October 27, 2020

ONONYE | The Problem With Pronoun Use in Professional Emails

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I never met a person who didn’t refer to themselves with he/him or she/her pronouns until my first semester at Cornell. As someone passionate about gender justice and gender equity, I had previously understood the importance of questioning gender pronouns and identifying individuals in the ways that they wanted. However, my knowledge about pronoun use was very restricted to theory classes, news articles, lectures, TedTalks, Youtube videos and social justice conferences. Meeting students, faculty, and community members who identify with pronouns besides she/her and he/him has challenged me to “check” my own bias and to ask for pronouns (and present my own pronouns) during introductions.

Two years later, I am in no way perfect. Sometimes I mislabel people or forget to ask for pronouns in conversations. But, I am very aware of pronoun bias and I am constantly correcting myself in order to ensure those around me are addressed in the way that they would like to be represented. For the most part, that has been practiced by using they/them pronouns until I am sure of how individuals would like to be referred to (amazing advice from Prof. Durba Ghosh, history!), including my pronouns in my bios and apologizing immediately when I am incorrect.

However, a place where I still struggle in pronoun use is professional emails. Like many Cornell students know (or will know very soon), networking is key! If you want that internship, study abroad opportunity, fellowship, or research program, it is important to cast a wide net and meet people who have 1) had the position you are applying to or 2) have advice about the program. This recruitment season, I have been more adventurous in networking and have cold-emailed quite a few Cornell alumni regarding advice for internship opportunities. Unsurprisingly, the Cornell alumni that I have reached out to have been very supportive.

However, the initial email is always uncomfortable. Usually, I scroll through the Cornell alumni database on LinkedIn and find alumni with similar interests and passions as my own. If I’m lucky, the person I am contacting 1) has a professional degree so I can refer to them as “Professor” or “Dr.” or 2) has a website, LinkedIn bio, or Wikipedia page that refers to them through pronouns in the third person. However, in honesty that rarely happens. So, like many students on campus, I resort to assuming the contact’s pronouns based on 1) their profile picture on LinkedIn and/or 2) their name.

The problem with professional emails is that they’re intended to be professional. I personally feel uncomfortable sending a networking email and referring to the contact by their first name and equally uncomfortable referring to them by their last name without a title. Although I am aware of the title “Mx.,” I am yet to see the title used frequently enough to use in a cold-email.

So, it’s Ms. or Mr. and that leaves a wide window open for error. Although I’ve never been corrected, every time that I send out a professional email, I struggle with this. My pronouns have never been misidentified and I recognize the immense privilege in this. Although in no way the same experience, having a non-English and pretty uncommon name, I recognize how frustrating it is to be misidentified and further how uncomfortable/annoying it is to correct people when they’re wrong. It’s even worse when people are unwilling to correct themselves. And after all that, the Ms./Mr. binary still exists. Yet another confirmation that the professional world is always ten steps behind.

Unfortunately, this column does not tie in a perfect bow or have any amazing solution. But I felt it worthwhile to voice my frustration with professional emails. A frustration that I’ve heard from many other friends on campus making active efforts to be gender inclusive. Although not a perfect solution, I do urge the Cornell community to remember pronouns in their introductions and online bios in the hopes that little actions lead to larger change.


Anuli Ononye is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Womansplaining runs every other Wednesday this semester.