Pronoun data governance and integration

Last updated: February 7, 2023
Audience: IT Staff / Technical

Pronouns are now available in Identity.UW. 

Pronouns are now available in your MyUW profile and Zoom.

Upcoming pronoun integrations: UW Canvas, MyUW class lists; exact date TBD.

Identity.UW enables the collection and distribution of pronoun data that individuals have indicated for everyday use in the UW community.

Page purpose — This page describes the overall approach to pronoun data governance, collection, integration, and display to users; for pronoun data collected and distributed from Identity.UW.

Page audience — IT system owners and others who need to integrate and display pronoun data appropriately, and understand the overall approach to pronoun data collected and distributed from Identity.UW.

Pronoun data governance

Goals and purpose

Sharing pronouns is a common part of introducing oneself, in person and online. By providing a central, online location to manage pronouns, Identity.UW supports several institutional goals related to pronoun use:

  • Affirm gender identity — ensure people feel respected and welcomed for who they are, inclusive of gender identity and expression. 
  • Enable self-identification — ensure all members of the UW community can indicate pronouns aligned with their gender identity and expression.
  • Ease pronoun adoption — help people learn the pronouns others go by, so they don’t assume pronouns based on name or appearance.
  • Normalize pronoun use — enable and support everyday norms of sharing and using pronouns.
  • Reduce pronoun misuse — enable respectful use of pronouns and recovery from accidental misuse.

Together, these goals help the UW attract and retain a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff; cultivate a safer, more inclusive, and welcoming community that supports and affirms an evolving range of gender identities, experiences, and expressions; and adopt pronouns in ways that build individual confidence and institutional trust.

Data stewards must foreground and balance several UW values in their governance decisions concerning the collection, distribution, and use of pronoun data:

  • Diversity — diversity is integral to our community; so we value and honor diverse experiences and expressions of gender identity.
  • Equity — everyone has an equal opportunity to indicate pronouns that align with their gender identity and expression.
  • Inclusion — pronoun use promotes a safe, welcoming, and respectful environment, where everyone can thrive and succeed.
  • Respect — due regard and empathy for the basic dignity of others, including gender identity and its expression.

Other values and principles that influence decisions include:

  • Universal usability — making all people successful users of pronouns, including individuals who share them and those who use them.
  • Freedom from bias — i.e., from systemic unfairness perpetrated on individuals or groups, including social and technical biases.
  • Privacy — principles that enable individuals to determine what information about themselves is communicated to others.
  • Integrity — impels decision makers to stay informed, promoting and honoring open inquiry, as well as applying intellectual honesty.
  • Identity — pronoun governance should embrace both continuity and discontinuity of an individual’s sense of self over time, including their gender identity and expression.
  • Autonomy — individuals should be able to decide, plan, and act in ways that they believe will help them to achieve their goals.
  • Nudge, but don’t force — it is both possible and legitimate for institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice.

In applying these values and principles, data stewards must consider the needs of people who share and use pronouns, including the needs of cisgender, transgender, gender nonbinary, and other gender nonconforming members of the community, as well as other stakeholders involved in the collection, distribution, and use of pronoun data.

Although Identity.UW helps people share their pronouns with others, it isn’t the only way pronouns are shared. Some may not want to share them using information technology. Others may share their pronouns in email signatures, on buttons, ribbons, name tags, and table tents, as well as in person, conversationally. In general, people will continue to share pronouns outside of Identity.UW, publicly and privately, online and in real life, in pairs and in groups, and in all sorts of ways that work best for them.

Responsibility and advocacy

UW data governance is the primary governance body and set of practice that applies to pronoun data collected through Identity.UW. Additional governance comes from IT governance, privacy governance, and the UW Diversity Blueprint. Graduate and Professional Student Senate Resolution 03.17-18 (Resolution Proposing Name Pronunciation and Pronoun Options on MyUW) is relevant as well.

The approach to institutional use of pronoun data collected through Identity.UW involved input from the leadership of several UW major organizations, Faculty Senate leadership, as well as other UW community members with interest or expertise in gender identity and expression. The Office of the University Registrar, Graduate School, Academic Personnel, Office of Research, Human Resources, UW Advancement, and UW Medicine provided input on behalf of their community members. The Q Center and Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity also contributed leadership and expertise.

Primary data stewards include:

  • University Registrar for the Office of the University Registrar
  • Assistant Vice Provost for Academic Personnel
  • Assistant Vice Provost for the Office of Research
  • Executive Director for Human Resources
  • Associate Vice President for University Advancement
  • IT Director for the Graduate School
  • Associate Vice President for Academic Services and Deputy Chief Information Officer, UW Information Technology

Note: these designations might change as UW data governance develops an updated approach for data stewardship.

