Because pronouns can save lives
This insightful conversation was with Nate Shalev, an expert in workplace inclusivity based in the USA. Nate talked me through how we can make others feel safe by learning to use more inclusive language.
Regular readers will know my name is Toby but not necessarily that my pronouns are he/him. It will become very apparent as this conversation with Nate Shalev unfolds why I’ve shared my pronouns.
I came across Nate on LinkedIn, and it was a post they put out on LinkedIn that got my attention. Before we started our conversation, I wanted to share Nate’s post. I think it’s insightful and I found it moving as well.
“Yesterday morning, the first thing I saw on LinkedIn was an inflammatory viral post about why the author thought pronouns were absurd. I could have responded that using pronouns saves lives. I could have responded to say that LGBTQ students feel safer when they have an inclusive curriculum. But I didn’t. I didn’t respond. I didn’t read the comments. I just blocked him.
There is a time and a place to educate, to redirect, to challenge. I’m good at it. It’s why I started my own consulting business where I do just that.
But this was not the time for any of that. Most social media posts aren’t. To put it frankly the post was not worth my energy. Sometimes people tell me that they are surprised that I don’t have more hateful comments on my LinkedIn posts about being trans and queer. The truth is that I do. I just delete/report/block very quickly.
There aren’t many places where I can almost guarantee the safety of queer and trans people but this LinkedIn page is one of them.
This is a place of solidarity for all those who have to work through extra challenges just because of who they are and how they exist in the world.
This is a place of growth and learning for all those who want to make their workplaces work better and subsequently, their communities work better.”
I found that a hugely powerful and moving LinkedIn post, so I reached out to Nate because I really, really wanted to get in contact and have this conversation.
To start my questions to Nate off, I asked them to introduce themselves a little more.
‘Yes, my name is Nate Shalev, my pronouns are they and them. I’m an inclusivity expert and I spent over a decade in the social impact space. Then I founded my own consulting business called Revel Impact.
I focus on helping companies create workplace cultures where both people and businesses can thrive. I believe deeply that work doesn’t begin or end at work. As I said in the LinkedIn post, I think work there are a few places that we can control and work is one of them. It’s where we can create cultures, not just where people feel safe, but where they can really thrive.’
Next, I asked Nate to explain some of the fundamentals by asking, ‘What are pronouns?’
‘Within language, pronouns are just words that we used to refer to someone or something. In English, pronouns are used to refer to people and they become really important because they’re gendered. So different languages have different ways of doing this, but in English, our pronouns are gendered. That means that when you’re referring to somebody by their pronouns, we’re also in some ways affirming their identity, or if we’re not using the pronouns they want, we are not affirming their identity. So that’s the reason why the pronouns conversation is so integral to our identities because they are referring to us as people.’
What Nate says reminds me of some research that was done where it was between German and Spanish, and how people describe objects that are gendered. I am hoping to get this the right way around. But I think it was in Spanish, let’s say a bridge is masculine, so people described it as strong and robust, and then in German, let’s say it’s feminine, they described it as elegant and beautiful. That example just goes to show how powerful language can be, and particularly when we look at gendered language.
Nate agreed. ‘I would say language and labels overall, they are just ways that we are using to try to identify things, but they also shape the way that we understand each other. They’re imperfect, but also really useful tools when we’re trying to know who we are. Right? I think folks think that the LGBTQ community can be very complicated because we got all these letters and what do we do? But at its core, we’re just trying to figure out who we love, how we want to exist in the world. We want to understand who we are and then we find the label that best aligns with that. I think it’s similar with pronouns as well.
My audience for my podcast includes people like heads of HR, diversity and inclusion practitioners and people that work in learning and development. I asked Nate, why from that audience’s perspectives, are pronouns so important in the world of work and the organisations that they might be working in?
‘People work best when they feel included. Let’s say somebody’s applying to your workplace and on your application, you don’t have a space for pronouns. I apply and I speak with a recruiter the first time and they’re not using my correct pronouns. I’m automatically going to feel like this workplace is not the place for me.
Then let’s say that the recruiter happens to ask my pronouns, and they use them but when I get into the office, on my very first day I have people speaking to or misgendering me. Again, all of a sudden, I’m going to feel like I don’t have a place here and I can’t do my best work there. Pronouns help affirm our identity and help us feel included in the workplace. It’s really important that we do because LGBTQ folks are great employees because we are humans in the world.
