“Hi, my name is Jennifer. My preferred pronouns are she, her, hers. And I’m a student in Philadelphia.” Outside of LGBTQ centers and conferences, this kind of introduction is unusual. At business school, we’re working to make it mainstream.
The term “cisgender” means that your own idea of yourself as female or male (your gender identity) matches the gender that you were assigned at birth (that moment when the doctor shouts “It’s a girl!” or “It’s a boy!”). The world expects you to be cisgender, and not meeting those expectations can be a difficult experience. Cultural conventions around gender lead to hugely high rates of intolerance, discrimination and violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people. Changing social gender norms is one way to reduce the danger faced by this community.
On Wednesday, we’re inviting everyone at the Wharton School to wear their preferred gender pronouns on their lapel. My impression of a person’s gender, based on appearance, shouldn’t be the only information that I use to decide what gender pronouns to use. Substantially more important are the pronouns that the individual requests that I use. Wearing our pronouns on Wednesday is a step to show that we understand that each person is the sole and ultimate authority on their gender.
While the issues related to gendered language and norms deeply affect the transgender community, it is a limiting paradigm that affects us all. We have seen people socialized to align with the gender binary, and the limits this places on realizing their full potential: women demoted to secondary, supportive roles in executive teams; men struggling to live up to a “real man” image and ignoring their emotions. A gender binary limits us all; our possibilities open up when we allow variation, ambiguity, overlap, change and individuality.
None of us chose our gender. If we’re lucky, our own gender identity matches the one that was assigned to us at birth. Then we can take it for granted that we can dress how we wish, be referred to by the correct gender pronouns, and generally feel at ease in our own skin. We want to create an environment at Wharton where everyone can make this level of assumption about their gender presentation, and one step is wearing our pronouns this week.
Jennifer Redmond, 31, and Edisa Rodriguez, 30, are graduate students in the Wharton School, class of 2016, and co-presidents of Out4Business, Wharton’s LGBT+ MBA organization.