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Understanding pronouns

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Looking at gender pronouns

What they are, why they matter and how to approach them in the workplace

Chances are you will have become increasingly aware of gender pronouns in the past few years. Simply put, pronouns are replacements for nouns and are also used to refer to people, places, and things. In the context of gender, they are part of how we express our own identity and that of others. They include gendered pronouns: she/her, he/him, and gender-neutral pronouns, of which they/them are the most common. 

There are a number of reasons why a person might use pronouns other than the he/him and she/her options we tend to be most familiar with. They could, for example, be cisgender – someone whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth – but not use the pronouns their appearance may lead you to believe. They might be transgender and not identify with the gender given to them at birth. Or perhaps they’re non-binary: not identifying as exclusively male or female and using gender-neutral or mixed (e.g., she/they) pronouns.

Regardless of the reason, it’s always a good idea not to assume what someone’s pronouns are as these may be less obvious than you think. 


What’s in a pronoun? 

At Solvay, we prioritize an inclusive workplace where all our employees feel welcomed, supported, and able to fully express who they are. Gender identity and the use of the right pronouns are an important part of that. 

“In the same way that you want to know someone’s name and how to pronounce it, you want to know someone’s pronouns and use those correctly,” says Alexa Sims, a Solvay production engineer based in Longview, Washington. Alexa, who uses she/they pronouns, is co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Alliance employee resource group, established to support, advocate for, and increase the visibility of Solvay’s LGBTQ+ community. 

Most of us have good intentions when it comes to pronouns. We want to get it right and we certainly don’t want to offend. But we’re not always sure how to approach the topic or if we should approach it at all – including at work. 


Sharing pronouns 

To answer a common question: yes, it’s perfectly fine to – politely, naturally – ask someone what their pronouns are. You can also share your pronouns first: a good option if you don’t feel comfortable asking. “If you’re not sure of someone’s pronouns, you can introduce yourself with your own pronouns and see if they reciprocate,” Alexa says.  

Consider including pronouns as part of your introduction when hosting a work meeting and encourage other participants to do the same. This helps create awareness of pronouns in a natural fashion and is a good way to show up as an ally.  

“When the person doing the introduction shares their pronouns, it makes everyone else think that it could be a good time for them to share as well,” says Justin Gabuten, director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Solvay and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ Alliance. “If you’re part of the trans or gender non-conforming community, hearing people use pronouns is a step forward for acceptance and openness,” adds Justin, who uses he/his pronouns. Another simple way to share your pronouns is in your email signature, something that’s becoming increasingly common. “I put my pronouns in my email signature,” says Ximena Romero, a Solvay accountant based in Mexico City who uses she/her pronouns. “I think it helps show that we’re inclusive as a company, that this is a safe space to work.” It sends that message, “not just internally but also to customers, vendors and other external parties,” she explains. 

Without losing track of the importance of being respectful when it comes to pronouns, we also need to remind people that nearly everyone will at some point get it wrong. 

“I think people have this impression that they have to get it right all the time. Sometimes, you’re going to make mistakes. What’s important if you accidentally misgender someone – i.e., incorrectly identify their gender – is to acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake and make an effort not to repeat it.” 

Justin Gabuten, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Training and education

While awareness of gender pronouns is growing, the level of understanding and acceptance varies based on a wide range of factors. These include the generation you belong to, your cultural context, geographic location and other aspects that help shape your worldview. 

Justin explains that in parts of the world where being LGBTQ+ is particularly difficult, building an inclusive environment and providing access to DEI resources – including information about gender pronouns – matters even more. “It’s important to create a space at Solvay in those countries where employees feel safe to be themselves,” he says. “It might be their only opportunity to feel that sense of belonging and to be supported.” 

The Solvay focus on building an inclusive workplace applies everywhere the business operates. It’s an approach that’s centered on fostering conversations about and providing training on DEI topics such as gender pronouns. Some of this training is carried out jointly with partners like Out & Equal – a nonprofit organization focused on workplace equity, inclusion and belonging for the LGBTQ+ community.  

Employers can and do play a role in increasing awareness and acceptance of gender pronouns. But it is, of course, also on all of us as individuals to make an effort to drive change. “Having an open mind and being willing to learn can go a long way in making you a strong ally to colleagues who might be non-binary, gender non-conforming, or trans,” Alexa says. “And that is appreciated.”  


The language(s) of gender identity 

Navigating the language around gender identity is not always easy. To many, it remains a relatively new area, with an extensive and continuously evolving vocabulary of at times unfamiliar terms. 

The below list is by no means exhaustive. It’s also in English, and gender-inclusive terminology becomes more intricate in languages that are more innately gendered. For example, so-called Romance languages such as French and Spanish designate a grammatical gender to all nouns, assigning them as either male or female, which adds a layer of complexity.

But more gender-inclusive paths are also being forged in these languages. In both Spanish and Portuguese, the gender-neutral suffix “e/es” is, for example, increasingly added to nouns and adjectives – in place of the masculine “o/os” or feminine “a/as”. Gender-neutral personal pronouns like “elle/elles” (Spanish) and “ile/iles” (Portuguese) are also gaining ground. 

For English, you might find the below list a useful starting point from which to explore further. 


Assigned at birth. Usually refers to the biological aspect of an individual.


Refers to characteristics of men and women that are socially constructed and can differ from society to society.  

Gender identity

How a person sees and expresses themselves, which doesn’t necessarily correspond to their sex.

Gender non-conforming

Refers to a person whose behavior or appearance does not conform to cultural and societal gender expectations. 


Someone whose gender matches their sex assigned at birth. 


Someone whose gender identity is different from their sex assigned at birth. Transgender is also often used as an umbrella term to refer to gender-diverse people. 


Someone whose gender isn’t exclusively male or female. Commonly used as an umbrella term for all gender identities 


The act of identifying someone’s gender incorrectly.