Every Tuesday, an expert from The Ethics Centre offers advice on ethical issues impacting public servants. This week’s question:
My workplace is mandating adding pronouns to our email signature. I’d describe myself as a progressive person, but I just don’t feel comfortable adding my pronouns to my work email. For further information, I’d say my first name is commonly associated with my gender so someone is unlikely to get it wrong. How can I raise this issue with my manager? Or do I just have to suck it up?
Today’s answer comes from Daniel Finlay, The Ethics Centre’s coordinator of youth engagement initiatives:
Sometimes change is hard and there are many unconscious reasons why we tend to shy away from doing certain things. Maybe you think it looks ugly, maybe you’re worried about the reaction of clients or other people you email, maybe you think it’s signalling something about your politics that you don’t fully subscribe to. Whatever it is, the only way to bring this to a head is for you to reflect on where the discomfort is coming from in the first place.
Once you have gotten to the bottom of that, it’s worth having a candid conversation with your manager or another senior colleague you’re comfortable with. I would suggest going into the conversation with an aim of finding out what the purpose of the mandate is before making your objection obvious, so that you can have a chance to contemplate that before having a further conversation about what your options are.
Here are some reasons why some workplaces have chosen to mandate pronouns in email signatures. You may think because of your personal circumstances that having pronouns in your signature is redundant or unnecessary. While that might be true for you personally, it’s good to think about the cumulative effects of organisations as a whole adopting these practices.
You mentioned in your question that your name is associated with your gender, but there are lots of people for whom that isn’t the case. Women with androgynous (or sometimes even feminine) names are often misgendered in online communications because the default assumption by most people is that, unless there are very obvious signs to the contrary, the person they are speaking to is a man. It’s sufficient to say that that can be a disappointing, maddening, frustrating and undermining experience.
Mandating pronouns for everyone prevents this issue, without women having to single themselves out by being the only people with pronouns in their signatures, having to correct people, or simply living with being assumed to be a man.
The other consideration is that there are various transgender or non-binary people who would either like to be referred to with neutral pronouns (they/them) or are transitioning and trying to acclimatise acquaintances to using their new pronouns. Once again, they can of course include their pronouns without expecting everyone else to.
However, they also run into the issue of having to single themselves out, which many people don’t want to do. Having pronouns in emails normalises the practice, making those who need to display them feel less like they’re sticking out or making a statement.
Even if you’re a bit apathetic towards your pronouns or gender, which is OK, and you don’t want to bring attention to something you don’t care about by adding pronouns to your email signature, there are lots of people who do find pronouns important to their identity. You might decide that showing solidarity with them outweighs the awkwardness you feel in including them in your email signature.
If you have an ethical question for one of The Ethics Centre’s team of experts, send it to email@example.com.
The Ethics Centre is an independent not-for-profit that advocates for a more ethical society. If you’re struggling to find the path forward on an ethical conflict at work or at home, there is a service that can help. Ethi-call, run by The Ethics Centre, is a free helpline dedicated to guiding people through life’s hardest choices.