Pronouns Matter: Building LGBTQIA+ Inclusion in STEM

Nov. 13, 2023

The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines comprise diverse communities from various areas of expertise and a wide array of demographic groups. This myriad of diversity is what makes STEM exciting and robust, and it drives discovery and innovation. As the community continues to expand and evolve, it is essential to continue to enhance inclusive practices and language to ensure everyone feels welcomed and included.  
Across the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) community, understanding and honoring pronouns is key to ensuring inclusion. As colleagues and members of a shared human experience, it is essential to understand the importance of respecting pronouns. This simple, yet impactful act of respect is a foundational way to support individuals in expressing their true selves and creating inclusive environments.  

What Are Pronouns?

Pronouns are the words individuals use to refer to themselves and others in place of names to avoid repetition. It is essential to note that not only the LGBTQIA+ community uses pronouns; pronouns are used by everyone in reference to themselves and one another. Pronouns might include:   

  • He/him/his/himself: These pronouns are traditionally understood to be masculine in nature, though this is not exclusively the case.   
  • She/her/hers/herself: These pronouns are traditionally understood to be feminine in nature, though this is not exclusively the case.  
  • They/Them/Theirs/Themself: These pronouns are often understood to be gender-neutral.  Singular “they” has been in used in the English language for centuries.  
  • Xe/Xem or Ze/Zir: These are neopronouns or those that have emerged in recent years, as all languages transform and evolve over time.   

Pronouns are used by everyone in reference to themselves and one another.
Pronouns are used by everyone in reference to themselves and one another.
Source: iStock
Many people use pronouns such as “she/her/hers,” “he/him/his,” or “they/them/theirs.” Many nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals use singular “they/them/theirs” pronouns, as he/him and she/her often denote or relate to masculinity and femininity, respectively. For many who identify with singular “they,” using these pronouns affirms their identity and expression.  
The term “nonbinary” describes individuals whose gender identity doesn't fit within the traditional binary concept of male and female. It is an “umbrella term,” encompassing diverse lived experiences, definitions and understandings among those who identify with this identity. Similarly, “gender-nonconforming” can refer to a gender identity and form of expression that doesn't adhere to the binary construct of “masculine” and “feminine.”  

It might be easy to assume someone’s pronouns based on their appearance, but this can easily lead to misgendering someone, which means referring to someone by pronouns other than the ones they use and identify with. Avoiding the urge to assume someone’s pronouns based on their appearance is essential because these assumptions can be inaccurate and hurtful.  

Understanding Gender Identity  

Understanding the distinctions between sex assigned at birth and gender identity aids in comprehending why individuals might use the pronouns they do. There are several key differences between sex assigned at birth and gender.  
Sex assigned at birth comprises various components, such as anatomy and physiology, biological indicators, external and internal reproductive organs, hormone levels and chromosomal makeup. Gender comprises social and cultural construction, norms and behaviors and aesthetics/expression. While gender identity and pronouns have a relationship, it's important to note that they do not always align uniformly. Two people with the same or similar gender identities might use different pronouns.  
Some people might use multiple pronouns, such as “she/they” or “he/her.”  This is because some individuals feel that only using 1 set of pronouns, such as he/him or she/hers exclusively, would force them into the gender binary or into a gender identity more broadly. In this sense, someone might use multiple pronouns to reflect their gender fluidity.  

It is always best to respectfully ask if unsure what pronouns someone uses.
It is always best to respectfully ask if unsure what pronouns someone uses.
Source: iStock
If someone uses multiple sets of pronouns, it means that others may use those various pronouns interchangeably in conversation with and about them. It is always best to respectfully ask if unsure what pronouns someone uses.  

Gender and gender identity are terms that are often used interchangeably, as everyone possesses a gender identity, even if it is not something that is thought about or considered daily. Additionally, everyone exhibits a form of gender expression, which involves nonverbal means of communicating a gender identity to the world. This expression can manifest through choices in clothing, attire, presentation, hairstyle, tone of voice and other means. 

Individuals whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth are considered transgender. In contrast, those whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth are referred to as cisgender. Further, those whose sex assignment at birth cannot be categorized as “strictly” biologically male or female are considered to be intersex, meaning they are born with a variety of differences in their sex traits and reproductive anatomy.  
Understanding and affirming people’s gender identity, such as through using their pronouns, helps prevent harm that might cause some to otherwise feel unwelcome in an environment like a classroom, lab or workspace. This is particularly vital for students embarking on their academic journey. As students progress in their academic and personal growth, it remains imperative for professors and advisors to continually prioritize inclusive practices during the formative years. 

While communication is not a social construct, gender and language are. Like many social constructions, all languages evolve over time. This transformation of communication is applicable to how language is gendered. Language has long sought out words that convey a gender-neutral message, or even something more nuanced, by way of using neopronouns. Neopronouns, or “new” pronouns, have been used for centuries. Some neopronouns you might come across include:   

  • Xe/xer/xim.  
  • Zi/zir/zim.  
  • Fa/fae/faers.  

