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Should your email say if you're he, she or they?

Natalie Sherman


When Janice O'Neill, the director of talent management at property firm Cushman & Wakefield, urged staff in 2018 to "add their pronouns" to their email signatures, the responses were mixed.

Some told her they felt for the first time like they belonged at the firm. Others had no idea what she was talking about. 

Ms O'Neill was encouraging a relatively minor tweak: adding a line to an email signature that shares which personal pronoun a person uses - he, she, they or something else entirely - alongside other basics like their phone number. 

The practice, which started in academic and non-profit circles and is becoming increasingly common on the corporate world, is intended to make the workplace more comfortable for all - including staff who are transgender or non-binary, meaning they neither identify as male or female.

"The whole point really is that it's a way to send the message that gender is not binary. This is normalising that conversation," Ms O'Neill says. "This is a very easy way to send a message of inclusion." 

'Business imperative'

The push in the corporate world poses a stark contrast to the political arena, where transgender rights remain hotly contested. 

US President Donald Trump has moved to roll back protections and many states are considering proposals to limit trans rights. In the UK, the proposal to reform the Gender Recognition Act to make it easier for people to gain official recognition of their gender identities has prompted furious debate.

But companies increasingly see inclusion as a "business imperative", says Beck Bailey, who directs the workplace equality programme at the Human Rights Campaign civil rights organisation, which annually surveys large firms on items such as non-discrimination policies.

Activists blocking the street outside the Supreme Court.133 protesters were arrested blocking the street across the Supreme Court in an act of non violent civil disobedience, as hundreds of LGBTQ+ advocates convened in Washington, DC for a national day of action as a community response to the landmark Supreme Court hearings that could legalize workplace discrimination, primarily against LGBTQ+ people, on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender presentationImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionTransgender rights remain hotly contested

This year, more than 680 companies received a perfect score, up from 13 in 2002, when it was launched.

While the index doesn't specifically ask about personal pronoun email policies, they are top of mind for many firms, Mr Bailey says. He estimates that he speaks to companies about the issue two to three times a week.

"It's a very big conversation," he says. "Companies are saying, 'Okay, now we have an inclusive workplace, policies and practices. How do we really make that come to life within the walls of our business?' Putting pronouns in email signatures is one way."

'It's where we need to be'

Investment bank Goldman Sachs issued pronoun guidelines in November. Money manager TIAA has a policy; the practice has also been taken up at big US law firms. In the UK, Virgin Management and insurance giant Lloyds are among the firms that have made similar moves.

In part, Mr Bailey says firms have been spurred to act by political moves, including changes in some US states that allow people to select alternatives to male or female on their driver's licence.

Employers, competing to recruit staff amid historically low unemployment rates, are also shifting to accommodate a younger generation of workers, who report increasingly fluid views of sexuality and gender.


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    Company Culture
    Gender Equity/Diversity

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