Startup Life/Opinion/

Startups can’t ignore pronouns anymore

Startups must create a gender-inclusive environment for both employees and customers, and pronouns are just the beginning.

The Yubo team. Credit: Etienne Boulanger
Laetitia Wamanisa

By Laetitia Wamanisa

We are living in a golden age for self-expression thanks to digital technology. So why is it that many tech companies still only give users (and employees) so few options to express their gender identity?

Facebook — the biggest social media site in the world — lets users choose from a long list of genders, but still only has three pronouns: she, he and they. 

Griping about pronouns might seem a misplaced complaint given tech’s many, many diversity issues. But a conversation about pronouns can be a great first step towards building a more inclusive workplace, product or service.

Having language that helps demonstrate the many ways people experience, express, or identify their gender can allow us to more clearly see the many nuances of the gender spectrum. It also lets individuals put a name to how they may have identified for their entire life. 

A conversation about pronouns can be a great first step towards building a more inclusive workplace, product or service.

If you’re building a consumer product or service, this isn’t something you can afford to ignore. Data has undeniably proven the business case for building a diverse organisation, especially one that is gender inclusive.

Studies show that approximately 1 in every 250 people in the UK identify as non-binary; we are experiencing one of the most important evolutions of identity ever experienced in human history. Founders must be aware of the assumptions we can make around gender and align their strategies with the realities of gender today.

This isn’t something ‘out there’, but still, European leaders are falling behind advances elsewhere. Instagram offers users a dedicated profile section to share pronouns. Slack now lets you list your pronouns right under your name and job title. These are hugely important updates for both apps where user interaction based on profiles is a key part of the product. 

How to create a gender-inclusive company 

If you’re a founder at the start of your journey, you’re at an advantage. You can build inclusivity into the framework of your startup from its earliest days. If you’re a bit further along in your journey, it’s best to hire a diversity and inclusion consultant who can help advise what your organisation needs to do to get up to scratch. Crucially, this will include how new measures are communicated to staff.

Here are some concrete things you can do to promote gender inclusivity within your startup at any stage: across marketing materials, internal comms, in your customer sign-up process, on job applications and at the interview stage — and even in your advertising. 

Educate yourself!

Familiarise yourself with key vocabulary and phrases like gender spectrum and gender identity.

Gender spectrum is a way of describing gender without conforming to the now-dated idea that gender is limited to only two categories: man or woman — and allows for the inclusion of other identities.

Gender identity is how a person feels and who they know themselves to be when it comes to their gender. However you decide or identify deserves to be respected and supported.

Normalise discussion

Normalise workplace discussion around gender and the use of gender pronouns.

For example, use gender-inclusive language such as ‘Hello everyone’ instead of ‘Hello ladies and gentlemen’ when writing emails. 

And challenge your peers — if someone misgenders a trans or non-binary person, correct and educate them. 

Introduce inclusive workplace policies and practices

This could include adding options beyond male and female on documents and policies, creating gender-neutral bathrooms or encouraging employees to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity.

Implement gender-identity training to facilitate conversations about gender identity and expression. Employers can access courses from a number of LGBTQIA+ organisations such as The Kite Trust, and Gendered Intelligence.

Yubo has received employee training from the charity Mermaids, who offer a tailored, CPD-accredited suite of training modules to professionals seeking a better understanding of gender issues. 

Provide more pronoun choices to employees and users

We recently added 35 additional gender identities and 50 pronouns to our platform, including pronouns and genders in multiple languages.

It’s important to remember that any list won’t be exhaustive because the concept of gender inclusivity relies on the fact that regardless how someone defines themself, they should be treated with respect.

Don’t be afraid to look to experts to guide your decisions, including some of the great organisations we’ve already mentioned. 

The future is fluid 

Whether you’ve embraced it or not, the reimagining of gender identity is underway. This shift will fundamentally reshape our future and give a competitive edge to companies that understand and respect customers and people for who they are. Just like gender, I’m very happy to predict that the path towards that future will be fluid. 

Laetitia Wamanisa is head of people and culture at social networking app Yubo.

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