Why using the right gender pronouns matters

He/his, her/hers, they/them, ze/zim … these are just a few of the gender pronouns people choose to reflect their gender identity. A person’s gender identity is their internal sense of gender, regardless of the sex assigned to them at birth. Using the right pronouns is important to fostering an inclusive, respectful relationship or community. Keep reading to learn why it’s so important and what you can do as an individual or as an institution to be more gender-inclusive.

Special thanks to Rosalie M. Rodriguez, Senior Associate Dean of Students for Equity & Inclusion, Director of the Butler Center, Colorado College and member of the Kognito Advisory Group for Inclusion and Belonging, who spoke with us about the importance of gender pronouns to inform this post. 

Why are gender pronouns important? 

Using the personal pronouns someone has chosen is a way to show respect and honor their identity. Just as you would show respect by calling someone by their chosen name, you should respect their chosen gender pronouns. Ignoring these preferred pronouns can be offensive and imply the oppressive notion that intersex, transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people do not or should not exist.

In a learning or work environment, using the right pronouns can help individuals feel seen and heard. This is important in any environment, but in the context of school or work, it gives individuals more confidence and assurance that they can be themselves, and allows them to contribute more to the group. 

One study found that when you affirm someone’s personal pronouns, it lowers depression, raises self-esteem, and can help others feel comfortable with their appearance and gender identity. 

Not sure how to use personal pronouns? Here’s a helpful guide from mypronouns.org. 

Why is it harmful to assume gender pronouns? 

Making an assumption about one’s gender implies that people must look or act a certain way to fit into that gender. Pronouns and gender perceptions are important to our sense of self-worth, so when we are misgendered, it can be damaging—particularly if it happens on a recurring or even daily basis. 

“When you are someone who does not fit in the binary, [being misgendered] can make you feel excluded or invisible or ignored, and that can be damaging to your sense of self-worth, belonging, and inclusion in a space,” said Rosalie. 

What if you accidentally use the wrong pronoun? 

If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, it is best to correct, apologize, and move on. Apologize one-on-one after the event and commit to doing better. For example, you might say, “I’m sorry I used the wrong pronouns for you earlier. I know you go by ‘she/her’ and I will work harder to get it right next time.” 

There are also some things you should not do. You should not get defensive, you should not linger on the subject long or draw attention to your mistake, and you should not make it about you. Apologize and vow to do better in the future. This is how we grow! 

What can institutions do to be inclusive of all genders? 

There are some simple steps institutions can make to foster a more gender-inclusive culture. It’s important to be consistent. At Colorado College, Rosalie said they provide students the ability to log into their online profiles and change their demographic information at any time. “That’s so refreshing to me because our identities are not static … they change,” she said. 

Some other ideas include: 

  • Have a pronoun practice, which means encouraging (but not mandating) that everyone introduce themselves with their pronouns to normalize the behavior 
  • Encourage pronoun use in email signatures, business cards, and name tags 
  • Only have preferred names listed on the roster, not legal names 
  • Ask students to email their preferred name and pronouns before class begins 
  • Require faculty to complete training, such as Kognito’s Cultivating Inclusive Communities online program 

Cultivating Inclusive Communities: An online program for faculty and staff 

Cultivating Inclusive Communities is Kognito’s program for higher education faculty and staff. This 30-minute online program covers important topics including: 

  • Inclusion and Belonging 
  • Anticipating Impact and Using Identity Terms 
  • Conversations Across Differences 
  • Unconscious Bias 

Learn more about this immersive online experience or request a demo at Kognito.com. 

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