The UW supports and advocates for free-form text for pronouns because members of the UW and higher education continue to evolve the ways they express gender identity through language. At the UW, “what’s your pronoun?” and “what pronoun(s) do you use?” have many answers, and many of them don’t fit into controlled vocabularies of predefined data values. Nor do people agree on preferred formatting for their pronouns. Therefore, free-form text is the basis of the data model for pronouns collected through Identity.UW.

Free-form text promotes free and equitable expression of pronouns by members of the UW community, and pronoun data should be consistent with that aim. Similarly, normalizing pronoun sharing and use is more important than normalization of the data values, especially while expression and formatting continues to evolve. To address concerns that too much variance in the data will impact its usability — particularly for data values with equivalent semantics such as “she/her” and “she/her/hers” — Identity.UW presents some common pronouns and formats. Additional resources outside of Identity.UW are available to support overall usability and respectful recovery from misuse.

Many factors might explain why other universities govern pronoun expression using predefined sets of pronoun options, including their institutional goals and values, local user needs,  implementation scope, schedule, and budget, and other contextual and technical factors. Some universities may have followed “first movers” in the higher education community who used predefined pronoun options under the assumption this approach represents best current practice. However, the AACRAO Student Identity Report (June 2019) says gender expression is still evolving, and therefore recommends predefined pronoun options as a “good” baseline practice and free-form text as a step toward “better” practice and inclusiveness. Vendors may factor into some decisions too: some universities may have no choice but to use predefined sets of pronouns because the vendor(s) they use for student, HR, and other systems support no other options. It may take time and advocacy for more universities and vendors to agree on best current practices that allow universities to govern local decisions without constraining the decisions of other universities.

The approach to pronouns could change in the future, based on feedback from the UW community, ongoing evolution of gender identity and expression through language, community best practices, and/or standardization of related information technology. However, decisions to change approaches will be governed by the same institutional goals, values, and principles, as described above, which are more stable, foundational, and not as likely to change. Being intentional about institutional goals, and disciplined when applying our values and principles, creates the conditions for the UW to be both responsible for and responsive to the needs and feedback from the community. Additionally, implementation costs and availability of resources also factor into any changes to the overall approach to pronouns.

System owners and the organizations they represent are encouraged to approach pronouns in ways that promote diversity and inclusion, affirm gender expression, and sustain institutional trust. The approach to pronouns and data from Identity.UW is governed with those aims in mind, and with an opt-in approach to everyday use throughout the UW community that helps the UW use pronouns more consistently, with fewer places users must indicate their pronouns and less overall duplication of effort across IT systems. Ultimately, decisions about integration and use are up to system owners and organizations: those with prior implementations of everyday pronouns may want to transition to use pronoun data from Identity.UW, and new implementations may want to adopt use from the start. In doing so, system owners can ease pronoun adoption, promote respectful use, reduce accidental misuse, and ensure feedback mechanisms are more holistic and consistent.

Note: This section is under development and review to ensure members of the community know that official communications are being considered, and that related offices have contributed their guidance.

Official communications should follow UW and departmental guidelines, such as Communicating with an Equity Lens. The pronoun data from Identity.UW may or may not be fit for purpose in official communications. Decisions to use it should be based on intended audience, message content, and alignment with the intended use of the data for everyday use in the UW community.

Pronoun data definition

Data definition & categorization

Pronoun data is defined as any record that identifies a person and includes their choice of pronouns collected from Identity.UW for the purpose of self-identification and expression of pronouns for everyday use in the UW community, where “pronouns” refers generally to English answers to the question “What’s your pronoun?” or “What pronouns do you go by?”.

Data stewards have approved the collection, distribution, and use of pronoun data from Identity.UW for the purpose of self-identification of everyday English pronouns, with intended uses throughout the UW community. Individuals who indicate their pronouns on Identity.UW are informed the data is intended for these purposes, and that they should indicate only the pronouns they go by on an everyday basis in the UW community. Individuals who use different pronouns with different people, and therefore might desire more control over the sharing of their pronoun data, can use “ask me” or similar pronoun data, or they can leave their pronouns blank on Identity.UW. These individuals can use alternative means to share their pronouns with different audiences, more privately, on their own terms and timeframes.

The pronoun data managed through Identity.UW is categorized as core data. The business domain relates to the identities of people and to business processes for self-identification and gender expression.

Note: “categorize” is the term used to refer to the process of assigning data to the categories defined by the UW Data Map. It relates to the kind of data. These categorizations might change as UW data governance develops an updated approach for data stewardship.

Although pronoun data collected from Identity.UW is in the same general category as other self-identification data such as preferred name or gender identity, its specified purpose and intended uses are different. Therefore, pronoun data shouldn’t be used to assume gender identity, sex assigned at birth, or salutations. Likewise, someone’s name shouldn’t be used to assume their pronouns. These data elements serve unique and different purposes.

