Hi. My name is Pamela Fiehn. I’m a senior creative director here at AHA. My pronouns are she and her.
I’ll be upfront about that, as I wade into the topic of gender-neutral pronouns and the growing number of people whose pronouns go beyond the traditional he and she. I’m fairly new to this issue, and still learning. Just writing this post, I’ve come face-to-face with my own unconscious biases and rigid attitudes—including how I think about myself.
But as someone who is fascinated by language and how it both responds to and creates change, I’m so curious about how this shift in pronouns is reshaping the way we think about and relate to one another, in the workplace and beyond.
I’ve been hearing from my friends with teenagers and college-age kids about how gender-neutral or nonbinary people are becoming a part of their world and about their efforts to shift to using gender-neutral pronouns, such as they/them/their. But this isn’t just a young people’s issue. So it’s been surprising that I haven’t been hearing much about it professionally. Not from our HR folks at AHA or our clients, despite our work with several of them on their diversity and inclusion communications.
Businesses everywhere are responding to their employees’ requests to make their workplaces more inclusive and welcoming by doing everything from working to make their corporate boardrooms more diverse to providing gender-neutral bathrooms.
But as one of my colleagues reminded me, inclusion and welcome are often less about the big gestures than about the small, coded mentions that most people never hear. “I don’t remember the words,” she said. “But I do remember how safe and at home I felt at a meeting early in my time at AHA when someone in power made an inclusive reference to romantic partners that felt natural and authentic. It mattered so much.”
Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason, a nonbinary character from the Showtime series, Billions
Gender is hardwired in our speech. And that’s despite the fact that English is one of the less gendered languages. As Paulus van Horne points out in a recent The World in Words podcast, we’re gendering people all the time with our language, making assumptions about who is a he and who is a she, even when we don’t know anything about them.
Our words define and create order. They name people, places and things into (and out of) existence. They can include and exclude in a syllable’s time.
At AHA, we are writers, brand journalists, visual storytellers. And I’ve always believed that our work has the power to change the world. The words we choose tell a story about the world we see. And when we choose a limited range of words, it becomes a world that has places for men and women only. But, when we expand our vocabulary, our minds and the possibilities expand along with it.
What happens when we start to revise our corporate style guides with more inclusive pronouns and guidelines around titles? Not just Mr. and Ms., but Mx. as well? What happens when we start interviews by not only asking the interviewee’s name and role in their organization but also taking a moment to include “What are your pronouns?”
Our language has the power to create a world where everyone belongs.