Gender Identity and pronouns in a complex Higher Education environment – exploring inclusivity in our professional and academic research cultures.

Project: Internally funded project

Project Details


As an increasingly growing and complex corporate entity, the Coventry University Group (CUG) now encompasses a wide variety of professional and academic staff, as well as students across multiple sites in England.

From an LGBTQ+ perspective, we have noted an increasing call for voices to be heard and represented on LTGBTQ+ topics across all CUG sites, most notably around issues of the expression of ‘authentic self’, including how our unique minority identities can be better recognised and accommodated for in our institutional culture.

There is currently little corporate guidance on the use of LGBTQ+ markers such as pronoun badges, rainbow badges and email signatures that highlight gender identity and/or sexuality. This has led to some confusion, concerns and fears around how staff approach these issues, as well as a mismatch with student expectations of identity expression.

This research therefore seeks to consult staff and students to identify good practice across the group, whilst also exploring and promoting what might be done to better enable inclusivity for all of our CUG Colleagues and students. Through the use of focus groups across the Coventry, Scarborough and London CUG sites , this research will collect the viewpoints of staff (professional and academic) and students (taught and research) to better understand the viewpoints and needs of CUG students and workers. Focus groups will be held on five sites (2x Coventry, 2x London, 1x Scarborough) and will encourage groups of 6-8 participants to share their views from a student, professional and/or and academic perspective.

Utilising a PhD research assistant and an undergraduate consultant, data will be collected and analysed with support of experts within GLEA (DeWinter and Jacobo) and CTPSR (Cheruvallil-Contractor) to make recommendations to the Equality Diversity and Inclusion Council (EDIC) on guidance and institutional changes that may be required. This will be supplemented by a literature review undertaken by DeWinter to explore current trends and best practice in this area. A short video will be produced to highlight the findings and importance of the topic, and the project timelines also coincide with the intent to have our first ever CUG presence in London Pride, July 2023. Research participants will be offered a London Pride entry band (see budget) should they wish to join in with these celebrations in July 2023.

In addition to providing valuable insight to issues of identity and gender expression, this funding is also timely in that a small student research cluster is forming in GLEA focussing on LGBTQ+ studies, with two PhD students undertaking research in this area (Grace Cappy and Kayden Schumacher), supported by the Gender, Equality and Diversity theme in GLEA, with synergies to wider work on gender, recognition and violence against minorities undertaken in CTPSR. Although this proposal is a small-scale project, it offers the opportunity to start to bring in student experts (aligning to the Research Enriched Learning Agenda) and opens up the conversation towards future collaborative research around LGBTQ+ issues.

Layman's description

This project explores the use of non-standard pronoun use for gender nonconforming, non-binary and trans staff and students within the Coventry University Group.