Pronoun data classification

The pronoun data collected through Identity.UW is classified as Restricted information because, though distributed for everyday use throughout the UW community, the data is critical to operations and therefore warrants careful management to safeguard integrity, enable wide availability, and promote appropriate use within the UW community.

Note: “classify” is the term used to refer to the data classification process defined by the UW Privacy Office. It relates to the sensitivity of data.

No, data classification is a practice applied to data sets based on their unique composition of data elements, purpose specification, etc. The Restricted classification is only a starting point for the classification of actual data sets that combine pronoun data from Identity.UW with other data elements. For example, data sets that include the pronoun data and have been anonymized or de-identified might have a Public classification, whereas data sets that combine pronoun data with more sensitive personal data must be classified according to the whole data set and may require a Confidential classification.

Data sets consisting of names, identifiers, and affiliations are often classified as Restricted or Confidential information, because they contain personal data that is subject to laws or regulations, or that could seriously and adversely impact the UW or the interests of related people or organizations. Adding pronoun data collected from Identity.UW isn’t likely to change the classification. Data classification practices should still be applied to each unique data set, and requests for data integrations should be authorized based on business need, and appropriate information security controls and operational practices must be applied.

Pronoun data collection

System of record

UW-IT’s Identity Registry is the system of record for the pronoun data. Identity.UW integrates with the Identity Registry to store and retrieve current data values. Identity Registry holds the official data records and can be relied on to resolve downstream data discrepancies.

User experience

Anyone affiliated with the UW can indicate their pronouns using Identity.UW. New students and employees can do so as soon as they create their UW NetID. No review or approval is needed.

The default data value is no pronoun data (empty string). People who haven’t indicated any pronouns or who have removed them will have no current pronoun data.

Identity.UW uses an opt-in methodology to pronoun data collection so that individuals are aware of the intended, everyday uses of their pronouns throughout the UW community. The opt-in methodology promotes transparency and awareness, and allows members to decide if they want to share their pronouns through Identity.UW, through other means, or not at all.

Identity.UW allows individuals to indicate any pronouns. Although some pronouns are more common than others, Identity.UW doesn’t reduce the options to a predefined set of governed data values. Instead, Identity.UW trusts that individuals are the best source of answers to “what pronouns do you use?”, and that existing UW policies, community standards, and codes of conduct can be applied to any grievances that arise from potential misuse.

Yes, individuals can indicate any pronouns, including free-form text, as long as they align with the purpose of collecting pronoun data: namely, self-identification of everyday pronouns intended to help others use pronouns respectfully.

Yes, Identity.UW allows individuals to indicate any pronouns, including more than one, and the user interaction helps individuals discover common ways others format more than one pronoun (e.g. “she/they”).

Pronouns indicated in Identity.UW are intended for the everyday English language contexts of use that are common across the UW community. However, Identity.UW doesn’t prevent heritage language and other bilingual speakers from including non-English pronouns too. For example, “she/her/ella” or “they/el” (with Spanish third person pronouns) or “she/they/siya” (with Tagalog third-person singular gender-fluid pronoun) may be indicated by individuals who want to invite others of a heritage language or shared cultural background to engage with them in a culturally sustaining way. The aim of governance here is to promote practices of greater inclusion and to foster belonging within and beyond the intended English language context of use.

Pronoun data integration

Data format and values

Your system must be able to integrate free-form text and display it to your users. UW-IT data integration services will model and provide pronoun data to align with this free-form text requirement. Pronoun data is formatted as a string of up to 140 characters and can include printable 7-bit ASCII characters, except for pipe (|) and backslash (\).

No, the pronoun data values are free-form text that most often consists of everyday indicators and shorthand such as “she/her”, “he,him”, “they/them/theirs”, “she/they”, “no pronouns”, “ask me”, etc.

The pronoun data is unstructured. The UW is making an intentional decision not to use data governance to structure, and thereby manage and constrain, data related to the evolving and often complex ways individuals express gender identity through their pronouns. The data values are intended to be human-readable only.

The data format is unlikely to change in any substantial way. Any decisions to change the data format will be based on meeting the needs of the UW community and advancing the institutional goals mentioned above. In the unlikely event that significant changes need to be made to the data format, versioning and other change management practices will be used to reduce impacts and costs.

Integration, storage, and retention

Pronoun data will be available from UW-IT Enterprise Web Services and Events, which provides application programming interfaces (APIs) for integrating person data, including pronouns. If you integrate data from other IT services or data sources, ask your data provider if they plan to integrate and provide pronoun data from Identity.UW.

It depends on where and how you obtain access. In general, pronoun data will be available in existing data sets that include data with similar purposes, such as everyday names and identifiers (like UW NetID) used throughout the UW community. Current customers with roles or authorizations to access these existing data sets will be able to access pronoun data without additional approvals. New customers must request access using standard data access request/approval processes.

