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Beyond He and She: Does the Singular Use of “They, Them, Their” Function Generically as Inclusive Pronouns for Cisgender Men and Women?

Abstract

The American Psychological Association’s (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2019) style manual recently updated its guidelines to include the use they/them/their pronouns for situations where gender is unknown or irrelevant, which includes situations involving cisgender men and women. As such, we experimentally tested whether non-binary pronouns (“they/them/their”) would function as generic and inclusive singular pronouns for cisgender men and women. As a replication and extension of previous research (i.e., Crawford and English in J Psycholinguist Res 13 (5):373–3381, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01068152, 1984; Stout and Dasgupta in Personal Soc Psychol Bull 37 (6):757–769, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167211406434, 2011), cisgender U.S. college students (N = 381; 269 women and 112 men; M age = 19.41 years old) were randomly assigned to read a job advertisement using: (1) masculine pronouns “he/him/his”, (2) binary pronouns such as “she or he”, or (3) singular non-binary pronouns “they/them/their”. Participants’ memory for the content of the job advertisement was tested along with assessments of sexism and belongingness (i.e., ostracism or feelings of exclusion, whether they identified with the described job, and whether they would be motivated for the work). As predicted, there were gender differences in memory scores in the masculine (men scored higher) and binary (women scored higher) pronoun conditions, but not in the non-binary condition. For all three indicators of belongingness, as predicted, men’s belongingness scores were similar across the three conditions (i.e., men were included or represented by the pronouns used in all three conditions), whereas women’s scores indicated less belongingness when masculine condition pronouns were used (i.e., where women were excluded by the pronouns used) in comparison to when the binary and non-binary pronoun were used (i.e., where women were included by the pronouns used). Together these findings provide empirical support for the use of “they/them/their” as singular non-binary pronouns to refer generically and inclusively to both cisgender men and women.

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Data Availability

Data and are not currently publicly available. Materials related to the memory test are publicly available on the Open Science Framework (see https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/NKQXU).

Code Availability

N/A.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Casey McComb, Maevon Gumble, Celeste Tevis, Amanda Reichert, and Clare Mehta for their contributions to this project.

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Correspondence to Emily Keener.

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Appendix

Appendix

Participants were instructed to read the following job advertisement. Depending on which condition they were randomly assigned, they received one of three versions. The only difference between this and the other versions was the pronouns used. *The bolded pronouns were either non-binary (as shown here), binary (e.g., “he or she”), or masculine (“he/him/his”).

Our workforce is continually growing and thriving. As such, we are currently seeking part-time employees. On average, 71% of our workforce is comprised of part-time (compared to full-time) employees. Those who are hired are typically enthusiastic and bright; we usually know a good employee when we see *them. We are always striving to maintain a work environment that emphasizes a family culture, friendly faces, and an enjoyable atmosphere. We want each worker to feel as though they have the ability to communicate their ideas. When it comes to approaching a difficult task at work, we recognize the benefits of taking a more non-conventional approach.

Our staff is busy throughout the workday. What this means is that they need to be able to work in a fast-paced and energetic environment. However, we certainly do not want a part-time employee’s workload to interfere with their other responsibilities. As a part-time employee, each worker will devote 5–20 h of their weekly schedule to working. Also, each worker can work 7.5 h in 1 day, but they cannot work anymore than that. We accommodate each employee’s schedule around their other responsibilities.

We expect full employee support in fulfilling our goal to maintain a positive experience for the people who visit our facilities. Therefore, on a particularly busy day an employee may be asked to perform additional tasks during their shift to help fellow employees. Naturally, they will be highly praised for being able to adapt to the situation.

Finally, we expect and praise our employees who work as a team. We believe in praising employees who assume teamwork qualities. When we come across an outstanding worker, we believe rewarding them will boost the morale of the team. A worker is typically very pleased when their hard work is praised and the more they are praised, the harder they work! If this work environment sounds like a good fit for you, we encourage you to apply!

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Keener, E., Kotvas, K. Beyond He and She: Does the Singular Use of “They, Them, Their” Function Generically as Inclusive Pronouns for Cisgender Men and Women?. Gend. Issues (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12147-022-09297-8

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Keywords

  • Language
  • Inclusive language
  • Pronouns
  • Sexism
  • Bias
  • Implicit bias