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Opinion Editorials

Why it’s grammatically okay to use ‘they’ as a pronoun for an individual

(EDITORIAL) Many well-meaning people struggle with “they” as a singular pronoun, but here’s why the grammar police say it’s a-okay!

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"they" pronoun for a single person

“What is your preferred pronoun?” is a fairly common question in LGBTIA+ community spaces and activist circles (and in some industries like tech). It’s high time that being transparent and consensual about pronouns becomes part of the day-to-day culture of all workplaces.

For transgender and non-binary individuals, changing pronouns is often a first step towards affirming gender identity in the public sphere. Since we cannot assume someone’s gender identity or pronoun preference, the best way to find out is to ask (it’s not rude). Asking creates a culture in which we don’t presume one another’s gender on sight – instead, we inquire. Asking coworkers their pronoun, even if you don’t think they are trans, is a step towards creating a more inclusive workplace.

See what I just did there? I used both “their” and “they” to describe a single individual. People whose gender identities are non-binary often use the pronoun “they” to express their identity as neither male nor female, or as something in-between. If you think non-binary identities are a modern, American fad, you couldn’t be more wrong. Cultures worldwide and throughout history recognize gender categories as more complex than our ill-conceived and oppressive either/or binary. But today we aren’t digging into the concepts of non-conforming gender identities – here’s a great primer to catch you up.

Today I’m specifically addressing pronouns.

If someone tells you that their pronoun is different than what you assumed, or changes their (see, did it again) pronoun, it can take a little getting used to. Some find it even trickier when they aren’t used to using “they” to describe a single individual. It can take a little practice to accustom yourself to saying things like “they are doing a great job” when you’re talking about one person. Until you get used to it, further clarification is sometimes required. “Excuse me, do you mean Ellen, or Ellen and their partner?”

But this grammatical awkwardness is no excuse not to use the requested pronoun. If a divorcee reverts to her maiden name, do you insist upon continuing to use her husband’s name? If a coworker wishes to shed their embarrassing college nickname, do you refuse? Perhaps you do, but that’s tactless.

Even more so, if you refuse to acknowledge preferred gender pronouns. Times are tough right now for trans, intersex, and non-binary folk; and with no federal discrimination protection in place, for the time being it’s up to companies themselves to make sure that their workplaces are inclusive, provide equal opportunities for all, and help the entire team feel safe.

My point is, even if using “they” as a singular pronoun were completely grammatically incorrect, it would still be inconsiderate to refuse to use it when requested. A generation ago “googling” wasn’t a verb, and “tweeting” was something only songbirds did. So let’s not try to pretend that the English language is immutable. This is ultimately about respect, not grammar.

However, for you grammar geeks and proofreaders out there, I will break this down. “They” has been used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun for literal centuries.

There have always been sentences in which we don’t know the gender of the subject, or the subject is a general “anyone” and not a specific person. Oxford English Dictionary listed singular they in 1531. More recently it has been approved by the AP Style Guide, the Chicago Manual of Style, and most mainstream publications (including ours). You officially have permission from the grammar police to use “they” as a singular pronoun!

Let’s take this quote from 19th century writer George Bernard Shaw, “It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses!” Using “his” as a universal pronoun is out of the question. “His or her” is a little more gender-inclusive, but cumbersome. That leaves you with “It’s enough to drive anyone out of one’s senses!”? Sounds a bit highfalutin, wouldn’t you say? Truly, trying to avoid “they” as a singular pronoun is enough to drive anyone out of their senses. So just use “they,” and move on. I promise it won’t always feel awkward.

Lastly, I’ll clarify for folks that are still confused that you don’t need to use singular verbs with singular they. “They is doing a great job” is a subject-verb agreement nightmare, so it’s okay to flow with the easier “they are doing a great job.”

Hopefully this settles the issue once and for all – using “they” as a pronoun when someone requests it is the respectful, inclusive, and yes, grammatically correct thing to do.

To quote poet Tom Chivers, “if someone tells you that singular ‘they’ is wrong, you can firmly tell them to go to hell.”


