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.”
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.
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.
A Pew Research survey last year found that roughly 20% of Americans know someone who prefers to go by a gender neutral pronoun – a share that rises to a third for those between the ages of 18 and 29.
“We’re really doing it because we think from a values-based standpoint, from an inclusion standpoint and from a societal standpoint, based on demographic trends, it’s where we need to be,” says Corie Pauling, chief inclusion and diversity officer at TIAA.
“People realise that the old way of doing business just doesn’t fly anymore,” says Ms O’Neill, of Cushman & Wakefield. “I think more and more large companies are going to move in this direction.”
In the UK, firms have been slower to adopt such practices, but there are signs of change, says Emma Cusdin, a director at corporate training firm Global Butterflies, which worked on the Lloyd’s update.
“Corporates, the better corporates, start to understand that they are actually missing out on great talent if they’re not totally inclusive,” she says.
Policies aside, it’s not clear to what extent staff are embracing the shift.
Mr Bailey says he encourages companies to make adding pronouns optional, so transgender staff do not feel pressure to out themselves before they’re ready. But optional policies also run the risk of only LGBTQ people participating, which can defeat the intent to make it normal.
Companies with global footprints must also take local attitudes into account. At Cushman & Wakefield, for example, most of the “messaging” about pronouns was directed to staff in the western hemisphere, Ms O’Neill says.
At Goldman Sachs, the policy has been generally well received and more pronouns seem, at least anecdotally, to be popping up in emails, says Maeve DuVally, a managing director of media relations at Goldman Sachs, who came out as a transgender woman last year.
But the 58-year-old hasn’t felt a need to make the addition herself.
“I should probably do that but mostly everybody who I interact with knows what my pronouns are and if they don’t know, I let them know,” she says, adding that she still welcomes the policy.
“It can be very upsetting to be mis-gendered,” she says. “There aren’t too many of us that are out at the firm. I think it’s important to continue to send a message to them that transgender employees are valued.”