Singular They is Okay: Practical Approaches for Creating Inclusivity for all Genders
By Melanie Miller & Amanda Schagane
Have you heard that ”they” is now used as a singular pronoun? Even the 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is on board with the use of “they” to refer to one person to encourage authors to write from a place of inclusivity and respect.
As a career development practitioner, you might have noticed a significant uptick in the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, as well as in the sharing of one’s own gender pronouns in email signatures and introductions. You might also have seen an increase in physical symbols of inclusivity, such as “Safe Space” badges on an office door, representing nonverbal, or environmental, ways to communicate alignment with gender diversity.
You might already incorporate these approaches but have questions about the nuances of gender-inclusivity. Or perhaps, you are a beginner and need to know the basics. Through definitions of concepts and strategies offered, this article aims to enhance your knowledge of gender-inclusive environments.
Understanding the Difference between Gender and Sexuality
When well-intentioned practitioners think about LGBTQ+ and inclusivity, they might think only about sexual orientation, which is a part of individual identity that includes “a person’s sexual and emotional attraction to another person and the behavior and/or social affiliation that may result from this attraction” (APA, 2015a, p. 862). Gender is a little more complex as it includes gender identity and gender expression.
Gender identity is a person’s internal understanding of their gender. Someone can think and feel “I am a woman” or “I am not a woman.” We cannot see gender identity by looking at someone, so a person’s own statement of their personal pronouns matters.
Gender expression refers to how a person externally demonstrates their gender through gender markers, such as clothing, hairstyle, mannerisms, names, and pronouns. People can easily be incorrectly stereotyped by their gender markers. Someone named Alex who often wears flannels, has a short haircut, and likes dirt biking could be a man, woman, or non-binary. Non-binary is an umbrella term for many gender identities but usually means that someone does not identify exclusively as a woman or man.
Making the wrong assumptions about someone’s gender can be hurtful and make people feel unsafe or unwanted. It is important for career practitioners to educate themselves about gender diverse clients and the barriers they may face to employment and to be intentional in interactions with people of all genders.
What are Personal Gender Pronouns?
A personal pronoun is a short word used in place of a person’s name to refer to that person. The most commonly used singular personal pronouns are she, her, hers, he, him, and his. Increasingly common singular personal pronouns are they, them, and theirs.
- She, her, and hers is most often used by people with gender identities of woman/girl.
- He, him, and his is most often used by people with gender identities of man/boy.
- They, them, and theirs are most often used by people with non-binary gender identities.
There are many other genders and personal pronouns people may use, too. The Human Rights Campaign provides a helpful glossary on their website at https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms . A good starting point for understanding singular “they” is section 4.18 of the APA Publication Manual. While the manual focuses on guidance for writing style, the examples offer a helpful foundation for all forms of your communication with clients.
Do’s and Don’ts of Asking about Personal Pronouns
Since you cannot always tell someone’s gender by looking at them, it is important to ask for personal pronouns in ways that do not only target people whose gender expression confuses you.
A good way to do this is to lead by example. Share your personal pronouns when introducing yourself. Try “Hello, my name is Ann Sample, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers.” Show that you understand the importance of personal pronouns before you ask other people for theirs.
Then, ask people their pronouns in a way that is appropriate and helpful, such as, “What are your gender pronouns?” or “I don’t want to make any assumptions, what are your gender pronouns?” This might feel awkward at times, but asking pronouns usually means a great deal to people who are gender diverse and can make them feel more comfortable.
Avoid asking, "Are you transgender, transitioning, or non-binary?" You might be tempted to ask about transition status or gender reassignment surgery, but these are private matters. If you are concerned about missing key information, ask, “Is there any additional context that may be relevant to our work together and to your career development?”
Simple Strategies for Gender-inclusive Interpersonal Communications
You can communicate your personal allyship by using some or all of these best practices:
- Include pronouns in your everyday introduction. Get in the habit of consistently
including them anytime you introduce yourself or provide a bio for a speaking engagement.
- Add your pronouns to your email signature, as seen below. If adding gender pronouns is less common in your setting, consider adding a “What’s this?” link to https://www.mypronouns.org/ as a way to address any questions on the front end.
- Set your Zoom® default name to include your pronouns. Inside the profile settings options, you can add them at the end of your last name to populate automatically each time you open Zoom.
- Add your pronouns to the end of your last name in your LinkedIn profile.
- Add a question in your standard intake form or intake interview to ask for personal pronouns.
Environmental Strategies for Creating Inclusivity
Research shows that workplaces that offer an identity-affirming environment enhance LGBTQ+ people’s career development (Cheng et al., 2017). This means it is also important to communicate allyship in career development environments. You can communicate identity affirmation through nonverbal, or environmental, cues by using any of these best practices:
- Consider assessment choices carefully. Many psychological and career development assessment instruments do not include gender-diverse language and non-binary psychometrics, making it inappropriate for non-binary clients (Cameron & Stinson, 2019). For example, many commonly used career assessments require participants to choose a gender as a starting point. In those cases, you can print both female and male results reports to interpret both sets of data with your non-binary clients.
- Have handouts, links, and other resources available for transgender and non-binary clients on common concerns in job search, as recommended by Motulsky & Frank (2019).
- Go beyond interpersonal communications by sprinkling a few signals of inclusivity in your workspace. A small rainbow sticker on your reusable water bottle or safe space sign visible in your videoconference camera view can offer subtle cues.
Consider these strategies for creating a welcoming environment for all genders. After all, we want everyone to know they are welcome!
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). Author.
Cameron, J. J., & Stinson, D. A. (2019). Gender (mis) measurement: Guidelines for respecting gender diversity in psychological research. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(11), e12506. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12506
Cheng, J., Klann, E. M., Zounlome, N. O., & Chung, Y. B. (2017). Promoting affirmative career development and work environment for LGBT individuals. In K. Maree (Ed.), Psychology of career adaptability, employability and resilience (pp. 265-282). Springer.
Motulsky, S. & Frank, E. (2019). Creating positive spaces for career counseling with transgender clients. Career Convergence. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/307333/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/true
Melanie Miller, M.S. (she/her/hers), a recent Graduate Assistant in Alumni Career Services at the University of Kentucky, is currently a PHD student in Counseling Psychology. In all areas of her work as a researcher, clinician, teacher, and advocate she specializes in access to satisfactory employment and mental health treatment for underserved groups. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/melaniemiller931/
Amanda Schagane, MS.Ed., CCC, CCSCC, (she/her/hers) is Associate Director of Alumni Career Services at the University of Kentucky. She does training and development consulting with organizations to boost employee engagement and productivity. Amanda can be reached at email@example.com or on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/amandaschagane/