Every day, we unconsciously carry our own implicit prejudices with us, even as we try to strike up a casual discussion.
"Sorry I missed the meeting — my doctor was really late to our appointment," your coworker might say.
Perhaps you answer without thinking, "Oh, no! But I'm sure he had a valid explanation, right?" After a little delay, you may realise your error – Oh wait, why did I presume the doctor was a man?
Language has the power to form connections and build relationships, but it can also break down barriers and affect a person's sense of belonging.
It's unquestionably important to feel like you can bring your true self to work. In fact, a sense of belonging can contribute to improved customer satisfaction and retention rates.
Furthermore, if your employees feel like they belong, they will be more engaged and driven at work, and you will foster a sense of psychological safety.
But, despite all of that, it's easier said than done. Creating inclusive content and even having workplace interactions free of exclusive language necessitates overcoming ingrained behaviours and biases you may not even be aware of.
This article will define inclusive language and give examples to help you build a more inclusive workplace and marketing materials in 2020 and beyond.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language prevents discrimination against groups of people based on gender, race or socioeconomic status. This type of language also helps you connect with more audiences by speaking and writing in impartial ways.
Inclusive language is defined as "language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people." Any person or group can be excluded by language, but typically this term is used for traditionally underrepresented groups.
Using inclusive language displays a respect for the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that individuals contribute to conversations and gives everybody an equal opportunity to share their thoughts.
Steps to Remember on Inclusive Language
- Inclusive language starts with you. Make sure your pronouns, even when referencing yourself in the third person, include all genders. Don't be afraid to say "We" instead of "He".
- Use gender-neutral terms for people and avoid generic titles like 'man' and 'woman'.
- Avoid gender stereotypes like "women are emotional" or "men love sports" in your content.
- Avoid language that could be perceived as insensitive to a particular group. The terms you use can make all the difference when it comes to inclusion. For example, saying something is nice instead of great means more people will understand the sentiment.
- Inclusive language is not just about gender or race. It's also about socioeconomic status and other diverse characteristics such as religion, sexual orientation, age etc. So be mindful of your words when writing content for others who have different backgrounds than you do.
- Inclusive Language should go beyond marketing. It should be a part of your company culture.
Why Is Inclusive Language Important?
Language's effect on society is indisputable, a subject of research that has shown convincingly that using gender-inclusive language could help reduce such discrimination.
One study found that gender-exclusive language can make individuals feel ostracized from a particular group; another found the contrary - it showed how gender-inclusive language could help in reducing sexism against women in the workplace.
Inclusive language is important because it can help create a more inclusive environment and connect with more audiences by speaking and writing in impartial ways.
1. Teach yourself about the relationship between language and power
Language has a great effect on ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions. What we say every day can either maintain or break down exclusionary power systems in the workplace by providing an uncomfortable environment for employees who are part of underrepresented communities.
Power stems from dangerous historical and current stigmas around identity elements, such as race, national origin, education level, age. Generally speaking, people with more power have access to more opportunities.
The words we use have the potential to reflect this power imbalance. By being aware of systemic inequities, you can minimise their impact on your workplace and other aspects of life.
2. Evaluate the words you use
Language changes over time—words that may have been appropriate a few years ago no longer resonate well with audiences today. To stay relevant, it's important to periodically evaluate the words we use and replace certain ones as necessary based on new information.
When choosing your words, remember the most important principle of precise language is personal agency.
For instance, the term “minority” is still being used to describe people who are not white in the United States. However, many dislike this term, and it can be factually incorrect. Replacing "minority" with a more precise term such as "historically underrepresented" will help you communicate more accurately and inclusively.
Some people prefer the term "person of colour" to describe themselves, but others find it offensive and inaccurate, as well as “women” instead of “female." In this case, describing oneself with a more precise word can be beneficial for all involved.
3. Account for intersectionality to avoid oversimplification
It’s important to use inclusive language for marketing materials, websites, and other assets. Doing this effectively means acknowledging the intersectionality of people’s identities and ensuring that your campaigns represent this intersectionality accordingly.
Take this sentence as an example: “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people of colour and women-owned small businesses.” Even with the best intentions — in this case, shining a light on an injustice — this sentence’s wording separates gender and race and inadvertently excludes small business owners who are people of colour.
A more inclusive approach would be to say that “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on small businesses owned by people of colour and women.” You could even take this a step further by explicitly acknowledging the nature of this disproportionate impact: “As a result of preexisting financial, geographical, and social disparities, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on small businesses owned by people of colour and women.”
If your marketing fails to recognize and reflect intersectionality, it runs the risk of oversimplifying richly nuanced stories that can be hurtful to the people they are intended to uplift. It is always best to opt for nuanced narratives, preferably ones that come from people themselves, even when challenging how something should traditionally have been stated.
4. Commit to practice, always
Inclusive language is critically important to help us change the status quo, which prevents true equality between people.
Periodically evaluate your company’s practices to create more effective communication and relationships among your workforce. Consider surveying all employees for their input, and decide how you’ll measure success; e.g. ensure that 95% of people surveyed say they feel communicated with effectively, enabled in productivity, and appreciate the positive work environment of the organization.
10 Steps to Use Inclusive Language
1. Write with intention
Be mindful of the words that you’re choosing. Ask yourself: Is there an alternative? Is there a more precise word that better describes what’s being talked about? You’ll likely find that there generally is, and it’ll make for stronger, more inclusive writing.
2. Remove problematic language
Create a list of problematic words. Then, find and remove them from your website or blog and rewrite your content. You can also write down the process to help you make your future audits more efficient.
3. Use gender-neutral pronouns
When relevant, use gender-neutral pronouns, like “they.” If you’re doing an interview or writing about a specific person, check-in with them about the pronouns they use, respectfully.
4. Use plain language
Plain language is direct, simple and straightforward. Leave out unnecessary or pretentious words, so the text is easy to understand. Avoid long sentences, jargon, and buzzwords. You can get more plain language tips in the resource section of this blog post.
5. Use people and identity-first language
Leave out descriptors or adjectives when describing others. Some people have reclaimed terms considered negative because they find them empowering. Some alternatives also don’t work and can actually be demeaning. In these cases, I always suggest checking in with people about the most respected terms.
6. Avoid idioms
Idioms are generally specific to a given culture and can have unsettling origins. Do a Google search on any idiom you want to use. It may have discriminatory meanings that you were not aware of. If you find that’s the case, don’t use it.
7. Focus on benefits
When writing about your product or service, focus on the benefits. Show your audience how their lives will improve with what you’re offering. Your products or services should help lots of different people. This will make your message resonate with a lot more people.
8. Use alt text
Add alt text to images on the web. This allows screen readers to read text that gives the user context around what the image is about. There are specific best practices around writing alt text. I’ve included a guide in the resource section of this blog post.
9. Use descriptive links
Don’t use “click here” or “click this link”. People who use screen readers need more context about the link they’re clicking on. Be specific and make sure the link describes the action the user is about to take. For example: Learn more about bank accounts.
10. Guide your user
Make your content scannable by using descriptive headings. Space out your paragraphs to create smaller blocks of text. For content on the web, make sure to use the appropriate headings to help all users understand the hierarchy of your content. It also helps screen reader users navigate through your website.
I hope with these tips that you’re feeling more confident about using Inclusive Language.
Use this checklist to apply what you’ve learned.
- Am I using any problematic words or phrases?
- Is my content easy to read and understand?
- Have I used jargon or idioms that may not be accessible to a wider audience?
- Is my content free from generalizations based on my own experiences?
- Have I left anyone out?
- Does this content serve my audience?
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