What are pronouns?

Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. Personal pronouns are words like "I/my/mine", "you/your/yours", "he/him/his", "she/her/hers", and "they/them/theirs".

Often people tend to think that "he/him" refers to a man or a boy, and "she/her" refers to a woman or a girl, as these pronouns are gendered in the English language. People also tend to make assumptions about someone's gender based on their appearance. However, these assumptions are not always correct.

We are all assigned a sex at birth based on attributes such as our chromosomes, hormones and external and internal anatomy. Cisgender (cis) people are those who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender (trans) people are those whose gender does not align with the sex which they were assigned at birth. Non-binary is an umbrella term covering gender identities that fall outside the gender binary, i.e. are not exclusively male or female.

Why do pronouns matter?

A person does not have to look a certain way to be a certain gender, so we should not assume a person's pronouns from their appearance, voice or characteristics.

Using the correct pronouns for someone is a basic sign of respect, so it is important to note what pronouns a person goes by.

Some non-binary people go by gender-neutral pronouns such as "they/them", but there are also non-binary people who go by "she/her" or "he/him".

Some people go by more than one set of pronouns, e.g. a person might go by both "she/her" and "they/them".

There are other gender-neutral pronouns that people may go by, such as "ze/hir" or "ze/zir". Find out more about 'ze' pronouns.

Some people do not go by any third-person pronouns at all and may ask to be referred to by name only.

How to use and share pronouns

5 pronoun badgesWhen you do not yet know which pronouns someone goes by, it is generally a good idea to use "they/them".

If you are not sure what pronouns to use for someone, it is okay to ask, but do make sure to share your own too, e.g. "My pronouns are she/her, by the way. What pronouns do you go by?"

We encourage all Imperial staff to share their pronouns with their colleagues if they feel comfortable doing so, but nobody should ever be forced to share their pronouns if they do not wish to.

You can help to normalise a culture at Imperial where everyone feels comfortable sharing their pronouns in the following ways:

  • Introduce yourself with your pronouns: "Hi, my name is John and my pronouns are he/him."
  • Try introducing your colleagues in such a way that makes their pronouns clear, e.g. "This is Jane; she works in the Faculty of Engineering" or "This is Max; they're new to Imperial."
  • If you're chairing a meeting, try telling everyone to introduce themselves with their name and pronouns: "Let's go around and introduce ourselves with our names, our pronouns if we feel comfortable sharing, and what we do. I'll start. I'm Sarah, my pronouns are she/her, and I work in the Faculty of Medicine."
  • In your email signature, include a line stating your pronouns, e.g. "Pronouns: he/him", under your name and job title.
  • Add your pronouns on Microsoft Teams - they will appear on your profile card.
  • Pick up a pronoun badge from the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Centre and wear it on your lanyard so people can see your pronouns at a glance! (NB: These badges are temporarily unavailable while the EDIC team are all working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Making mistakes

We can all make mistakes sometimes. If you realise as you're speaking that you're making a mistake with someone's pronouns, apologise, correct yourself, and move on quickly. There's no need to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw attention to it. Just try your best to get it right in the future.

If you realise after you've been speaking about someone, e.g. during a meeting, that you made a mistake with their pronouns, apologise to the individual in private afterwards, acknowledge that you know their pronouns and say that you'll get it right in the future.

Inclusive language

To continue to build a culture which is inclusive of all genders, you should avoid wording that assumes there are only two genders, e.g.:

  • Instead of "ladies and gentlemen", say "everybody", "colleagues", or "friends and guests".
  • Instead of "he/she" (when referring to someone unknown or a universal person), use "they" or "the person".
  • Instead of "men and women", say "people".
  • Instead of beginning emails/letters to an unnamed individual with "Dear Sir or Madam", address the person by their position/whatever their capacity is that provides the context for this interaction, so "Dear Colleague", "Dear HR Team", "Dear Programme Administrators", etc.

Further reading

You can find out and read more about pronouns on MyPronouns.org.