We want to make sure that we include everyone who might be able to contribute to a workplace. And that includes folks who might use different pronouns than what other people might assume. We all use pronouns. We all have pronouns that we want to be called. So, let’s say, no matter what pronoun you use, think about it, and think about somebody calling you the opposite, just because they assume that that’s what you would want to be. If you go by he, just imagine somebody calling you she because they assumed that’s what you are. It would just feel really bad. Like it just doesn’t feel good. So that’s the flip — that we all have them. It’s not just for the LGBT community, everyone has a pronoun that they use.’
I liked Nate’s practical example of capturing pronouns in recruitment and better still making sure that that gets handed over to the onboarding people for when people first start with an organisation. I asked Nate to tell me other ways in which pronouns might show up in the world of work.
‘I think it’s holistic. Recruiting, onboarding, and making sure that managers and leaders and that everyone has the training to make sure that your teams feel inclusive. I think pronouns are a really easy starting point because they are what we’re going to be called all the time.
It’s something that needs to be frequently reinforced. When we’re in our one-on-ones. When we’re in our meetings. But that could even be broadened out to gender inclusion overall. if you are a team leader, planning an event, make sure that you have name tags that have pronouns so that everyone can feel included. Or making sure that a team event is at a venue with gender neutral restrooms.
It is setting the intention and making sure that they are present everywhere so everyone knows them and everyone can feel good about how they’re being referred to.’
I was curious to find out from Nate’s experience and their work with organisations what would be the best practical actions that employers can take to be more inclusive around gender and addressing gender equality in the workplace?
‘This can be granular to the teams that you’re on. No matter where you are in your organisation, you can have an impact on gender inclusion. If you are in marketing, you can make sure that your marketing materials always include gender diverse folks. You can make sure that your messaging is gender diverse and that if you’re talking about a community that you make sure to include that community in whatever you’re talking about. If you are a manager on a team, making sure that everything you’re doing is gender inclusive.
For example, if you’re doing a team building activity and you want folks to talk about childhood stories; you’d need to be aware that for trans folk childhood stories might not be comfortable to share.
And if you’re in HR, it’s one of the places that you can have the biggest impact. I’m based in New York, and I know that the US is different in terms of our healthcare from the UK but over here because you have employer sponsored healthcare, you can be making sure that there are trans inclusive and queer inclusive healthcare benefits. Any efforts you make for gender inclusion will benefit everyone. If you were including fertility care and adoption benefits, anything that is going also be more for gender inclusion is also going to benefit everyone.’
I’ve talked to quite a lot of people who sometimes feel awkward around using pronouns that don’t feel natural to them. I think some people are so used to just using he and she and those pronouns that they line up with what they expect somebody’s pronouns to be. Then when they meet somebody who uses a pronoun different to what they would expect, they have kind of feelings of awkwardness and fear of putting their foot in it. I asked Nate what their thoughts are around that and how could people navigate that choppy water?
‘I would encourage people to think about the feeling that they want to provide for somebody else, meaning that they you want somebody to feel included. You want somebody to feel good about the conversation that you’re having, so it’s okay that you’re feeling awkward. I would focus on what you want to create, not what you might be doing wrong. Awareness is okay. Language is always evolving to meet our needs, who we are and the societies that we ‘re living in at the current moment. It’s okay that language evolves and that you might be getting used to something.
For they, them pronouns, I always encourage folks to think that they do this all the time. Let’s say I was telling you a story that I went to the bank and the manager there was really nice. And you might not know who the manager was, so you’d say, oh, what was their name? It’s something that we naturally do anyway, but some people feel that awkwardness when they’re trying to be intentional about it, because they might not be used to it. Although it is a natural way to use they as a singular in other parts of our language. It’s not as unnatural as some folks might think.’
What Nate said reminded me of the first time I did unconscious bias training. We did this exercise where we were looking at the assumptions that we make around job roles. Somebody said, you go see the doctor and then the other person said, and yes, what did he say? Because we assume that, you know a doctor’s more likely to be a man than a woman, for example. A simple thing to do is just switch out the he and the she with them. It’s quite a simple thing to do really.
‘It really is. That’s a great point about getting someone’s pronouns wrong. If you were telling that story and somebody said, he, and you said, “Oh actually my doctor’s a she”. You wouldn’t overly apologise and say, “Oh no, I’m so sorry. I got the pronouns of your doctor wrong. I feel so bad. This is so terrible. This is the worst thing ever.” They would just be like, “Oh, okay.” And the conversation would move on.
