How we talk about gender has really changed this year. For proof, look no further than the recent introduction of gender pronouns options by Instagram and LinkedIn. Then there was the UK Census, which for the first time enabled us to truly reflect our gender identity thanks to doing away with the old male and female tick box.

Why pronouns matter

For some, pronouns are confusing. If you’re not trans, non-binary, gender queer, or gender fluid – or look quite obviously male or female – you might not understand why it’s important to use pronouns.

Yet they are fundamentally important.

When not using someone’s name, she/he/they/zie/xe are the main way we identify people in everyday conversations. Just like our names, our pronouns are key aspects of our sense of identity. They articulate who we are and how the outside world should recognise and address us.

Imagine how it would feel if your friends or colleagues started to refer to you as ‘she’ when you identify as ‘he’, or ‘he’ when you identify as ‘she’. It might seem trivial to start with, but over time continued misgendering can impact your emotions, sense of belonging, and even mental health.

Misgendering someone can be invalidating, setting a precedent that that person’s identity isn’t respected or recognised. Further, being open about your pronouns encourages others to feel comfortable speaking up about their own – which, ultimately, helps ensure they are identified correctly.

Whether in the workplace or on social media, promoting the use of pronouns is therefore vital for building a culture of respect and belonging – not just for the LGBTQ+ community but, also, for anyone who challenges the traditional model of gender identity and expression.

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.

Misgendering someone can be invalidating, setting a precedent that that person’s identity isn’t respected or recognised. Further, being open about your pronouns encourages others to feel comfortable speaking up about their own – which, ultimately, helps ensure they are identified correctly.

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?’

As lead of Unite, Wunderman Thompson’s LGBTQ+ advocacy group, a key objective for us this year is to educate our colleagues about the importance of pronouns and encourage them to display their own pronouns in their email signatures. And it’s encouraging to see from the data we’ve collected that others may be actively looking to publicly display their pronouns too– searches for pronouns in email signatures is up 500%.

Celebrities are steering (and stirring) the conversation

Globally, verified users 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 being 12 times more likely to include their pronouns in their Instagram bio than non-verified UK users.

High-profile celebrities who’ve helped drive the conversation include singer Sam Smith, who publicly adopted they/them pronouns in 2019, and Eddie Izzard, who chose she/her pronouns in late 2020.

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".

Such behaviour is likely to breed more ignorance and prejudice, creating greater barriers, exclusion, fear, and shame for anyone who identifies as anything other than the gender they were born with, our findings show. When Piers Morgan posted, we saw negative sentiments around the topic increase by 9%, with many tweeting about pronouns being ‘stupid’ and ‘confusing’.

Where celebs go the rest of us follow. But Piers Morgan notwithstanding, the bigger picture now is that if you’re still trying to maintain the position that pronouns are ‘stupid’ and ‘confusing’ you’re out of step with what’s happening right now.

Privilege might be influencing perceptions

As well as being as relevant to 2021 as a mother-in-law joke, pronoun refuseniks may just be revealing a lot about their own backgrounds. Members of what are widely considered to be more privileged groups are more likely to express negative takes on using pronouns on social media, our research shows.

Caucasian people made up 66% of those with negative sentiment around using pronouns and were 5% less likely to discuss pronouns on Twitter, for example, compared to Asian people, who are 72% more likely to discuss the topic.

Similarly, those who identify as female are 37% more likely to be driving conversations about pronoun use than the Twitter average. The most active supporters of pronouns tend to include words such as lesbian, BLM, bi, gay and queer in their bios, as well as the rainbow flag. (Your author herself is a queer, cis female and ally to the trans community.)

I appreciate that – Morgan aside – most people would never want to offend intentionally. But we all have a responsibility to understand our own privilege and biases. The onus to fight for change cannot simply be the job of marginalised groups, or else the inclusive action is always likely to receive the minority vote.

Jokes have gone too far

When we looked at the conversations that had a negative take on using pronouns, we discovered that the main complaints people have is that they “don’t care” or that people who talk about the issue are merely virtue signalling.

Maybe you don’t care about whether someone wants to be called she or he or they. But I’m pretty sure you do care about people who’ve faced the heartbreak of losing a loved one to suicide and you might even know first had the pain of living with mental illness.

The fact is that sexual minority individuals who face daily prejudice and exclusion have been found to experience issues with anxiety and depression more than double the levels of their heterosexual counterparts. More likely to have been exposed to trauma, they also have higher rates of suicidality.

Belittling someone’s pronouns may seem like a joke, but it can have damaging – even fatal consequences.

On the flipside, there was better news when we looked at the 729,000 mentions of gender pronouns on Twitter in the UK so far this year. On the whole, we are twice as likely to see them in a positive context than a negative one – as people celebrating the normalisation of using pronouns today and expressing support for others doing the same, our AI sentiment model showed.

We’re all influencers

You don’t have to work for a brand or be a celebrity to make an impact. Thanks to social media, we all have the power to positively influence others around us – 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?


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