What is inclusive language and how it benefits organisations
By Shazma Ahmed, Shape Talent Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant
The culture of a place can be described by ‘how it feels’ or ‘how things are done’. As organisations strive to create more inclusive cultures and workplaces, it is important to remember, how leadership, colleagues and peers communicate with each other is a significant driver of that ‘feeling’ and culture of inclusion that organisations are striving for.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language is a communication style that fosters inclusion and belonging by avoiding the use of words and phrases that exclude, offend or discriminate groups of people based on their race, gender, age, sexuality, socioeconomic background, physical or mental ability (and any other underrepresented minorities).
What is the issue?
Here is the tricky part; historically, our language hasn’t always been inclusive and there are common phrases, terms and expressions to demonstrate feelings and scenarios that remain exclusionary and, in some cases, offensive and discriminatory.
Language forms a significant part of how we communicate. Gender and other societal norms are embedded in language, taught and passed down. There is consideration and work to be done with the use of language when we are working towards breaking inequitable and discriminatory societal norms. We need to be mindful, slightly tweak or sometimes reconstruct our choice of words and phrases.
The benefits of inclusive language (and the impact of exclusionary culture)
Language can carry subtle acts of exclusion and the use of non-inclusive language can perpetuate stereotypes and facilitate forms of microaggressions. While much of our word choice is unlikely to be ill-intended, poor choices can still have an impact, creating a feeling of inequality. Workplace environments where such subtle acts of exclusion are commonplace can cause harm to an individual or groups of people from underrepresented groups making them feel othered or a sense that they do not belong. This can in turn result in disengagement and a lack of motivation. It is no surprise then, that research has found that 79% of organisations agree that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce is important to overall business success.
Research also indicates that gender diverse companies and those with inclusive teams are more productive and therefore more likely to outperform their competitors. Inclusive language regarding race, gender, as it applies to people with disabilities and those from underrepresented groups is a key factor in fostering an employee’s sense of feeling included or excluded.
Since working in the EDI space and as my own awareness increases, I have found myself (sometimes rather uncomfortably) attempting to enlighten my friends and family on the harm or issue caused by using certain terms and phrases that were once socially acceptable. I have also been corrected a few times myself! At times, this insight has been welcomed and received in the spirit in which it was offered. On other occasions, however, it has been met with responses like ‘you can’t say anything anymore’ or ‘political correctness gone too far’! It is worth pausing to reflect on the significance of creating a culture of belonging and the risk and harm to individuals and organisations within exclusionary cultures.
How can you communicate more inclusively?
- Be person-centred
When referring or describing a person, be careful not to define that person exclusively by that identity descriptor unless it is relevant to the discussion at hand. For example, rather than using ‘disabled person’, choose instead, a person with a disability. This acknowledges that, in this case their disability is a part of their identity rather than defining the person by one aspect of it.
- Challenge gender stereotypes
Gendered stereotypes and the associated societal norms and expectations are embedded into our everyday language. A common example is the use of the term “guys” to refer collectively to men and women, thus perpetuating a male default reference. Gender stereotyping is especially prevalent in job roles, for example we commonly associate certain jobs with a particular gender; policeman, fireman, dinner lady etc. We can instead be more thoughtful in our choice of words and adopt more inclusive language such as police officer, firefighter or canteen worker.
Another example of an unhelpful gender stereotypical phrase is where a father’s childcare responsibility is described as ‘babysitting’. This implies that it is primarily the role of the mother (a further assumption that parents will be of the opposite sex and gender) to care for the child, with the father ‘stepping in’ as a ‘babysitter’, as external help rather than acknowledgement of core parental caring responsibilities.
Some demeaning examples include describing women as ‘hormonal’ when they express feelings of discontent thereby dismissing a valid viewpoint (and even worse, blaming an uncontrollable biological occurrence). These gender norms are embedded in our culture and carried in our language. Whilst it is not our fault, it is certainly our responsibility to challenge the language use and in turn our own unconscious biases, making adjustments that will foster and encourage more inclusive communication.
- Beware of belittling mental health conditions and their impact
Our casual use of terms to describe our mood, circumstance or another person may sound like: ‘I have been running around like a crazy person’ (I have been very busy today) or ‘I am being OCD’ (perhaps to describe traits of perfectionism) or ‘they’re acting bipolar’ or ‘I am having a seniors’ moment’ (to describe memory loss or brain fog). There can be harm in this use of exclusive and often derogatory language. By using such terms and phrases, we denigrate the impact of mental health conditions on those who experience them and, in my experience, this is perhaps the most common occurrence of exclusionary language in the workplace.
- Check and challenge your linguistic habits
Sadly, there are numerous examples of bias and exclusion in our linguistic habits and culture that cause people from underrepresented groups to feel part of the ‘out-group’ and/or are simply insulting. While being confronted with our own unawareness is uncomfortable, being mindful to make changes in our communication to be more inclusive has numerous benefits. The ripple effect begins with our own personal development, onto another person, groups of people, our workplaces and society at large.
A word of encouragement to those feeling ‘new’ to this style of communication: All experts start off as beginners, and like language, people too evolve. We can make a big impact through small changes by increasing our awareness and being conscious of the language we use.
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 Deloitte US (2021) – Global Human Capital Trends: Special report https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2021/the-evolving-employer-employee-relationship.html
 Mulki, Sapna & Stone-Sabali, Steven. (2020). Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace. Journal – American Water Works Association. 112. 64-70. 10.1002/awwa.1615. https://awwa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/awwa.1615