Over the last several years, you’ve likely come across more instances of pronoun disclosure, whether that’s a colleague adding “she/her” to an email signature or a professor including “they/them” in a faculty bio. Perhaps you choose to do the same. Encouraging gender pronoun disclosure has long been considered a best practice for organizations, but no experimental research had demonstrated the impact of this custom for helping gender and sexual minorities feel welcome—until now. 

Butler University’s Dr. India Johnson studies “identity-safety cues,” or signals that help individuals from underrepresented groups feel valued in certain environments. Through her research, the Associate Professor of Psychology aims to better understand how people can promote inclusion in concrete ways. 

“We thought these cues might be particularly important for LGBTQ+ persons,” Johnson says about the latest study, for which she was the principal investigator. “If you’re part of that population, there might not always be some visible sign that an organization is going to value you. We were interested to see if using pronouns promoted a more positive perception of companies among the LGBTQ+ community.”

The study included lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming participants, who all viewed an employee bio for a ficticious organization. A control group viewed a version with only basic directory information, and another group saw a bio that included the employee’s “she/her/hers” pronouns. Results showed that the bio with pronouns led to more positive organizational attitudes, as well as a greater sense that the company would treat all employees fairly. Pronoun disclosure also signaled that employees and managers at the organization were allies for their LGBTQ+ colleagues.

In another part of the study, transgender and gender nonconforming participants viewed one of three company policy announcements. The control group learned that employees would now be required to list their home departments on bio pages, while remaining participants read that the company would make pronoun disclosure either optional or required. Researchers found the inclusion of gender pronouns improved organizational attitudes regardless of whether disclosure was mandatory. Despite this finding, Johnson says pronoun disclosure should always be encouraged—not required—to avoid harming anyone who is transitioning or unsure of their gender identity. 

“Optional pronoun disclosure should be one part of many organizational practices to support LGBTQ+ persons,” Johnson says. “It’s a simple policy that’s as easy as sending an email to your employees saying the company wants to improve inclusivity by normalizing the practice of disclosing gender pronouns, and encouraging them to add pronouns to their directory bios and email signatures.”

Of course, pronoun disclosure alone won’t solve all the challenges LGBTQ+ employees face in the workplace. Johnson says companies need to have clear policies that protect against discrimination based on gender or sexual identity. Educational opportunities could also be available for employees to learn more about the significance of gender pronouns. And, Johnson says, it’s crucial to create spaces where LGBTQ+ individuals can express the challenges they’re facing and receive support. 

Other authors for the study included Dr. Evava Pietri of the University of Colorado Boulder, Dr. David Buck of Elon University, and Roua Daas ’21, a recent Butler graduate who worked alongside Johnson on the research. 

“While working with Dr. Johnson, I discovered that there is a substantial gap in literature about identity-safety and allyship for marginalized communities,” says Daas, who joined the project as part of her honors thesis. “As someone who hopes to pursue a career in research focused on culturally-responsive, comprehensive mental health care for marginalized populations, seeing this gap in research highlighted an overall under-emphasis on the experiences and traumas of historically marginalized communities. By building upon Dr. Johnson’s previous research and identifying effective identity-safety cues for LGBTQ+ populations in the workplace, we are working to address this gap and contributing to the creation of vital literature to understand how to best support those who need it most.”

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