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VCU Health promotes diversity, equity and inclusion with pronoun pins

A female doctor and a female patient access representative posing with pronoun pins

By James Shea

In 2020, shortly after Marcelle Davis, Ph.D., was hired as the first director of diversity, equity and inclusion at VCU Health, a medical student inquired about pronoun pins within the health care system. Davis saw an opportunity to bring the pins to the hospital, something that lets others know a person’s preferred pronoun.

“The pronoun pins are a small, outward demonstration of how I actually identify,” said Davis, who now serves as VCU Health’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion. “It helps the patient to have that safe environment to speak. We serve people in the community who might be transgender or might not feel safe openly articulating how they identify, but if they see a pronoun pin that says their pronoun, it provides a safe environment for them to share how they identify, which opens up a dialogue.”

The pins come in four variations — she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/theirs and Ask me about my pronouns. When a doctor, nurse or health care professional comes into a room, the patient can see the pin and engage in the subject of gender identity. 

Davis started a conversation within the health care system. She wanted to know the role of gender identity when interacting with patients and what VCU Health was doing to create a safe place where people could talk about gender. Seeing an opportunity, Davis and her team worked to produce and distribute pronouns pins. In just one month, more than 2,200 have been given away.

“My favorite pin is — ask me about my pronouns,” said Joanne Harris-Duff, program manager in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at VCU Health. “The pin creates an environment where discussion can start. It gives VCU Health team members the opportunity to talk about sex versus gender versus gender identity and gender expression.”

For 25 years, Davis has pushed organizations to look at themselves and understand how they can be more inclusive and diverse. As a Black woman, Davis said the journey started by trying to understand “why I wasn’t accepted for who I was.” Her goal is to help organizations like VCU Health place diversity, equity and inclusion at the center of every decision.

Davis said the work was started at VCU Health before she arrived. Paula Henderson, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at VCU Health; B.J. Shelton, associate vice president of team member experience; Sheryl Garland, chief of health impact; and Kevin Harris, Ph.D., senior associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion for the VCU School of Medicine, formed the planning team and worked collaboratively to craft the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion statement and build a DEI framework that encompassed key areas of opportunity. A formal DEI strategy was launched in January, and Davis said VCU Health continues to make huge strides. 

“What I love about our efforts here at VCU Health is that we don’t just promote diversity, equity and inclusion; it’s much deeper than that for us,” Davis said. “That’s because we recognize that to make meaningful and sustainable change, DEI must be at the core of everything we do, say and touch. So, in addition to promoting it, we hold ourselves and each other accountable to placing it at the foundation of everything we create and then revisiting what is already in existence and adding the DEI lens to improve it. Our goal is to create a workplace culture that is psychologically safe for our team members.”

The pronoun pins are an important part of the effort. Health care providers are encouraged to introduce themselves with their preferred pronoun to create a safe environment, but sometimes that does not occur. The pins are one more way to start the conversation with a patient.

Davis is excited about VCU Health’s direction, and the role diversity, equity and inclusion play within the organization.

“With DEI at the core of VCU Health, our patients can expect to receive optimum care from providers who are only interested in treating the whole patient,” Davis said. “That is only possible when each and every one of us is equipped to celebrate diversity, promote equity and demonstrate inclusive behavior.”

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