The Importance of Not Misgendering Anyone

Creating an inclusive environment for coworkers and clients

Illustrations ©Getty / nadia_bormotova

To not be seen as your authentic self is isolating; you feel as if you don’t belong.11 The Circle of Human Concern, as defined by Dr. john a. powell, describes creating a society where we all belong. When we misgender and use the wrong pronouns, we contribute to the stigma and “othering” (when someone is labeled as different and treated as inferior) often experienced by persons who have a gender identity beyond the gender binary (either man or woman). 

Our language reflects our society. As such, we can use it to create a more inclusive environment where everyone belongs. Part of this work is actively and continuously creating a space where gender and pronouns are not assumed. For lawyers especially, this is a critical part of ensuring a healthy workplace and happy coworkers and clients.

Social and Personal Identities

We all have a social identity and a personal identity. Our social identity is how others see and group us into categories based on our race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. With this categorization often come assumptions about race, gender, and more. Personal identity is our internal sense of self. For example, Person A’s social identity, created by other people based on outside appearance, is a Black woman. Person A’s personal identity is actually as a Black agender person.22 Personal and Social Identity:;

There are times when social and personal identity mesh and times when they do not. Often, people will choose to present as their social identity instead of their personal identity to avoid being scrutinized or judged for existing as they naturally are. This judgment can lead to trepidation and panic about triggering body dysmorphia (the inner turmoil someone experiences when their assigned sex and gender do not match), can cause or exacerbate mental anguish, and can create anxiety about losing employment or suffering physical harm. Part of the work to ensure a more inclusive workplace is to create a space where people can lead with their personal identity without fear of being excluded or physically injured. 

Gender Identity

Gender is a complex social status, often with societal and cultural expectations around characteristics and behaviors. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is “one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither—how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.”33 Human Rights Campaign:

People are assigned a sex at birth—male, female, or intersex—based on hormones, genitalia, and chromosomes. For some, gender does align with the sex they were assigned at birth (cisgender). For others, gender does not match what they were assigned at birth (transgender). Having only two gender options, male or female, based on sex labels assigned at birth, is how the gender binary continues. Those who openly exist outside of the gender binary are labeled “other,” and can be marginalized because of conscious and unconscious biases and ignorance about different gender identities. 

There are varying gender identities and experiences for people who fall under the trans umbrella, including but not limited to:

  • Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB): Sex assignment at birth, equated to their gender (being a woman because of hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia).
  • Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB): Sex assignment at birth, equated to their gender (being a man because of hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia.)
  • Trans Woman: Someone who was assigned male at birth and realized their gender is a woman. Can also be stated as male-to-female (MTF) trans woman.
  • Trans Man: Someone who was assigned female at birth and realized their gender is a man. Can also be stated as female-to-male (FTM) trans man.
  • Nonbinary: An umbrella term for gender identities that are neither male nor female and are outside the gender binary. This falls under the trans umbrella in that we are not assigned nonbinary at birth.
  • Genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, bigender, pangender:Examples of nonbinary identities.

Pronouns are the words we use in place of someone’s name when referring to that person. For example, “She brought up good points that I think we should contact her about.” In the past it’s been common to assume what the correct pronoun is for someone based on social identity and presumed gender identity. As our language evolves, we need to understand that everyone has the agency to determine for themselves what pronouns they use. Pronouns are not a preference; they are a marker of a person’s identity.

While some people may be comfortable sharing their pronouns, not everyone is familiar with how to do this, and others may choose not to (because of personal safety concerns, if their personal identity does not align with their social identity, or for other reasons). Others may want to be referred to by just their name and to not use pronouns. Pronouns may also change for people over time.

They/them is an example of a pronoun set used when she/her and he/him do not accurately reflect a person’s identity. However, the use of pronouns outside of the gender binary does not stop there. Neopronouns are a category of new terms that go beyond her, him, and them. Examples of neopronouns include, but are not limited to:

  • Ze/zir/zirs
  • Xe/xem/xyr (pronounced “zee, zem, zeer”)
  • Ve/vir/vis

Some people use multiple pronouns; examples can include:

  • She/her and they/them
  • Ze/zir and he/him
  • They/them and she/her and he/him
  • Mx. (pronounced “mix”), Ms., and Mr. as honorifics 
Inclusivity at Law Firms and with Gender-Diverse Clients

It is imperative that workplaces become more accustomed to the ways in which our language is evolving to reflect our society. If we don’t make an effort to normalize and use a person’s pronouns, we invalidate that person’s identity, which puts a strain on how that person moves about the workplace and how they interact with others. Normalizing and using the right pronouns are critical steps in acknowledging the humanity of gender-diverse coworkers and clients. 

