Learn More about Gender Pronouns

Terminology

Sex refers to a person’s biological status and is typically categorized as male, female, or intersex. There are a number of indicators, including sex chromosomes, gonads (testes and ovaries), internal reproductive organs, and external genitalia.

Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative; behaviors that are viewed as incompatible are called gender non-conformity.

Gender identity refers to one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or transgender. When one’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the individual may identify as transgender or another category.

(From American Psychological Association “Definition of Terms: Sex, Gender, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation.”)

Commonly Used Gender Pronouns

She/her – for those who identify as women

He/him – for those who identify as men

Sie/hir – gender neutral terms (pronounced “see” and “here”)

Zie/zir – gender neutral terms (pronounced “zee” and like “sir” with a “z”)

They/them – traditionally used as plural terms, but increasingly used as gender neutral singular terms

Instead of “Mr.” or “Ms.,” some might use the gender-neutral term “Mx” (pronounced “Mix”).

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is this relevant to me as an instructor?

We tend to use pronouns without thinking – and we might not be aware how often we do. Whenever we speak in the third person (e.g. if you’re asking one student to respond to another student’s answer), we tend to automatically use a pronoun (e.g., “How would you extend her description?” “Do you agree with his analysis?”).

If we want to be respectful to all our students, we will correctly use their gender pronouns.

Why is this relevant to our students?

Some students identify with traditional gender roles, others are transgender, and still others would prefer not to be placed in a binary category. However students identify, it’s likely that they don’t want to be called by terms they don’t identify with. It can be painful or embarrassing when people make incorrect assumptions about us.

If they identify as transgender, it’s likely that they want others to use gender-specific pronouns for their gender.

What should I do if I’m not sure?

You can ask all students what gender pronouns they use, just as you’d ask them their preferred names, majors and minors, where they’re from, etc. on the first day of class. Asking all students means you are fostering an inclusive classroom and aren’t singling out individual students.

Alternatively, you can try to use non-gendered terminology (such as they/them) or specifically use an individual’s name rather than any pronoun.

What if I make a mistake?

If you realize your mistake in the moment, correct yourself and apologize. Correcting yourself is especially important if you are in class and want to model inclusive/respectful behavior.  If you realize your mistake later, try saying, “I’m sorry I used the wrong pronoun earlier; I’ll be more careful in the future.”

How can I learn more about gender pronouns?

Cornell University’s LGBT Resource Center has some practical suggestions.

Other online resources:

• University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center
University of Southern California LGBT Resource Center Page on Allies of Transgender Individuals
Trans@MIT Allies Toolkit

How can I learn more about transgender students?

Transgender Basicsis an 18 minute video from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

Recent studies by Campus Pride and the Human Rights Campaign describe the State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People and the experiences gender-expansive youth.

CATL’s inclusive classrooms website has some suggestions for working with LGBTQIA students as well as general strategies for inclusive teaching.