There are few things more mundane than an office email signature. But in December, the Philadelphia organization Gearing Up made a minor tweak to its digital protocol — with a surprisingly transformative impact.
It was an addition of just a few words, right below the sender's name but above the job title: a line declaring the author's preferred pronouns.
"Lately, with people talking about gender so much, we realized that policy wasn't quite as clear or accepting as we needed it to be," said program director Al Sharrock (whose preferred pronouns are they/them/their).
And, though subtle, the change is working for Gearing Up, an exercise program for those recovering from addiction.
"For people who are nervous about whether they'll be accepted in our space, it has brought them out of their shells," Sharrock said. "I would imagine everyone else doesn't really notice it. But the people who need it are seeing it."
The modest addition — one that's slowly spreading into Twitter profiles, website staff bios, and conference name tags — is a shorthand intended to accomplish several things at once: to signal a welcoming, inclusive space; to provide a helpful reminder not to carelessly misgender others; and to normalize the declaration of pronouns for everyone. That could include people who are transgender, nonbinary (those who don't identify as exclusively male or female) and cisgender (those whose gender aligns with their sex assigned at birth).
Some even take it a step further: Nu'Rodney Prad (he/him/his), director of student engagement at Temple University, keeps a big glass jar of pronoun buttons on his desk, to be used for conferences or worn on backpacks around campus, for people who would prefer to preempt any questions. (Or, for those who prefer to engage directly, there's a button for that, too: "Ask me about my personal pronoun.")
Prad, who runs Safe Zone trainings for staff, students and faculty at Temple, recommends the pronoun clarification in email signatures as a best practice.
"Others will be more open with you and will know that you've been trained to discuss this," he said. "It does trigger people to think about how they could be allies or advocates in a very inconspicuous way."
Heath Fogg Davis (he/him/his), a Temple University professor and author of the 2017 book Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?, recently added his own pronouns to his professional email signature.
"It's a way of preventing or minimizing gender mistakes, which remains a real social faux pas in our society. To get someone's gender wrong and to feel like you've offended somebody and now you have to be corrected — nobody wants to be in that position," he said.
Still, protocol for navigating this terrain remains unclear. At the beginning of this current semester, Davis passed out pieces of cardboard for name cards, inviting students to note their pronouns. That goes against Prad's Safe Zone protocol: He warns professors not to put students on the spot by requiring them to state their pronouns publicly. Davis said he hasn't heard any complaints, but he'll know what students really think about the practice when end-of-semester teacher evaluations come in.
For now, he thinks all of this pronoun-declaring is a useful but imperfect fix. He advocates removing gender markers from photo IDs, official paperwork, bathroom signs and travel documents alike.
"My real preference is I would like to live in a world where we just use the gender-neutral pronoun for everybody," Davis said. "But that seems like a radical thing to ask people to do in an organization."
Still, he points out that alternatives are arising, such as the honorific Mx., pronounced like mix — an alternative to Mr. or Mrs. for those who would rather not choose. That may seem foreign now, he said, but so did "Ms." when a Springfield, Mass. newspaper introduced it 1901 for women who chose not to be defined by their marital status. He's noticed a generational divide. Grammarians may grimace, but more students are embracing "Mx.," along with "they/them" pronouns.
Naiymah Sanchez, an organizer with the Pennsylvania ACLU's Transgender Education and Advocacy Program, said when pronouns were introduced into email signatures at a previous job, the benefits were evident.
"We started to see more of our clients coming in and feeling liberated to identify either on the binary or off the binary. It opens a dialogue," Sanchez said. Plus, when everyone's doing it, "they have the liberty to go ahead and acknowledge their identity without actually outing themselves."
Sanchez (she/her/hers) can understand why not everyone might want to step up and identify his or her (or their) gender.
After all, a handful of recent news stories have articulated what women have long known: that, in digital correspondence as in daily life, they are not always treated with the same respect as men.
Last year, a couple of Philadelphia colleagues swapped email addresses and learned just how differently they were treated online based on their gender. Martin Schneider was shocked at how rude and unresponsive clients were when they thought he was a woman; his counterpart, Nicole Hallberg, used his email address and enjoyed the most productive two weeks of her life.
Hallberg, now a freelance copywriter, doesn't bother announcing her pronouns because she figures her name is a giveaway. But, unlike some other freelancers, she doesn't conceal them either.
"I made the conscious decision not to go under a pen name," she said. "I decided that, for my own values, it would go against being an ally to other women."
Back at Gearing Up, they're rethinking the place of gender in their language in a broader way. Rather than talking about their clients as "women" or "ladies," why not "cyclists," or "folks," or "friends"?
Sharrock said there's bound to be some resistance, as well as innocent mistakes. "I had a friend who was really trying," Sharrock recalled. "He'd say something like, 'The Als are going to their house.'"