Inclusive language

What is inclusive language? And why would I care?

Not using inclusive language in a personal context has social costs. Not using it in business context has economic costs. But what actually is inclusive language? (It goes much further than gender-neutrality.) And why it is key to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts.

Not using inclusive language in a personal context has social consequences. Not using it in business context has economic costs for companies. But what actually is inclusive language? (It goes much further than gender-neutrality.) And why is it key to companies' Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts?

When you write, at work or privately, have you ever asked yourself if you truly address the whole diversity of your target audience? Are you making sure that with your language you drive this economic and social potential?

Due to recent social movements and a more conscious way of looking at our populations, many people and businesses have become aware that our social and business world is actually very diverse. For many companies investing into diversity and inclusion has become economically important. Any work environment and any business relation has to accommodate many different diversity dimensions - ethnic backgrounds, skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, age, socio-economic differences, religious beliefs, education, culture, and many more.

How we cope with these various dimensions of diversity is economically relevant for any business. Our clients are not a homogenous group and react to marketing messages very differently depending on their diversity dimension. And our existing or potential workforce have different needs depending on their backgrounds.

So, how do we manage these complex realities as a company? Or as an individual in our business relations?

Many companies do cultural diversity or unconscious bias trainings. Unfortunately, science has found (1), that such trainings often do not have an effect. Sometimes they are even counterproductive because people are pushed into a defensive position and others create see the topic as a political battleground and thus make learning impossible.

Individuals, who dare to press for a more conscious handling of a particular diversity dimension, have to expose themselves. That actually can be damaging to their career in the company. Or they might even get bullied by other colleagues over their engagement.

So, neither training nor individual action seem to be a good strategy when a company needs to make sure that diversity dimensions are addressed.

Language matters

A tool that we use on a daily basis is language. Language expresses our concepts of life. With language we describe the world around us, our feelings and our goals.

Words trigger images in our mind's eye. And these images are based on our own experiences or life patterns. So it makes a difference which words we use, because they have the power to trigger particular images in each individual. That also means that language has an active part in shaping our views. It is not a pure symptom of our environment, but rather: it shapes reality. Language is not neutral. (If you want to read more about unconscious bias and bias in language, check out our blog post https://www.witty.works/post/introduction-to-unconscious-bias-and-its-effects-series-on-bias-i).


Here is a small riddle for you to experience how words can trigger images and lead you into a wrong direction:

Read this story.

A father and his son drive together in the car and have a horrible car accident. The father is dead immediately. The son is driven to the hospital with blue lights and immediately brought to the surgery room. A nurse takes a quick look at him and calls the specialist. The specialist comes, sees the young man on the surgery table and says: “I can't do surgery on this boy. He is my son.”

Who is saying this last sentence? (Find the answer at the end of this blog post.)


 

Science has found (2) that, unfortunately, the language we use today still contains many stereotypes from long gone days. In our business communication, we still transport - unintentionally mostly - very old stereotypes, where slavery was still acceptable, women did not belong in the public space, and people with physical disabilities were continuously insulted.

But that is a major disconnect from today’s world. We want to communicate in a way that appeals to and engages people from diverse backgrounds. We want to speak a language that fits a diverse and inclusive world. But our own language, based on unconscious biases, is playing tricks with us, without us even noticing it. As individuals as well as companies we stay trapped in the past.

Inclusive language as solution

Now, if we care, we need to take care of our language use.
Take for example the Inuit. They have many words for different kinds of snow, because snow has such a big impact on their life. To distinguish the kinds of snow with particular names matters to them. They expanded their vocabulary because they cared about something. We should do the same. We should be inclusive in our language - doing so, we show that we care about the people we now want to include.

And that solution is called “inclusive language” - a much more consciously chosen language that can address everyone. According to Wikipedia,

„Inclusive language aims to avoid offense and fulfill the ideals of egalitarianism by avoiding expressions that express or imply ideas that are sexist, racist, or otherwise biased, prejudiced, or denigrating to any particular group of people (and sometimes animals as well). (…) Its supporters argue that language is often used to perpetuate and spread prejudice and that creating intention around using inclusive language can help create more productive, safe, and profitable organizations and societies.“ (3)

First thing to note here: Inclusive language is about much more than just gender neutral terms and also much more than just the gender star or colon.
Second thing to note: While we do like this definition, here at Witty Works we go further. In our view inclusive language is much more. It is about:

  • Addressing everyone. Many expressions we use in order to address someone or a group actually often are not inclusive. And unconsciously these expressions have an effect. For example:
    • Some denominations traditionally belong to the „men’s world“. Behind such words our brain mostly triggers images of men. Like ‚doctor‘, ‚specialist‘, ‚user‘ (4). As these images pop up in our minds - unconsciously -, women or non-binary persons cannot identify themselves in such roles and, due to stereotype threat (5), unconsciously feel excluded.
    • If addressing a target group in a mailing with “Ladies and gentlemen”, we are not being inclusive towards people who are non-binary (people whose gender identity doesn't sit with the binary view of 'man'/ 'woman').
    • But also titles express an in-group or out-group sensation. At an event, putting emphasis on the title „professor“ every time you speak about that person, it looks like a clear hierarchical sign to someone who is not a professor.
  • Involving everyone. Language must make sure that it involves everyone when we communicate with a group. This means that we have to make sure to use language where all can feel represented and where all feel involved. Thus, we need to know word or word combinations that scare off people with diverse backgrounds, often without them even realizing it because it is unconscious. And we need to know what language we shall use that attract all people with diverse backgrounds. So, it is on us to find this vocabulary with regards to all diversity dimensions: Ethnic backgrounds, skin color, gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, physical and mental abilities, age, socio-economic differences, religious beliefs, education, culture, any many more dimensions.
  • Creating a sense of belonging. Language has the power to create belonging. But it only does so if texts are written with emotionality, closeness, authenticity and at eye level. All these characteristics of a text ensure that people of all backgrounds feel respectfully addressed and that the human side is in the foreground. In short: These characteristics if present in a text clearly express that everyone can belong.

Example of non-inclusive vs. inclusive language:

Non-inclusive:
As an independent project manager, you will perform challenging tasks and achieve top performance.


Inclusive:
In project management, you take care of complex tasks, assume responsibility and support a committed team. Together with your team you will reliably achieve the common goals.


 

Why would I care?

We often observe that in business, communication texts are cold, formal, marketing blabla and expressing a top down perspective. Or they neglect large groups of people from diverse backgrounds in how they are addressed or in their diversity.

So, you could ask yourself: Why would I care?

In a business context, diversity and inclusion is extremely important. It leads to more innovation and higher economic performance (6). Also, it is an ethical principle: Involving everyone in the discourse, respecting their background, is just the right thing to do in today’s world where everyone has a right to their space and of whom we know they can bring in valuable, economically relevant perspectives.

If you don’t care, it has economic costs for your business:

  • If a marketing campaign doesn’t address everyone, it loses out on potential customers.
  • If you don't watch your language in internal communications, you could lose the loyalty of people with a particular diversity dimension. If it happens several times, they leave the company.
  • If on your career page you use cold or artificial language, your employer brand won’t be attractive to many potential talents.

But not only that. In some countries, companies risk being sued if they are not in line with diversity laws. Or there is always the risk that one tweet or one LinkedIn message by an employee might not be legally problematic, but can destroy the reputation of the brand or the employer branding within one second.

And: diversity and inclusion is the smart thing to do as it triggers innovation and productivity in teams.

Summary

Inclusive language is a business imperative in a diverse world and in environments where inclusive culture shall reign. With inclusive language you address and involve everyone in the dialogue and ensure that there is a sense of belonging. For companies, it has economic costs not to do so. Thus, inclusive language is the wise thing to do for any company.

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In future blogs we will write more in detail why inclusive language is relevant for Marketing, Internal Communications, External Communications, Recruiting, and Organizational / Culture Development.

With the browser plugin "Witty" everyone can recognise non-inclusive language in their communication and is supported to use inclusive language instead.

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Resources:

(1) Iris Bohnet, “What works - Gender Equality by Design”, page 49 - 54

(2) See https://www.witty.works/post/geschlechtsspezifische-formulierungen-in-stellenanzeigen-das-sagt-die-wissenschaft, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597818301092?via%3Dihub and https://www.witty.works/post/voreingenommenheit-in-ki

(3) See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inclusive_language

(4) Caroline Criado Perez, “Invisible Women : Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”, page 9

(5) See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat

(6) See https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation and https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---publ/documents/publication/wcms_700953.pdf

Solution to the riddle:

Most probable: The mother

Also probable, but much less common (still): the second father of a male homosexual couple with an adopted child.

Did you guess it? How long did it take you? What did you stumble over?

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