Language Matters

colorful speech bubbles with personal pronounsThe Contra Costa County workforce is diversifying – slowly beginning to reflect the society in which we operate in terms of race, gender, ability, ethnicity, age, class, spiritual practice, and sexual orientation. Even so, our communications often fail to recognize the diversity of the workforce, hence encouraging bias and discouraging inclusivity.

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (Gov. Code §12940 et seq.) makes it illegal for an employer to fire, fail to hire, discriminate, or engage in harassment in any way against an employee because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or one who is or perceived to be transgender or gender non-conforming. This includes to discrimination or harassment against an employee who indicates a pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity including refusing to acknowledge the indicated pronoun.

Language plays a critical role in how individuals interpret the workplace, including how individuals think and behave. Even for the best-meaning person, word choice can reflect unconscious assumptions and bias which can be interpreted as discriminatory. Engaging inclusive communication, is a simple task with endless rewards. Gender-inclusive language enhances trust and confidence of employees while at the same time, combats unconscious prejudice that can harm an employee and potentially result in a claim of discrimination and harassment against an employer. The following are a few initial steps that can be taken by individuals and employers to support gender inclusivity through language in the workplace.

Never Assume Someone’s Gender Identity

Do not assume a person’s gender identity based on gender expression (e.g., behaviors and dress.) Word choice can unconsciously reinforce stereotypes and assumptions. Ask yourself about unconscious assumptions and unconscious bias. By refraining from making assumptions, such as giving a person an opportunity to share their pronouns, you demonstrate that you did not assume their gender identity based on appearance.

Offer Your Pronouns

Gender inclusion can start by offering your own pronouns. (i.e.: Good morning, my name is Beth, my pronouns are she/her/hers.) By engaging this introduction, you are welcoming another to share their pronouns if they wish to do so, permitting the person to be seen for who they are. Pronouns can also be offered through other manners including an email/slack signature, staff directory, name tags and social media profiles.

Gender Neutral Language

When engaging a written or verbal communication, avoid exclusionary forms of language. Look at your audience, an individual or a group of people whose pronouns you have not been told or is of mix-gender, then assess your communication. To avoid exclusion as well as assumptions, it is best to use gender-neutral language at all times. For example, there is a wide range of gender-neutral greeting terms available including, “Good morning”, “friend(s),” “folks,” “all,” or “y’all.” Further, when possible use substitutions for work terms that begin or end with “man”, chairman v. chair, foreman v. supervisor, and Congressman v. member of Congress. Womxn can also be used as an alternative spelling of woman which is inclusive of trans and nonbinary women, designed to avoid suggestions of sexism perceived in the sequences of “man” and “men.”

Education & Training

Appreciating and respecting diverse pronouns and gender identities is a small, though some argue a significant first step toward inclusivity. These steps should be conducted with careful thought. For example, the offer to share pronouns must always feel and be optional. Further, a person’s pronouns can change over time and they may change based on context as well. Below is a preliminary list of terms to aid in initial education efforts. Workplace training and assessment of the employer’s practices about gender, gender inclusivity and gender literacy should be engaged by qualified professional. Coupled with proper training, employees should know and understand the employer’s policy, that it is in place and will be enforced.


Cisgender: A person whose gender identity and expression are aligned with the gender they are assigned at birth.

Gender: A set of cultural identities, expressions and roles – codified as feminine or masculine – that are assigned to people based upon interpretations of their bodies, and more specifically, their sexual and reproductive anatomy. Since gender is a social construction, it is possible to reject or modify the gender one is assigned at birth, and to develop, live and express a gender that feels truer and just to oneself.

Gender Binary: A socially constructed system of viewing gender as consisting solely of two categories, “male” and “female,” in which no other possibilities for gender are believed to exist. The gender binary is a restrictive and inaccurate way to view gender because it does not take into account the diversity of gender identities and gender expressions among all people. The gender binary is oppressive to anyone that does not conform to dominate societal gender norms.

Gender Expression: The multiple ways (e.g., behaviors, dress, etc.) in which a person may choose to communicate gender to oneself and/or to others.

Gender Identity: A personal conception of oneself as male, female, both, neither and/or another gender. Gender identity can be the same as or different from the gender a person is assigned at birth. Gender identity is a matter of self-identification; no one can tell anyone else how to identify or what terms to use. Gender identity is different from sexual orientation, and everyone has both gender identity and a sexual orientation.

Gender Non-binary: An umbrella term for gender identities used by people whose gender is not exclusively male or female.

Gender Nonconforming: A descriptive term and/or identity of a person who has a gender identity and/or expression that does not conform to the traditional expectations of the gender they are assigned at birth. People who identify as “gender nonconforming” or “gender variant” may or may not also identify as “transgender.”

Pronouns: The pronouns or set of pronouns that a person identifies with and would like to be called when their proper name is not being used. Examples include “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” “ze/hir/hirs,” and “they/them/theirs.” Some people prefer no pronouns at all.

Transgender: An umbrella term describing people whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth.

The above steps will not hold true for every person and every situation, though they are worth considering as individuals, employees and employers work towards gender equity in language. There are immeasurable benefits to implanting language gender equality policies in the workplace including fostering a positive work environment for all. As you consider how to implement gender equity in language into your daily life, consider the words of Philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

[1] Workplace guidelines for attorneys extend beyond the FEHA. In October 2018, the California Supreme Court revised the Judicial Code of Ethics to include gender identity and gender expression as protected characteristics that cannot be used to harass, discriminate against or harbor bias against any person. The next month the California State Bar released its amended ethical rules for attorneys with a similar revision.
[2] Recognizing the importance of gender inclusivity and literacy, companies are joining this important conversation and movement including the following who have made changes in their workplaces: TIAA launched gender-identity awareness guidelines; Intuit introduced an optional pronoun field for employees in their Slack profile; and, Workday whose clients include Amazon, Target, IBM and Bank or America, added to their profiles 20 options for pronouns and gender identities. “The End of Pronoun Presumption, Those she/her/hers at the end of email messages are more than a passing trend.” Qaurtz at Work. By, Lila MacLellan, June 24, 2019
[3] GLSEN Pronouns: A Resource, Supporting Transgender and Gender Nonconforming (GNC) Educators and Students