Dear Colleagues:

I was reading an article about leadership and suddenly realized that each pronoun in the piece referred to the female: "she" and "her". How odd to realize that this was a first for me. All (or nearly all) of the pieces on leadership I've read to date have been in the masculine form, with occasional neutral references to "them" and "they".

So, it seemed a good time to check on the state of gender pronouns.

If you have noticed new or evolving usage of gender pronouns that adds to this conversation, do reach out to me with examples and information.

Hers truly!
Would You Rather be Called It or Ze?

News about Gender Pronouns?

In the not-too-distant past it was common to use masculine pronouns as the default when gender was non-specific. Occasionally you'd run into a "he or she" use, or the even clunkier alternating approach. Rarely would "she" be the default, outside of feminist circles. That's changing -- in culture as well as language.

Why is this happening? For starters, more journalists are women. There's also more sensitivity about contemporary issues like the increasing activity and visibility of women's marches and the #MeToo movement. And more men are "enlightened" about gender. With books, just in the last five years or so, there are noticeably more female authors on business and leadership topics, along with more varied representations of ethnicity, race and gender.

Brands need to be mindful and adjust, especially those targeting millennials and younger consumers whose views on gender are less defined than the average person over 30.

Here's what brands need to do to stay relevant:
  • Branding 101: Know your audience. Are they older, mostly white Civil War reenactors, young women of color pursuing STEM careers, or some group that skews toward the more socially liberal end of the spectrum?
  • Factor gender identity into brand storytelling and messaging. Even updating brand visuals deserves more than just a passing glance. If your audience is largely older and conservative, you might want to make "they" your gender neutral pronoun of choice. Depending on the brand it could also be time to update communications to acknowledge more gender identities.
  • Factor gender pronoun and identity usage into products, services, campaigns and promotions. Unless you're aiming broadly, it could make sense to get specific: "hers," "his," "theirs," etc. Look at all the applicable options.
Gendered language is here to stay. Meet your various audiences on their terms and speak their language for brand relevance -- and success.
5 Ways that Gender Pronouns are Evolving
  1. AP Stylebook allows use of a single pronoun when rewriting a sentence as plural would be awkward (e.g., "their" instead of "his or her"); "he" is no longer allowed as gender-neutral
  2. New pronouns like "ze" are being used in certain circles, but face an uphill battle joining the common vernacular. Bet on "they" as a gender neutral alternative to traditional singular pronouns, given societal changes. Inventing pronouns like "hersh" or "ze" has not taken off and probably never will.
  3. Gender-neutral retail and brand efforts are increasing, resulting in less gender-stereotyping with products like clothing and toys
  4. Pronoun fields in software applications are changing to be free-form text or they/them/theirs to support transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) individuals
  5. In academia there is a movement toward using the feminine pronoun at all times
3 Social/Cultural Trends/Cultural Happenings Worth Noting
  1. Boy Scouts of America's "Scout Me In" brand campaign and name change to "Scouts BSA"
  2. "Theybys": A unconventional childrearing practice which includes keeping the baby's anatomy a secret from others and referring to the child only by plural pronoun in an effort to raise a more creative and uninhibited human
  3. Cultural visibility of the transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming community has seriously expanded the way that we view gender. It is also changing language in the form of gender-neutral pronouns
Resources for Guidance on Gender Pronouns
  1. Blog post: Making a case for a singular "they" (AP Stylebook)
  2. Gender-inclusive language guidelines (UNC Writing Center)
  3. Deep dive into gender-neutral pronoun options (New York Times)
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