee. Most known for writing LIDL’s tagline “Big On Quality, Lidl On Price”, Ant has over eight years’ experience creating campaigns and writing copy for some of the world’s leading brands, including Airbnb, Bridgestone, The Olympic Games, Sothebys and UEFA.