Pronouns in Profiles
Products with profiles should have fields for pronouns. Here’s how.
Your product has profiles — spaces where people can communicate who they are. These probably include a space for a name, and the option to upload a picture. They might include a banner or header image, a short bio, a field for location, or other info.
One field you should include is pronouns. In this context, a person’s pronouns are the words like “them” or “her” that you use as a shorthand instead of that person’s name when referring to them in the third person. Talking about me, you might say “Tom wrote this article.” or, if you had already been discussing me, “They wrote this article.”. Pronouns are an important part of how to address a person, like an extended property of their name.
A good pronoun field should…
A pronoun field should be optional free text — someone should be able to enter any string they want, but only if they want. Pronouns should be presented near the name field — they’re part of addressing a person, and so should be conceptually grouped nearby.
Some people will put in a single version of their pronouns, like “her”. Some will include more forms of the pronoun, like “he/him”, “xey/xem/xyr”, or “ze/zir/zirs/zirself”. Some might include multiple correct pronouns, like “she/they”. Some people prefer not to be referred to by pronouns and might enter something like “just use my name”. And some people may prefer to link to an outside page which describes their pronouns, like “pronoun.is/e” or a page on pronouns.page.
You may wish to add a more-information affordance for this field, both when a person is entering their pronouns, and on the profile where pronouns are displayed. Some communities have made it normal to explicitly communicate pronouns, while some people may not be familiar with the grammatical term. A sentence or two about what pronouns are, along with examples would be an appropriate tooltip or similar assistance message.
Like any other profile field, when someone enters their pronouns, they should know how this information will be shared — who will see their pronouns in what contexts, and where will they be displayed? Pronouns are deeply personal; it’s best when a person gets to decide the field’s visibility — like they might with an email address or a date of birth. Some may want their pronouns public, other may want them only visible to friends, or to a certain group.
It is important to ensure that people can opt to have their pronouns displayed more or less everywhere their name is. Pronouns are part of how you address someone. People who are frequently misgendered likely want to display their pronouns clearly to everyone who sees their name, to ensure that others have every possible opportunity to learn their correct pronouns. A pronoun field which is only displayed on profiles does not accomplish this, and will lead people to continue using workarounds like putting their pronouns in name fields.
Things to avoid
- Never attempt to compute, predict, or estimate this field based on other information. Don’t use a default. Don’t populate it based on a “gender” or “sex” field elsewhere.
- This field should not be mandatory. If someone declines to specify pronouns, nothing should be displayed. (Declining to enter pronouns doesn’t mean that just any pronouns will do, just like declining to enter a birth date doesn’t mean a person was never born or that all days are their birthday.)
- If the pronoun field isn’t public, respect that choice by ensuring that a person’s pronouns are not exposed through other means. Use approaches like ACL-aware data processing.