At the University of Wollongong (UOW), we understand that building a sense of belonging helps to bring out the best in employees. We recognise the importance of nurturing staff relationships founded on mutual trust and respect, enabling people to bring their whole selves to work rather than hiding their identities.

One simple, inclusive practice we thought would assist us in working better together is learning to pronounce people’s names correctly and using their preferred pronouns.

Correctly pronouncing an individual’s name is a fundamental sign of respect. Similarly, sharing our pronouns with others (they/them, she/her or he/him) disrupts the culture of making assumptions, and provides the information needed to refer to someone appropriately.

How it happened

  • The Associate Deans for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (AD-EDIs) at UOW approached the Strategic Marketing and Communications Division (SMCD), Information Management & Technology Services (IMTS) and Research Services Office (RSO) to identify processes we could use to encourage staff to voluntarily add their pronouns and name pronunciation to all work-related platforms.
  • We formed a project team with representatives from AD-EDIs, SMCD and IMTS and met regularly to discuss ideas and progress.
  • We devised methods and clear user guidelines to enable staff to add their pronouns and pronunciation to the institutional external-facing academic profile platform and the institutional staff listing web pages.
  • Our awareness campaign targeted the whole University. We provided staff with links (to the Minus18 pronouns guide, for example) via a newsletter to educate themselves about the importance of using someone’s preferred pronouns and not making assumptions about their gender.
  • The Vice-Chancellor and many Senior Executives incorporated pronouns into their email signatures, lending visible top-down support for the initiative.
  • Next, we picked Faculty of Business and Law to pilot the initiative.
  • This began with sending an email to staff within the Faculty informing them of the initiative. The Heads of Schools and Discipline Leaders helped us to promote the initiative to the staff.
  • An Excel spreadsheet was developed with the names of all full-time staff in each school, with columns for adding the pronouns and the pronunciation of their names.
  • Then, the School Administrative Managers emailed all staff with the link to the Excel sheet, allowing them to update their pronouns and pronunciation.
  • Staff received reminder emails, and the Faculty’s AD-EDI attended discipline meetings and encouraged staff to use the link to update their details.

Approximately 20% of staff members, including some of the Faculty’s senior leaders, voluntarily added their pronouns, pronunciation or both to the list. Finally, the list was used to update the Faculty staff listings.

In addition, many staff began using their pronouns and/or pronunciation in email signatures, Zoom, Webex, the Scholar page and other platforms.

Deconstructing the experience

Reflecting on our experiences and the outcomes of the proof-of-concept initiative, the team at UOW offer these insights:

First, it is critical to have project implementation teams that include academic and professional staff, enabling diverse knowledge and capabilities.

Secondly, changing the traditional norms and mindsets is not an easy or linear process. But we need to start somewhere, and the early adopters of the initiatives will be the influencers encouraging the majority to be more inclusive.

In an ideal world, we wish to see all staff embracing the initiative and voluntarily adding their pronouns and/or pronunciation, but we expect that this will happen over time.

Behavioural change relating to EDI matters cannot be rushed or pushed. We need to make small incremental changes to our behaviour to create safe and respectful work environments. Role modelling by leaders can also encourage staff to embrace these EDI initiatives.

Third, we should help our colleagues see how our EDI initiatives relate to their teaching and research activities wherever possible.

Finally, not all IT systems are designed to let users to add pronouns or name pronunciation to their profiles, nor can they integrate with other systems to support a streamlined and efficient process for adding, updating and displaying them.

This project was an initial step toward integrating pronouns and pronunciations on UOW’s digital presences. It is hoped that this will lead to wider adoption of pronouns and pronunciations in UOW business practices, including the UOW main staff contact directory.

This story was shared by various colleagues from the University of Wollongong:

  • Shamika Almeida, Jenny Fisher, Lisa Slater, Madeleine du Toit, Jun Chen and Mark Freeman (Associate Deans for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion)
  • Suzanne Kotevski, Lia Sherwood, Ann Hollifield, Ashleigh Dewar (the team from the Research Services Office; Scholars; Strategic Marketing and Communications Division; and Information Management and Technology Services)
  • Natalie Asquith (Diversity Advisor)