Name: Pratham Sharma; Designation: Project Manager; Preferred pronoun: she/they; Preferred honorific: Ms, Mx.” This is the email signature of an IBMer on the office intranet as part of a sensitivity drive that respects an employee’s mind over body and validates self-worth. IBM is not the only workplace to break down male/female binaries of identity through language and perception. In the corporate sphere and outside of it, expressions of gender identities are being repurposed to become more inclusive and empathetic. The first step to this is the language one uses, for it determines the way one sees the world and oneself.
Language is key to connecting with marginalised groups such as the LGBTQIA+ as they break out of gender/sexual stereotypes and define themselves through a larger prism. Pronouns like “he” or “she” come with definitive expectations of how one should express one’s identity. While this works for people who think in the way of the gender they have been assigned at birth, it is normative and limiting for people who are gender-neutral or still to figure out their identities. It has prompted them to move beyond conventional pronouns to non-binary ones such as “they”.
“Our earliest form of communication was gestural, we pointed out things to each other. With the evolution of language, pronouns replaced this behaviour and became, among many things, representative of a personal point of view. Words like ‘they’ are deictic, which means their meaning can vary according to contexts, time and place. So, it is with pronouns that people are crafting their acceptance within the existing scheme of things and redefining a corporate culture that reflects the society of our time,” says Rukmini Bhaya Nair, professor of Linguistics and English, IIT, Delhi.
Making variable pronouns a natural part of introductions in the social space takes the awkwardness away from a mixed gender group. Zainab Patel, head, Diversity and Inclusion (D&I), Pernod Ricard, India, a transgender herself, says, “Such a practice unboxes identity, encourages empathy and makes colleagues non-judgemental. Empathy is key to an organisation’s cultural growth. As a management policy, it works because it shows that the company is willing to come down to everybody’s comfort level. That’s more important than hiring to ensure a diversity quota.”
At the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, executive director Keshav Suri, 37, has trained his team to approach guests neutrally. “We introduce ourselves with our preferred pronouns and also request guests to share theirs to minimise the risk of mis-gendering. A gender-neutral language, starting from inviting applications to the hiring process, allows people to choose for themselves and, at the same time, express their respect for other gender identities by not assuming. This builds confidence in queer people as they get recognised for who they are and are able to bring their whole selves to work,” he says. A compassionate language policy leads to ease of access. “Besides LGBTQIA+ communities, the group has staff from various marginal intersections of society, including people with disabilities and acid-attack survivors. “This has helped the team accept each other and grow,” says Suri.
Patel, however, feels not just pronouns, but spoken language as a whole has to change to respect the sensitivities of gender, marginalised communities, races, and filter down to the shop floor. “We still use words like ‘baniya’ and ‘bhangi’ to label communities and professions; still use phrases like ‘able-bodied men’ for a job description instead of writing ‘persons who can lift weights.’ Language cannot be an extension of bias any longer, it has to value competency. Companies must learn interventions and work out anti-discriminatory policies, backed by a language policy, something like the Vishaka guidelines. Self-identification must come from within,” says Patel. Both Suri and Patel are evolving a draft code as part of a FICCI taskforce.
The sensitivity brought on by an inclusive language policy has not only changed perspectives within corporations but built ecosystems. Prachi Rastogi, D&I leader, IBM, says “It has driven a more gender-sensitive intervention at all levels. For example, we have a policy of allowing our lactating mothers to travel with another caregiver at company expense. We have extended this facility to all genders. We extend insurance for affirmative surgeries and give our staff time to heal. We have gender-neutral bathrooms and conduct workshops on both female and male menopause. We have linked promotions and increments to behaviour that encourages diversity and have zero tolerance for violations. Culture must be an upstander, not a bystander. Only then will it enter homes, change mindsets.”
Of course, modifying language to reflect a spectrum of gender identities in the corporate workspace is yet to result in a massive cultural shift. In fact, linguists across the world are debating on “woke” culture and its appropriate representation in languages. “The notion of concealment vs revelation has come to the fore but the tension must go. Language cannot be given a cursory treatment. For example, will the English language tenets work in non-Western settings or among communities who are outside LGBTQIA+? Some of our own regional languages have genderless pronouns. Should we draw on them?” asks Nair.
Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace (2020), is studying Indian languages to build a gender-neutral vocabulary in everyday life. “Historically, LGBTQIA+ have had a legitimate presence in our culture — the transworld has been peopled by kinnaurs, hijras, jogappas and they have influenced our languages. For example, the word ‘aap’ is respectful and totally gender-neutral. Bengali has a gender-neutral pronoun, ‘shey’. The easiest way to bring regional languages to the fore is by incorporating them in the culture space,” he says.
Adherence to a language policy may seem like a faddist corporate drill but the effects are showing. Suansh Khare, 30, an employee at a Delhi-based MNC, says, “I was hired for a mainstream position at 28. My ease at work convinced my folks that I could sail through the world.” Mohul Sharma, food and beverage services associate at The Lalit, adds, “You exhale because you don’t have to suppress who you are and get to show what you are worth beyond your gender identity.”
Some languages are already creating new gender-neutral pronouns like the Swedish “hen”. In Finnish, the third-person pronoun, ‘hän’ has become popular. The French dictionary Le Robert announced last year it had added the pronoun “iel” for its online edition after its researchers noticed its growing usage.
There could also be conscious tweaks within existing frameworks. In January 2019, Hanover became the first German city to use gender-neutral nouns in all official communication. United Airlines became the first airline to offer non-binary gender-booking options. Companies like Accenture are giving employees the option of listing preferred pronouns in their online directories and on conference name tags. New rules of engagement? Certainly. But, more importantly, it is also a way of building a culture of respect.