Civil servants to be asked to include pronouns in email sign-offs

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Leslie Evans gives evidence at Holyrood - Jeff J Mitchell
Leslie Evans gives evidence at Holyrood - Jeff J Mitchell

Thousands of civil servants are to be encouraged to add pronouns to their email sign-offs under plans for a transgender inclusivity drive, despite a backlash from staff.

The Scottish Government is backing proposals that would ask its 8,000 workers to take a “pronoun pledge” under which they would add terms reflecting their gender identity, such as she/her or he/him, to signatures at the bottom of every work email.

Some people who class themselves as non-binary prefer pronouns such as they/them, while others prefer “non standard” terms such as “zie” or “zir”, which civil servants would be free to use.

Supporters of the plan to “normalise the inclusion” of pronouns have said this would “foster an open culture that is supportive of the LGBTI+ community”.

However, the plan has provoked opposition from civil servants, after an internal survey set up to gauge opinion provoked a row which left some workers in tears.

Almost 60 per cent did not want to add pronouns to their emails, the results showed.

Meanwhile, campaigners raised fears that workers could feel pressurised to comply with the “stupid” and “authoritarian” policy, which has been backed by the Scottish Government but is yet to be rolled out.

Comments written by workers expressing concerns alongside the internal poll were dismissed as “disappointing” by Leslie Evans, Scotland's top civil servant, in a meeting with staff last month.

Documents released on Monday under Freedom of Information legislation show Ms Evans told staff in a Q&A session that “what we write around our name” could be “good and helpful” and said inclusivity policies could be overhauled.

Watch: Pronouns - Showing respect and inclusion

However, Trina Budge, director of the For Women Scotland campaign group, described the pronoun push as “deeply stupid” and accused the Scottish Government of displaying “controlling, illiberal and authoritarian tendencies”.

“A recent poll showed the majority of civil servants were against this move and it is sad, but not surprising, to see Ms Evans disregard this,” she said.

“In forging ahead with this or any associated coerced signing of a pledge, the Scottish Government would, potentially, be discriminating against a protected belief and also inviting sex discrimination.

“It is further evidence that this Government only pretends to consult or openly discuss, and ditches any views which conflict with their predetermined policies.”

A bitter debate has erupted in Scotland about the issue of transgender rights, with Nicola Sturgeon in favour of changing the law to make it far easier for people to legally change their own gender.

Advocates of the changes believe current rules, which require medical reports and for someone to live in their preferred gender for two years, are too onerous and contribute to high levels of mental health problems in the trans community.

Some feminists, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling, strongly oppose the changes, believing they would erode women’s rights and potentially place them at risk in women-only spaces such as prisons and changing rooms.

The survey set up by supporters of the pronoun pledge found that only 17 per cent of more than 3,000 staff at the Government and its quangos who responded said they already used pronouns on email signatures. A quarter said they did not but might in future while 58 per cent said they did not and probably wouldn't.

Many trans and non-binary people introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns, so others know how they wish to be addressed. Some equality groups argue that even for people who are not trans or non-binary, adding pronouns to emails can be an important sign of inclusion towards those who are.

The comments made by some staff left other workers “in tears”, Joe Griffin, a director general in the Scottish Government, said.

He called for “empathy on both sides” of the debate and added: “Nobody in a workplace environment should have the fundamental aspect of their identity challenged.”

It was planned that a follow-up survey would run in September, to measure the impact of the initiative.

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: “It is an individual’s choice whether to include their pronouns in introductions and email signatures.

“The Scottish Government is making progress towards our ambition to be a world leading, diverse employer where people can be themselves at work, with a workforce that reflects the diversity of the people of Scotland.

“As an employer we are committed to a progressive approach to advancing LGBTI equality. We encourage any action that makes people feel included and respected in our organisation.”

Watch: Pronouns for Pets

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