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Pronouns - What are they and why do they matter?

By Jason Wheatley 

Halifax Building Society made the news last week by deciding that staff can choose the pronouns they want to be known by. It generated a lot of column inches and a lot of debate. Why? And what does that mean for a company like ours?

I’m not proud to admit that when I first heard about people choosing their pronouns a few years ago, I didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about. I thought it wasn’t really relevant in terms of things that were important to think about. I was happy to use specific pronouns if someone asked me, but I didn’t really see the point.

Before I go further into why that changed, what actually are pronouns?

Pronouns are simply the way we assign gender to people. “I saw her today”, or “He went to the football” and “Have you heard from them yet?” Until recently, most people chose to publicly identify people in a binary him/her way. The tolerance of modern society for more gender-fluid identification, however, has seen an array of pronouns become available from they/them to ze/hir. This doesn’t mean that people who identify as gender fluid are ‘new’. It just means that language has adapted to allow people more freedom to reflect their felt reality in public.

Nor is it a fad. Our research as a company has shown us that science backs up the gender as a fluid spectrum rather than a fixed identity idea. One paper said:

“Science tells us that gender is a non-binary construct, allowing for a spectrum of gender identities, which may not align with sex assigned at birth. Sex assigned at birth is not the same as gender identity”.

In the past, it didn’t occur to me how important it was to other people to have a way to express their lived identity. Of course it didn’t. I’m a heterosexual man in a patriarchal world. I have always fitted into the he/him/his expression of gender. Having children go through their teens and express their and their friends’ individuality differently really made me think about it and educate myself. I learned that using someone’s preferred pronouns is really important. It helps people to understand that:

  • I respect them and their wishes
  • I understand that some people’s reality is not binary and nor should it be
  • I understand that it can be critically important for a person’s mental health to be visible in a world that others them

As my wife pointed out to me; if someone spent every day referring to me as Julie instead of Jason, and every time I corrected them, they told me that my experience of who I am wasn’t important to them and they refused to call me Jason - that would have a devastating effect on me.

I don’t claim to be an expert in these matters, but this makes total sense to me.

The important takeaway here is that if I tell someone who I am and how I wish to be addressed, it is important that I am listened to and my wishes are respected. It doesn’t matter if it is important to YOU. It matters that it is important to ME.

As a result, at Wyser, flagging up our pronouns has become part of our normal, everyday interactions. We believe it matters that our staff feel supported to be exactly who they are, wherever they are, because we are a company that believes in building a community as much as a business. Naturally, we extend that courtesy to our clients and our customers.

The language we build expresses the world we live in, (being experts in natural language processing and AI, we know this to be true and work with this every day). Using the correct pronouns costs us nothing and offers us everything. We are working towards a world in which every person feels safe and valued, and this is a small but significant part of that work.

At Wyser, we celebrate and welcome inclusivity and diversity and we are building it into the core identity of our company.

If you want to work with people who care and respect you at your core, feel free to contact us anytime for an informal chat.