That’s a good model when you get someone’s pronouns wrong. It’s okay. You just correct yourself and move on. You don’t have to overly apologise. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It’s actually really distracting when it is a big thing, because then we can’t have the conversation that we were having. We might have been talking about what we were going to get for lunch. And now we’re having a 20-minute conversation about pronouns in which I am telling you that it is okay, that you got my pronouns wrong and that is not helpful to any of us.’
I think it’s about owning that and not getting defensive. And then move on. It’s like you need to apologise, accept, and then accelerate.
I was in a situation recently where I went to a disability event and the host made a couple of homophobic and transphobic slurs. I called them out on it afterwards quite publicly but rather than holding their hands up and saying, “I’m sorry, I got it wrong. Yeah. I’m going to learn from it. We’re going to move on and get better from this.” Instead, I just met this brick rule of defensiveness. Which doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help.
The gay guy next to me, who was even more in the direct line of these homophobic slurs, than I was, well, it didn’t help him feel any more included and it didn’t help the event either. It didn’t help anyone. So, yes, I agree with Nate that the non-defensive, owning approach, it’s powerful.
I asked Nate what their top three suggestions for businesses are on gender inclusion.
‘It’s tough to choose three! I would say thinking about the life cycle of your employee — recruiting and onboarding is for sure a big one with documents, particularly for trans folks. So, knowing that legal names might not match the names that we go by, or our documents might have a different gender marker than what we use. So having a system in place to be able to flag, to flag those, and especially if you’re using any sort of applicant tracking system. Speak to your providers and see if you can change those automatic tools. Train the recruiters to ask and know that somebody’s voice and appearance might look differently than you thought. And that’s okay. And it shouldn’t be addressed because then you’re making somebody automatically feel uncomfortable.
Then in terms of when somebody is at your office, be inclusive of gender. I’ve mentioned gender neutral restrooms, but some really uncomfortable situations can happen in restrooms. For example, if it’s my first day and I want to go to the bathroom and I immediately have an uncomfortable situation, that’s not going to be great. So having the lived experience of your employees be a comfortable one. Making sure you don’t have a gender dress code. I mentioned managers having training, but make sure that everyone has training around gender inclusion and what that means.
Then the third thing is knowing that one of the beautiful things about the LGBTQ community, the kind of gender diverse community or gender inclusive community, is that we exist across geographies, across identities that we’re everywhere. There are statistics that one in six gen Z now identify as LGBTQ. And there are more queer folks who identify as disabled than in the general population. There are more queer folks who identify, as neurodivergent as well.
Knowing that LGBTQ folks have multiple identities and making sure that you’re inclusive of those multiple identities, is also really important. Jewish LGBTQ folks are going to be facing antisemitism. Black queer folks are going to be facing racism. LGBTQ women are facing sexism. If your office is also not inclusive and your workplace is not inclusive and accounting for all these other identities, then you’re also not going to be gender inclusive.
The last thing that I would say is just remembering and being intentional about your holistic inclusion strategy, because queer folks exist across that spectrum and gender inclusion needs to exist across all that spectrum as well.’
Since this is the Inclusive Growth Podcast, and I always ask my guests this question, and there’s no right or wrong answers. I was interested to hear Nate’s perspective on this. ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’
‘When I think about inclusive growth, I think of actually making sure that inclusion is part of your growth strategy. Understanding that if you want your business to grow, you need an inclusion strategy. It’s not a nice thing to have. It’s not an extra thing if you have the time or budget, it is actually really integral to the growth of your business and that you can’t do it out without it.
If you want to attract top talent and keep that talent, if you want to save money and build your revenue and whatever specific business goals you have, you need to be thinking about inclusion in order to grow. I would also add that there’s so much beyond that we can do. There’s such an opportunity to create a different kind of world by focusing on inclusion that I would say the possibilities for growth are exponential. We can have no limits if we really want to think about the kind of worlds we create at our workplaces and in our communities.’
I love the way that Nate has summarised their take on inclusive growth, especially as it’s so aligned with what’s in my book also titled Inclusive Growth. I enjoyed our conversation a lot, and I think my readers and listeners will want to know more about Nate’s work, so I asked where best to connect with them.
‘I encourage you to follow me on my LinkedIn page and connect on LinkedIn. I know that LinkedIn sometimes feels like just the place you go to when you want to get a job or when you’re hiring. But I’ve really been trying to cultivate meaningful conversations on there. So that’s the best place. But if websites are more your thing my website is revelimpact.com.’
I learned lots from my conversation with Nate. I really hope that readers and listeners can take some of the practical things away to apply in their own organisation to become more LGBTQ and gender inclusive and friendly.