The Importance of Pronoun Disclosure

A nonbinary actuarial analyst’s perspective Arius Johnson (they/them)

Photo: iStock.com/MrPliskin

When I graduated college and entered the workforce as a gender nonbinary1 actuarial analyst, I was nervous about coming out in my workplace. I interviewed and was hired using my deadname.2 It took encouragement from my supervisor to go by my actual name, Arius (yes, like the modeling software), before I felt comfortable doing so. I was still not out as nonbinary when I made this very public name change in the office. My work persona was still detached from my true self.

Before coming out as nonbinary, I recall an instance when my supervisor corrected a stranger about my pronouns via email. The stranger couldn’t tell my gender from my name (not a bug, but a feature!), and my supervisor told them to use binary pronouns that fit my work persona at the time. I felt that I was hiding myself and realized that I couldn’t stay in the closet forever.

Months later, I finally worked up the courage to come out. In practice, this mostly meant asserting my pronouns and getting my coworkers on board with using “they” and “them” when referring to me.

Up until this point, I had been in a bubble. In my personal life, my friends and partners had been using my pronouns with ease. I’d become accustomed to this level of understanding and respect. I was excited to be “out” in the office and let my coworkers know more about me. I invited questions and wanted to have a dialogue so my colleagues could understand a key aspect of my existence.

But the initial results of coming out in the office were less than ideal. People were afraid to ask questions at the risk of offending me, even as I encouraged their curiosity. I was getting misgendered3 every day and felt more alone than ever. I was fortunate to have the support of my supervisor, but even he took a while to consistently use the correct pronouns. I didn’t think I’d ever be accepted, let alone understood, by my colleagues. I cried in my cubicle. I cried in the bathroom. I cried in front of my supervisor. I felt deflated by the crushing weight of being so invisible.

Some days, I wondered if it was even worth it, if I should have stayed in the closet and just let them misgender me. If they didn’t know they were misgendering me, then it’s not disrespectful, right?

So, how do we solve this problem?

How can people feel confident that they’ll be accepted if they come out as transgender in the workplace? As you may have guessed, there is no single, simple answer to this question. But certain small acts can go a long way toward making your transgender colleagues more comfortable.

The simplest way is pronoun disclosure: Put your pronouns in your email signature and in your LinkedIn bio or name. I encourage you to add yours as soon as possible.

When we normalize disclosing our pronouns, we form habits that affirm our transgender friends and colleagues and make it easier for them to share their identities with us. It can make all the difference between feeling alone and feeling connected, between staying at a workplace and quitting.

In addition to disclosing your pronouns, make a habit to check the pronouns in other people’s email signatures before assuming theirs. Remember that you can’t tell someone’s gender based on their name or appearance. In an ideal world, we’d default to using gender-neutral words to describe folks until we find out their pronouns. In reality, our culture makes it difficult to not make assumptions or avoid putting people into gender-based boxes. Try to resist the urge. See how it feels to say, “that person over there” instead of “that man” or “that woman.”

When introducing yourself in a meeting, especially if there are new faces, say your name and pronouns. In Zoom meetings, for example, you can even add your pronouns to your name badge. Encourage your colleagues to do the same if they feel comfortable, but don’t force anyone to do so.

You may think that this is all going a little too far and that you don’t have any transgender colleagues, so it doesn’t apply to you. To that, I answer, “Not that you know of, and not yet.” Although you may not know it now, it’s possible that someone you already work with is transgender and doesn’t feel comfortable or safe coming out. As the actuarial career expands and time goes on, more transgender folks will inevitably join the workforce. I think you’ll find that adding your pronouns to your professional profile is a small, easy step with a possibly excellent payoff: It creates a welcoming, safe environment for your transgender colleagues.

As an actuary, I must include a caveat. I highly encourage cisgender4 folks to disclose their pronouns; however, if you are transgender, do whatever is most comfortable for you. Coming out is still not an easy process, and it is different for everyone. If you don’t feel safe disclosing your true pronouns right now, that’s OK!

Pronoun language and etiquette

To conclude, here are a few notes on the language and etiquette of pronoun usage:

  1. When asking someone what their pronouns are, try to avoid asking for preferred pronouns. The word “preferred” implies that certain pronouns are better than others, but that any pronouns would be fine. This is typically not the case, although some people are OK with any/all pronouns or more than one set of pronouns. “What are your pronouns?” and “How should I refer to you?” are great alternatives to asking for preferred pronouns. Pronouns are not a preference; they are powerful identity signifiers that are meaningful to the individual using them.
  2. The three most common sets of English language pronouns are “he/him/his,” “she/her/hers” and “they/them/theirs.” Many other pronoun sets exist, but they are relatively rare in comparison as they have been created by and for transgender people more recently. Less familiar pronouns are just as legitimate as the more common ones. Please be respectful.
  3. If you get someone’s pronouns wrong, don’t make a big show of apologizing or make excuses about why it’s difficult to use their pronouns. This can make your colleague feel uncomfortable and invalidated. Instead, just correct yourself and move on. Practice using their pronouns correctly when you’re alone to avoid making that mistake again.
  4. If you have questions, we are here to help.  Please reach out to the Sexuality and Gender Alliance of Actuaries (SAGAA) and be sure to follow our LinkedIn page and Instagram to learn about our upcoming events and initiatives.
Arius Johnson (they/them) is a board member for the Sexuality and Gender Alliance of Actuaries (SAGAA) and an actuarial analyst in Tampa, Florida.

References:

  1. 1. Nonbinary (adjective): An umbrella term that describes anyone whose gender falls outside of the binary categories of man and woman.
  2. 2. Deadname (noun): A name, usually assigned at birth, that a person no longer wants to be called.
  3. 3. Misgender (verb): To use incorrectly gendered terms for someone; for example, using “he” pronouns for someone whose pronouns are “she/her/hers.”
  4. 4. Cisgender (adjective): Describes someone whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth.

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