Misgendering is the act of assuming someone’s gender and using incorrect pronouns to refer to that person. For example, if someone uses xe/xir pronouns and we say “I need that report from him,” instead of “I need that report from xir,” this creates a harmful environment that can have detrimental and long-lasting effects on people’s mental health and contribute to gender dysphoria. Even if the reference was unintentional, the impact and harm to coworkers and clients is real—for some, it might be equivalent to being told their identity is not being respected. 

What You Can Do

With our coworkers in law firms and when meeting with clients, we can all actively foster a culture of inclusivity by: 

  • Being attentive to how others refer to someone.
  • Introducing ourselves with both name and pronouns.
  • Asking for pronouns during screening calls and on client intake forms.
  • After learning that someone uses multiple sets of pronouns, making a best effort to use both when referring to that person.
  • Starting meetings by inviting everyone to state their name and pronouns.
  • Including your pronouns in your email signature. 

If you do mistakenly misgender someone, make sure you are centering the person harmed in your response. You can center the person harmed by acknowledging and apologizing for the harm caused, and changing behavior by using the correct pronouns. Also, practice! Whether or not the use of gender-neutral language is familiar to you, continuously practicing and making gender-inclusive language an automatic part of your speech can go a long way—in the workplace and with clients.

Respecting gender-diverse clients at your office is the first step. This also extends to clients you represent in court. You can take actions such as:

  • Updating intake forms to include both a client’s legal name and preferred name. This is more inclusive for trans clients who have not undergone a legal name change but still want to be referred to by their chosen name.
  • Including the correct pronouns in court pleadings, and using a footnote to explain if needed.
  • Informing the bailiff and opposing counsel how your client should be addressed. 

Being proactive in creating inclusivity helps establish rapport with the client and, more importantly, respects your client’s identity. 

As we continue to deepen our knowledge surrounding identity and belonging, we can reflect on questions such as: How might the impact of our words differ from our intent? How might our own comfort level, assumptions, expectations, and prior experiences influence beliefs and decisions? Additionally, if we are present when someone is misgendered, how can we call out that behavior while calling in the person doing the misgendering? Part of calling out the behavior is to ensure that we are actively creating a space outside of the gender binary so people are not excluded. Calling in a person to learn more might include asking questions such as, how might the impact of your words/actions differ from your intent, and how might your own comfort level and assumptions be influencing your beliefs and decisions? Calling in the person doing the misgendering is a nonjudgmental effort to open a dialogue, more deeply explore their behaviors, and imagine different possibilities.

It is also important to understand the why: Why are we putting pronouns in social media bios, email signatures, and Zoom names? The goal is to create a place where people under the trans and/or gender-nonconforming umbrellas are able to be their authentic selves. 

. . .


Additional Resources

Many LGBTQ community members and accomplices44 “Ally” and “accomplice” are words often used in social justice work that refer to people who engage in activism alongside others in a marginalized community. “Accomplice” refers to someone who uses their privilege and power to help disrupt the status quo. Another way of putting it: “An ally will listen, an[ ] accomplice will act.” have contributed to this conversation. These resources can be used to further understanding of the consequences LGBTQ community members may face in our cisgender, heteronormative society. 

Community and Social Services




About the author
About the author

Imani Shannon is an Equity and Justice Lead at the Washington State Bar Association, having volunteered and worked in the civil legal aid space since 2010. After being a Spanish/English translator at a day-laborer center in Portland, Oregon, they have dedicated their career to advocacy for intentionally silenced and systemically oppressed communities. Before joining the WSBA, they coordinated volunteer-based civil legal clinics for low-income clients through the KCBA Neighborhood Legal Clinics, and worked as a bilingual domestic violence case manager.


1. The Circle of Human Concern, as defined by Dr. john a. powell, describes creating a society where we all belong.

2. Personal and Social Identity:;

3. Human Rights Campaign:

4. “Ally” and “accomplice” are words often used in social justice work that refer to people who engage in activism alongside others in a marginalized community. “Accomplice” refers to someone who uses their privilege and power to help disrupt the status quo. Another way of putting it: “An ally will listen, an[ ] accomplice will act.”