Personal note: When I was first offered a position as a staff writer for The American Genius, there wasn’t much mainstream awareness around non-binary identity and pronoun preference. At the time, I was nervous that if I asked my editors to refer to me by my preferred pronoun of “they,” I might have to do some awkward explaining at best, and might not land the job, at worst. As part of this article, I’ve requested that my bio reflect my preferred pronoun. TheAmerican Genius, being the forward-thinking and inclusive company that it is, swiftly and supportively consented.

This story was first published on November 05, 2018.

Ellen Vessels, a Staff Writer at The American Genius, is respected for their wide range of work, with a focus on generational marketing and business trends. Ellen is also a performance artist when not writing, and has a passion for sustainability, social justice, and the arts.

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Opinion Editorials

DNA ancestry tests are cool, but are they worth giving up your rights?

(EDITORIAL) DNA tests are all the rage currently but are they worth potentially having your genetic makeup sold and distributed?

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dna ancestry tests

By now you’ve heard – the Golden State Killer’s 40+ year reign of terror is potentially over as the FBI agents used an ancestry website DNA sample to arrest their suspect, James DeAngelo, Jr.

Over the last few years, DNA testing has gone mainstream for novelty reasons. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have offered easy access to the insights of your genetics, including potential health risks and family heritage, and even reconnect family members, through simple genetic tests.

However, as a famously ageless actor once suggested in a dinosaur movie, don’t focus too much on if you can do this, without asking if you should do this.

When you look closely, you can find several reasons to wonder if sending your DNA to these companies is a wise choice.

These reasons mostly come down to privacy protection, and while most companies do have privacy policies in place, you will find some surprising loopholes in the fine print. For one, most of the big players don’t give you the option to not have your data sold.

These companies, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com, can always sell your data so long as your data is “anonymized,” thanks to the HIPAA Act of 1996. Anonymization involves separating key identifying features about a person from their medical or biological data.

These companies know that loophole well; Ancestry.com, for example, won’t even give customers an opt-out of having their DNA data sold.

Aside from how disconcerting it is that these companies will exploit this loophole for their gain at your expense, it’s also worth noting that standards for anonymizing data don’t work all that well.

In one incident, reportedly, “one MIT scientists was able to ID the people behind five supposedly anonymous genetic samples randomly selected from a public research database. It took him less than a day.”

There’s also the issue of the places where that data goes when it goes out. That report the MIT story comes from noted that 23andMe has sold data to at least 14 outside pharmaceutical firms.

Additionally, Ancestry.com has a formal data-sharing agreement with a biotech firm. That’s not good for you as the consumer, because you may not know how that firm will handle the data.

Some companies give data away to the public databases for free, but as we saw from the earlier example, those can be easy targets if you wanted to reverse engineer the data back to the person.

It would appear the only safe course of action is to have this data destroyed once your results are in. However, according to US federal regulation for laboratory compliance stipulates that US labs hold raw information for a minimum of 10 years before destruction.

Now, consider all that privacy concern in the context of what happens when your DNA data is compromised. For one, this kind of privacy breach is irreversible.

It’s not as simple as resetting all your passwords or freezing your credit.

If hackers don’t get it, the government certainly can; there’s even an instance of authorities successfully obtaining a warrant for DNA evidence from Ancestry.com in a murder trial.

Even if you’re not the criminal type who would worry about such a thing, the precedent is concerning.

Finally, if these companies are already selling data to entities in the biomedical field, how long until medical and life insurance providers get their hands on it?

I’ll be the first to admit that the slippery slope fallacy is strong here, but there are a few troubling patterns of behavior and incorrect assumptions already in play regarding the handling of your DNA evidence.

The best course of action is to take extra precaution.

Read the fine print carefully, especially what’s in between the lines. As less scrupulous companies look to cash in on the trend, be aware of entities who skimp on privacy details; DNA Explained chronicles a lot of questionable experiences with other testing companies.

Above all, really think about what you’re comfortable with before you send in those cheek swabs or tubes of spit. While the commercials make this look fun, it is a serious choice and should be treated like one.