Update latencies depend on how your system integrates pronoun data. Identity.UW saves individual choices in real-time to the Identity Registry, and updates are propagated in near real-time to Enterprise Web Services and Events. If you integrate data from some other data source, ask your data provider about update latencies for their integration and distribution of pronoun data from Identity.UW.

You should integrate pronoun data with update frequencies that result in successful pronoun use in your systems and with your users. Many systems will need to update the data at least daily in order to display current pronoun data to their users.

Please consult the data stewards for an appropriate access policy for pronoun data integrated into your system. Although data stewards strive to define access policies that are applicable across systems, actual access policies are often decided on a case-by-case basis to ensure they’re appropriate for the specific data sets involved, including the technical and operational controls you use to enforce access.

No, systems should only integrate and use current pronoun data. Retaining prior pronoun data is not an approved business purpose for most integrations of pronoun data. Do not retain prior pronoun data unless you are authorized to do so. The official data retention schedule will be applied to the official data records in the Identity Registry.

Vendors and integration

Yes, we’re here to help. Contact UW-IT and we can work with you to advocate for free-form text for pronouns. It’s in our community’s long-term interest to implement pronouns consistent with institutional goals, values, and principles (above), and we can work with you, your vendor, and Procurement Services to enable consistent integrations. If your vendor cannot integrate free-form text for pronouns, you might not want to sign a contract with them, or make the contract or its renewal contingent on the vendor supporting free-form pronoun data in their next product release. In the interim, you may not want to enable pronouns in the vendor’s system.

The UW is advocating for data standards with organizations like Educause, AACRAO, and Internet2 to develop and promote community standards that establish free-form text as a common basis for pronoun data integration. If free-form text becomes a de facto or recognized data standard, then other universities and vendors that implement predefined sets of pronouns can do so as additional constraints.

Yes, integrating personal data into external/third party systems requires authorization and an appropriate data sharing agreement. Refer to the UW Privacy Office for more information on third-party data processing agreements.

Pronoun data use

Direct and indirect users

The direct users of pronoun data are people who indicate their pronouns on Identity.UW, as well as people who interact with downstream systems that present pronoun data directly to them. Indirect users include those involved in a context of use (often verbal or written) where the original person is referred to by their pronouns. For example, a student might indicate pronouns on Identity.UW, then their instructor might obtain the pronouns from MyUW class lists, and then the instructor might refer to the student using their pronouns in a conversation with teaching assistants.

Display pronoun data

Display the pronoun data as you receive it, unchanged. Additional data processing is discouraged in order to preserve the integrity of what each person has expressed for pronouns.

Systems that transmit or integrate pronoun data into specific contexts of use (HTML, SQL, JSON, etc.) should safely escape characters to preserve the original data values and manage information security risks.

As with other data elements, system owners and their user experience designers can decide what to display within user interactions, screens, reports, and other contexts when someone hasn’t indicated pronouns through Identity.UW. Leaving the display field blank is one option.

You can refer to pronoun data as “Pronouns” without any qualifiers. For example, user interfaces, reports, and other tabular data sets can use “Pronouns” as a data field label or column heading. Please refrain from describing the data as someone’s “preferred” pronouns because it suggests gender identity and expression is a preference and that respectful pronoun use is therefore optional. Gender identity and expression is more complex than that, and respectful use is neither preferred nor optional, it is expected and warranted. Similarly, the phrase “personal pronouns” is problematic because “personal” can describe a type of English pronoun or something related to private life, and the pronoun data collected through Identity.UW isn’t private pronoun data.

Be careful with translations because pronominal systems differ across languages. While it may seem okay to translate someone’s everyday English pronouns into other languages, the intended meaning may not translate as well as you intend. Therefore, it’s better to ask the person how they would like to be referred to in the language being used.

Guidance and feedback

Note: This subsection will reference resources developed to help individuals and organizations support pronoun use. For example, education and training materials that promote best practices and help the UW community use pronouns respectfully, including resources for transgender and nonbinary individuals.

Note: This subsection will reference resources developed to help individuals and organizations support pronoun use. For example, education and training materials that promote best practices and help the UW community use pronouns respectfully, including resources for transgender and nonbinary individuals.

If a service doesn’t include pronouns and you think it should, contact the system owner or organization that provides the service. Ask if they plan to integrate pronouns. For other options, refer to pronouns feedback.

Refer them to pronouns feedback for options. Several offices are available for individual feedback.

Report intentional misuse and offensive behavior using the UW bias reporting tool. Intentional or malicious pronoun misuse and other offensive behavior has no place in the UW community. People can apologize for and correct accidental misuse, but continued intentional misuse is offensive, should be reported, and may result in disciplinary action. Referring to people using the wrong pronouns, especially on purpose, is disrespectful and can lead to feelings of alienation, exclusion, and overall dysphoria. So please don’t hesitate to report these cases.