If unsure how to pronounce neopronouns, it is always best to ask the person who uses them. Remember: one doesn’t have to understand the nuances of someone’s gender identity to validate and respect them. Honoring someone’s pronouns is the foundation of allyship for LGBTQIA+ communities.  

Why is Respecting Pronouns Important?  

Respecting and honoring someone’s chosen pronouns validates their identity and indicates a particular level of respect; nobody wants to be called by pronouns other than those they use and identify with.  
Respecting pronouns in labs, classrooms, clinics and offices contributes to closer, more meaningful relationships among mentors and mentees, teams and colleagues. In STEM, many gender-diverse students are less likely to enter a related degree program due to fear of bias and discrimination. Additionally, LGBTQIA+ scientists have told researchers they often feel “invisible” among their colleagues. Being mindful of language and respecting people's pronouns is one way to mitigate these kinds of isolation.   
Honoring someone’s pronouns goes beyond effective communication; it conveys a potent message of acceptance and support. It paves the way for a world in which all individuals, regardless of their gender identity, can thrive and live authentically in a society free from the burden of judgment and discrimination. 
Respecting pronouns saves lives, as many transgender and gender-diverse people feel unsafe and unvalued in a world where their identity is not respected. Studies also show that respecting pronouns has monumentally impactful benefits for LGBTQIA+ youth. Those same studies found that 25% of youth in the U.S. use they/them pronouns exclusively or a combination of more commonly used pronouns and neopronouns.   
Furthermore, creating spaces where diverse gender identities are celebrated helps to mitigate some of the systemic inequalities faced by LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM. In a field that attracts the brightest minds and future changemakers, STEM practitioners and clinicians can create environments that foster inclusivity, belonging and community by respecting chosen pronouns. In short, respecting pronouns:  

  • Removes communication barriers. 
  • Validates and acknowledges diverse gender identities and expressions.   
  • Fosters inclusivity.   
  • Cultivates connection and relationship-building. 

How to Honor and Respect Pronouns 

While it might seem intimidating and daunting, the easiest way to ask someone which pronouns to use when referring to them is to do just that–ask. In fact, many people will respect and be thankful for the inquiry as it creates a space of respect and authenticity.   
In most instances, one can try something like this:   

  • Introduce yourself and share your pronouns. “Hi, I’m Reina. I use she/her pronouns.”  

  • Ask all others in the conversation to share their pronouns. “May I ask what pronouns you use?”  

  • Use people’s pronouns in conversation with and about them.   

  • If you hear someone misgender someone else, (using pronouns other than those one identifies with) quickly and politely correct them. “Actually, Reina uses she/her pronouns.”   

In a classroom setting, students may be able to include their pronouns in the class profile, such as in platforms like Canvas or BlackBoard. For faculty and staff, it may be helpful to create a norm of listing pronouns in email signatures and on name tags. In any case, it is always advised to begin interpersonal and group discussions with both the introduction of the names and pronouns of all present.  
Inclusive leadership and collegiality call for an approach to education, training and work that has a certain level of respect for one another as scholars and practitioners. Being mindful and attentive to the pronouns others use is fundamental to nurturing a baseline of respect and validation.  

Allyship is essential. Validating, affirming and respecting a person is sometimes all the allyship they need.
Allyship is essential. Validating, affirming and respecting a person is sometimes all the allyship they need.
Source: iStock
In affirming someone's pronouns, it is important to note that some people might wish to be called by certain pronouns, but only in particular spaces. This may occur because some individuals may ask close friends, mentors/mentees and supervisors to use their pronouns before making them more widely known. In such cases, respecting privacy and not sharing personal information with others without explicit consent is essential. 
Creating multiple opportunities at work and in labs for colleagues and team members to share their pronouns creates a space that fosters inclusion through psychological safety. Incorporating and normalizing the introduction and disclosure of pronouns in educational, clinical, laboratory and professional settings could include:  

  • Including pronouns in email signatures.  

  • Encouraging people to share their pronouns when verbally introducing themselves.  

  • Adding a pronouns section to authorship profiles in scientific journals and other written publications. 

  • Incorporating pronouns on introduction slides during scientific talks and presentations.  

  • Developing a section for students to include their pronouns on assignments or student profiles. 

  • Creating STEM curricula that features gender diversity.  

Committing to Allyship 

Demonstrating allyship, in any sense, is a journey. Indeed, ally is both a verb and a noun. Furthermore, it is not a label that can be applied to someone but a lifestyle one must embrace. In an effort to demonstrate any form of allyship for those who are transgender, nonbinary or gender–nonconforming, respecting pronouns is the foundation of advocacy and inclusion.   
Honoring someone’s pronouns shows them visibly and audibly that they are supported. Through this simple method of inclusion, students, scientists, educators, clinicians and professionals can foster meaningful connections. Validating, affirming and respecting a person is sometimes all the allyship they need. Inclusive language and behavior can become a daily practice and way of life that calls others to join the broader conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion.  

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Author: Reina McKeel, M.Ed.

Reina McKeel, M.Ed.
Reina McKeel, M.Ed., is a graduate of Wingate University and The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has studied gender, sexuality and women’s studies at UNC Charlotte.