This story was first published, October 2017.

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Opinion Editorials

Do women that downplay their gender get ahead faster?

(OPINION) A new study about gender in the workplace is being perceived differently than we are viewing it – let’s discuss.

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flexible workforce

The Harvard Business Review reports that women benefit professionally when they downplay their gender, as opposed to trying to focus on their “differences” as professional strength.

The article includes a lot of interesting concepts underneath its click-bait-y title. According to the study by Professors Ashley Martin and Katherine Phillips, women felt increasingly confident when they pivoted from focusing on highlighting potential differences in their perceived abilities based on their gender and instead gave their attention to cultivating qualities that are traditionally coded as male*.

Does this really mean that women need to “downplay” their gender? Does it really mean women who attempt this get ahead in this world faster?

I don’t think so.

The article seems to imply that “celebrating diversity” in workers is akin to giving femme-identified employees a hot pink briefcase – it actually calls attention to stereotyped behaviors. I would argue that this is not the case (and, for the record, rock a hot pink briefcase if you want to, that sounds pretty badass).

I believe that we should instead highlight the fact that this study shows the benefits that come when everyone expands preconceived notions of gender.

Dr. Martin and her interviewer touch on this when they discuss the difference between gender “awareness” and “blindness.” As Dr. Martin explains, “Gender blindness doesn’t mean that women should act more like men; it diminishes the idea that certain qualities are associated with men and women.”

It is the paradox of studies like this one that, in order to interrogate how noxious gendered beliefs are, researchers must create categories to place otherwise gender-neutral qualities and actions in, thus emphasizing the sort of stereotypes being investigated. Regardless, there is a silver lining here as said by Dr. Martin herself:

“[People] are not naturally better suited to different roles, and [people] aren’t better or worse at certain things.”

Regardless of a worker’s gender identity, they are capable of excelling at whatever their skills and talent help them to.

*Though the HBR article and study perpetuate a binary gender structure, for the purposes of our discussion in this article, I expand its “diversity” to include femme-identified individuals, nonbinary and trans workers, and anybody else that does not benefit from traditional notions of power that place cisgendered men at the top of the social totem pole.

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Opinion Editorials

Dispelling the myth that women don’t get raises because they don’t ask

(EDITORIAL) It has been accepted as fact that women don’t get raises because they don’t ask as often as men, but new studies indicate that’s not true at all.

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women female negotiations

Many of the seemingly universal “truths” of business often come down to assumptions made about workers based on their gender.

Among the most oft-repeated of these “truths” is that women and other femme-identifying people are bad at self-advocating, particularly in matters involving compensation.

These include: Women don’t negotiate their salaries. Women don’t get promotions or leadership positions because they don’t “lean in.” Women don’t ask for raises.

This last truth is finally being discussed as the myth it is.

Over at The Cut, Otegha Uwagba discusses her own experience successfully and not-so-successfully negotiating a raise, but more interestingly how increasingly research has shown that there is no “gap” in between the genders when it comes to asking. Rather, the disparity really arises when it comes to which ask is heard.

As Uwagba explains, “While men and women ask for pay raises at broadly similar rates, women are more likely to be refused or suffer blowback for daring to broach the topic.”

This blowback comes from the inability of some people in leadership positions to think critically about the ways in which business still actively dismisses women’s leadership qualities while simultaneously praising less-competent men who demonstrate these very characteristics.

The HBR article acts as good reminder that the cumulative effect of all of these misguided “facts” about women and business often perpetuate the toxic culture that creates and circulates them.

The implication of all of these myths creates a sense that women are the ones responsible for the unequal treatment they often receive. When the message that women receive is that the reason they don’t get a raise is that they didn’t ask—even when they DO—that tells them that their lived experience isn’t as valid as the pervasive “truth.”

This is, simply put, gaslighting.

Even more, telling women that women face challenges because they didn’t do something or know something, rather than the addressing the very real fact that professional women face sexism at almost every step of their career does not help them.

It only helps those already in positions of power blame women for their own archaic beliefs and actions.

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