Key findings

‘At a Glance’ Report – Pronouns project

Literature Review Findings:
A literature review was undertaken to better understand the benefits for encouraging pronoun use in the workplace. It found:
• Issues surrounding gender identity are often conflated with sexuality, but do require separate attention.
• The Equality Act (2010) has been tested in court, with the judiciary ruling that gender is a spectrum (rather than a binary) and that the term ‘transitioning’ infers gender fluid and non-binary identities.
• Policy adhering to the Equality Act ‘as written’ is generally seen as insufficient due to outdated terminology.
• Encouraging and enabling pronoun visibility creates a culture of inclusion which significantly increases LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming staff satisfaction as well as perceptions of trust and safety.
• Workplace use of pronoun visibility should be voluntary, but encouragement to use pronouns is seen as highly beneficial, whereas policy focussing on punishing transgression is less useful.
• Many other UK institutions and businesses have outward facing pledges, policies and other inclusion documents to signpost a commitment to trans inclusion, as well as promoting the use of visible pronouns.
• Coventry has poor external visibility in terms of equality information, and web searches find nothing in relation to trans issues and pronoun use.
Project Findings:
Focus Groups were held across sites in Coventry, Scarborough and London (virtual and in-person) with staff, student and postgraduate researcher stakeholders. In total, 24 staff engaged in the focus groups, 4 PGR students and 13 students engaged across the UK sites. Adapting the approach seen in an academic Appreciative Enquiry, the focus groups encouraged staff to try and think positively around what works within the CU Group, what works elsewhere and what might be improved to achieve an ‘ideal future’.
The following headlines were identified from the staff groups:
• Staff generally feel that the university is doing ‘ok’ at supporting non-binary and gender non-conforming staff – no critically harmful or negative experiences were shared, but there was room for improvement.
• As such, CUG workplace culture was generally felt to be ‘tolerant’ of gender identity, rather than fully inclusive. Staff generally would like to see the encouragement of pronouns in signatures and bio entries (including on Teams), and badges with preferred pronouns were seen as a ‘nice to have’.
• Staff felt safe on campus, but noted a lack of information and training on issues relating to gender identity.
• Many staff felt a need to ‘self edit’ and leave their identity ambiguous so as to avoid unwanted attention.
• Staff overwhelmingly fed back that they would not know where to look for specific policy guidance, with only generalised Equality Act information seemingly available.
• Similarly, staff felt that the only policy they were aware of was the grievance policy, which many were reticent to go down, feeling it was ‘a last resort’. As such, staff would generally seek help elsewhere in the first instance, either through friends, family or union guidance.
• Staff were also quite critical of ‘outdated’ IT systems and felt it was difficult to get names, titles and other details changed on various internal systems, noting that they felt they were being subject to ‘work arounds’ rather than being fully included.
• There was a lot of anxiety and fear expressed around working in highly internationalised environments, most notably on the London campuses. Much of these fears were ‘what if’ scenarios, with no examples given of ‘real life’ scenarios where gender identity or sexuality had caused issues whilst at CUG.
• Many staff also noted that they would not share their sexuality or gender identity if working overseas. Academic staff were particularly worried about being asked to go to certain overseas countries or overseas CUG campuses, noting that they would likely try and decline in the first instance.
• A number of cisgender and heterosexual staff joined the focus groups in order to find out more issues relating to pronoun use, expressing that they did not fully understand the reason behind visible pronoun use. These staff members were particularly interested in pronoun badges, and if it might be appropriate for them to wear similar.
• Staff across all sites felt that there was room for further engagement with the local community, with better links to Pride events, as well as other local LGBTQ+/gender identity focused groups and charities.
• Staff expressed that they would like to see more senior leadership buy-in. A number of staff who had joined the CUG from other organisations noted that senior leadership had greater presence in events and, in some cases, were reverse mentored by minority staff to help raise awareness.
The following headlines were identified from the student groups:
• Students felt well represented by the Students Union, but found a lot of support in other informal friendship networks. The LGBTQ+ student group was seen to be perhaps more informal with a focus on social aspects, but was still highly valued by students.
• Students generally felt more safe and open to express their gender identity and/or be more open and forthcoming around issues such as trans identity and transitioning status, with far less of the ‘self editing’ as seen in the staff focus groups.
• Students overwhelmingly felt there were barriers between staff and students, with poor visibility of role models
• It was suggested that, should a student see staff using pronouns in their email addresses, they would feel more comfortable approaching that member of staff, as and LGBTQ+/genderfluid/non-binary students
• A student suggestion was a tweak to the phoenix card, noting that some of the blank space could include optional pronouns on the ID badge itself.
The following headlines were identified from the PGR Group:
• PGRs noted that they would like to see the use of pronouns normalised, and allow greater visibility for pronouns in meetings, presentations and other research activity.
• LGBTQ+/gender non-confirming PGRs were generally happy to draw attention to their preferred pronouns on campus and in their research.
• There was some anxiety around ‘getting things wrong’ for non-LGTBQ+ students, specifically around if it was expected to highlight pronouns as an ally, or whether or not it was disingenuous to do so.
• PGRs found themselves caught in between student and staff policy and procedure, noting that the available student policies felt more directed to taught programmes, but also felt that staff information was for full time staff, rather than PGR students
Miscellaneous Observations:
The project also revealed a number of structural ‘oddities’ that had an impact on elements of the project:
• The advertising of focus groups required knowledge of each site’s key contacts, rather than having a ‘one stop shop’, meaning that it was not possible to conduct focus groups in Dagenham on time.
• Internal mail systems do not exist between sites, creating logistical issues with London Pride organisation.
• Hiring an undergraduate student for Research Enriched Learning-focussed project work was not possible, with the standard ‘ambassador’ contract not being suitable for the intended work, and the creation of a new job description posing to be prohibitive to the project timeline.
• A moral objection to the filming of the ‘talking heads’ video added an unexpected barrier to completion of this task, which was unexpected.
• The London Pride 2023 event was extremely well received and popular. Attendees expressed that they felt it was a milestone for the group and they would like to see future engagement in Pride events. That being said, it was noted that it was difficult for Coventry and Scarborough staff and students to attend.
Key Recommendations:
• To try and push beyond framing CU Group LGBTQ+/gender identity policy and procedure solely on the legal wordings of the Equality Act 2010, in order to foster a more inclusive and welcoming workplace culture and to help our LGBTQ+/gender non-conforming staff go from feeling ‘tolerated’ to feeling ‘included’.
• This includes the creation and promotion of training, guidelines and policy documents on LGBTQ+/gender identity, with critical documentation being made easier to locate.
• To improve the external visibility of our LGBTQ+/gender identity policies, procedure and practice.
• To improve linkages between stakeholders (senior leadership to staff, staff to students, etc) to ensure the group is celebrating diversity, spotlighting role models and helping LGBTQ+ individuals to feel ‘normalised’.
• To explore avenues to help signpost pronouns on a voluntary bases, including the viability of printing pronouns on the Phoenix cards or having optional pronoun badges for staff.
Short titlePronouns Project
Effective start/end date1/03/231/08/23


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