What is gender identity, gender expression and why do pronouns matter?
Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.
Gender expression is how a person publicly expresses or presents their gender. This can include behaviour and outward appearance such as dress, hair, make-up, body language, and voice. A person’s chosen name and pronoun can also be a way of expressing gender.
The way people describe themselves and being referred to by the right terms are important parts of affirming identities. Using the wrong language about a person can imply that their gender identity is not respected and even when done unintentionally, can have long-lasting harmful impacts.
In English, the most common personal pronouns, or third-person pronouns, are she, he, or they. It is not possible to tell someone’s gender identity based on how they express their gender so it is a good idea to ask a person what pronouns they use. As a member of the University of Toronto community, you can model correct pronoun use in conversations with other students, staff, faculty, librarians and visitors, which can help foster an inclusive campus environment and positively influence campus and classroom culture.
Things you can do to make a more inclusive campus
Introductions at the start of meetings
At the start of any virtual or in-person meeting, you can offer your pronouns as a part of your introductions so that others know how to correctly refer to you in and outside of the meeting. Including your pronouns also signals to other participants that you are aware of gender diversity and you are creating a welcoming environment where others can express their own pronouns.
You can also add your pronouns on platforms such as Zoom. Read this Knowledge Article about how to add pronouns to your account on Zoom.
“Hello, my name is Jay and I use they/them pronouns.”
When putting together your email signature, you can include your pronouns next to your name. This is an easy way to communicate which pronouns you use so that people receiving your emails can refer to you correctly. You can also link to this website to help share information about pronouns within the U of T community.
Sarah Rodriguez (she/her)
People, Strategy, Equity & Culture
University of Toronto
Name tags and pronoun buttons
When attending events, you can add your pronouns to your name tag. Alternatively, you can wear a button with your pronouns. If your department would like to order pronoun buttons from the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office, please use this form to order.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are some commonly used pronouns and how are they used in sentences?
|I called her
|That is hers
|She likes herself
|I called him
|That is his
|He likes himself
|I called them
|That is theirs
|They like themselves
|I called hir/zir
|That is hirs/zirs
|Ze likes hirself/zirself
|I called xem
|That is xyrs
|Xe likes xemself
As a note, some people might use multiple pronouns, such as “she/they” or “they/he” or another combination. You can inquire as to whether the person has a preference of which one is used. Some might prefer one pronoun but be okay with another, and some might not have any preference between the combination and be okay with the pronouns being used interchangeably. If you’re unsure, you can ask.
2. How do I ask someone which pronouns they use?
It is best to be direct and ask which pronouns someone uses instead of making assumptions and using the wrong one. Please also keep in mind that a person’s name and pronouns can change over time so regular check-ins can be helpful. There are also people who do not use pronouns, and prefer to use their name, or prefer not to share. Here are some ways you can ask someone for their pronouns:
- “My name is Omar and my pronouns are he, him, and his. What about you?”
- “What pronouns do you use?”
- “Do you have/use pronouns that you would like me to use?”
- “Can you remind me which pronouns you use for yourself?”
- “How would you like me to refer to you?”
- “How would you like to be addressed?”
3. What if I use the wrong pronouns?
If you use the wrong pronouns for someone, apologize briefly, correct yourself, and move on. Rather than a belabored apology, keep the focus on using correct pronouns. To avoid the same situation in the future, try to practice using different pronouns to get more comfortable with them. You can practice with the websites listed below in the Practice Using Pronouns section. Or, access this helpful resource for more information on how to respond when you accidentally use the wrong pronoun for someone. Remember, it’s important to get it right next time.
4. What do I do if I hear someone use the wrong pronouns for someone else?
If you hear someone using the wrong pronouns for another person, you can gently correct them without providing an extensive explanation. For example, you could say: “Actually, Yan uses the pronoun she.” If a person is consistently using the wrong pronoun for someone, you could have a private conversation with them about the importance of using a person’s correct pronouns. You are always welcome to reach out to the SGDO for advice on how to use pronouns correctly and how to help yourself and others.
5. Which pronouns should I use when someone’s gender is unknown or irrelevant?
If you don’t know a person’s gender identity or pronouns, you can either avoid using gendered pronouns until you know, or you can use gender neutral pronouns such as they/them. This is already a common practice for many when talking about someone whose gender is not known, such as: “Someone sent me a text without their name – I don’t know who they are.” or “This student emailed to ask about the application process. I will reply to the student today.”
In documents or texts, use plurals and gender neutral language, rather than “he/she.” For example: “Applicants can submit their documents online and they have until Monday at 12:00pm to complete their submission.”
6. What can I use instead of the gendered honorifics Ms/Miss/Mrs or Mr?
The gendered honorifics Ms./Miss/Mrs. or Mr. are often used at the beginning of letters, emails or other formal occasions. Some individuals use the gender neutral honorific Mx (pronounced ‘mix’).
Alternatively, consider whether gendered honorifics are necessary in these circumstances. For example, in an email or letter, an alternative way to address a person in a formal way, especially when you don’t know what honorific they use, would be to use the person’s full name: “Dear Camille Laurent”.
7. Is it a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code or U of T policy to not address people by their chosen pronoun?
The Ontario Human Rights Code has a helpful questions and answers guide about gender identity and pronouns. The law recognizes that everyone has the right to self-identify their gender and that “misgendering” is a form of discrimination.
The University of Toronto’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment includes a definition of gender-based harassment which “includes but is not limited to engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct related to a person’s sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome.”