Do pronoun preferences and titles matter at work? It’s complicated

By Jim Bright

My father always referred to me “as that youth”. I was not son, James, Jamie (Roald Dahl ruined that for me with his Peaches), Jim or even Jimmy. That youth. I’ve been out of the UK too long, and unless Tony Abbott regains power, I shall likely never acquire the title of Sir, unless used obsequiously or passive-aggressively by a customer-service representative.

Men have always had fairly straightforward titles. Essentially, it was always a Master-Mister thing, with the crossover something of mystery. These days, it is rare to hear children addressed as Master. You still come across it in legal proceedings or from doctors.

The title Doctor has become more widespread since the increasing popularity of doctoral degrees postwar.
The title Doctor has become more widespread since the increasing popularity of doctoral degrees postwar.Credit: Nic Walker

The title Doctor has become more widespread since the increasing popularity of doctoral degrees postwar. Even this is a minefield. The Medical Journal of Australia in a 2004 paper found urologists differed in their title preferences with nearly all practising in NSW preferring Doctor, whereas going against this flow (so to speak) Victorians overwhelmingly preferred Mister.

Mister was the title for surgeons in Australia and the UK (but not in the US). However, the Royal College of Surgeons has resolved to use gender-neutral titles, and Doctor, or if appropriate Professor is the term now used.

If you find that confusing just wait till you get the minefield of women’s titles. Mrs means married, Miss means unmarried and Ms means maiden name retained right? Wrong. A fascinating paper by Dr Amy Erickson in the History Workshop Journal from 2014 describes the murky Mrs Miss story. Both Mrs and Miss are derived from Mistress.

The use of Mrs to denote a married woman apparently only became commonplace around 1900. Before then, Mrs was often used to describe a more senior woman, a businesswoman or a woman with wealth, rather than a married woman.

The title Ms, seen as a relatively modern way of moving from Miss that implies the woman as defined by her relation to her father, and Mrs – to her husband, is another form of Mistress that has been about for 300 years.

Now we are living in an age where people are paying attention to the pronouns they prefer as a form of address. So hence He/Him, She/Her, They/Them. However, grammarians will tell you that pronouns, too, have a storied history. She, for instance, apparently first appears in the middle of the 12th century. Pronouns of one gender have been applied to the opposite gender throughout history. Indeed, the move to gender-neutral pronouns has been debated by grammarians for centuries.


As often is the case with language conventions, they can be used unfairly as markers or projections of prejudice. This means that one (to use a good, gender-neutral pronoun) should be prepared for potential discrimination if pronoun preferences are highlighted in, for instance, job applications. Like so many other aspects of recruitment, conservative values and prejudicial and plain wrong thinking continue to exist in some quarters.

Using titles, and personal pronouns in recruitment settings could lead to discrimination. While some recruitment applications may invite you to select your choice of title or pronoun, it does not follow that the people reading your application will necessarily be as open-minded and inclusive.

For the job-hunter, it can be a deeply personal decision as to whether to insist on what is clearly important, or whether to save that decision for when they’ve got the job.

It is also worth considering that just because the person standing as a gatekeeper to a role may be prejudiced, it does not follow that their attitudes are representative of the organisation as a whole, or representative of your immediate future colleagues. People are sometimes slow to let go of language conventions, which is not an excuse for bigotry.

Dr Jim Bright, FAPS, is director of evidence & impact at BECOME Education, an ed-tech start-up Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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