No Label: exploring the language of diversity and inclusion

07 September 2017

“We need to hire more women”

“Our executives are all pale, male, and stale”

“We need more diverse talent”

These are all common needs I discuss with clients who are aware they need to change something in their organisational culture. I fully support any effort to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace but I fear that labelling our needs and the resulting initiatives in this way can result in a fragmented approach to inclusion.

As part of the process of identifying inconsistencies and blockages in organisations, how many of us consider the influence of the language we use to discuss people and culture? And how it perhaps perpetuates stereotypes and prevents us from addressing the roots of cultural issues?

Anna Kegler in the Huffington Post writes that the language we use to talk about diversity is ‘sugar-coated’ to favour dominant groups. In an article focused on commonly used language around race and its implications she illustrates the dangers of labelling:

Terms like “white privilege,” “inclusion” and “unconscious bias” all sound just... too nice…” And, “Corporate pushes for “diversity” are often flimsy CYA efforts to mask sustained homogeneity, and “inclusion” is often code for tokenism.” Sugar-coated? Food for thought indeed!

Embedding bias through words

Research from the Society of Diversity shows that people may reserve their strongest endorsement language, for example, ‘confident leader’ or ‘insightful’, for some groups (in this case male) and weaker endorsement language such as ‘works hard’, ‘diligent’, and ‘collaborative’ for others (in this case female).

Says Leah Smiley of the society: “Although ‘works hard’ is certainly not negative, research clearly shows the term signifies weaker levels of praise and corresponding performance ratings”. Use of language is one of the ways in which biases become entrenched in organisational systems and processes.

In recruitment, Neil Cockroft, a Capita D&I consultant writes that sometimes criteria for more senior roles are “subtly skewed in favour of the dominant ‘in-group’” and that these biased criteria can become embedded in frameworks such as performance indicators and leadership capability models: “Setting a person specification with essential or desired attributes such as ‘drive’, ‘competitiveness’ or ‘assertiveness’ may reflect gender or other bias.

According to Cockroft, if recruitment adverts are put together carelessly, the effects of exclusive language damage recruitment efforts from the outset. For example, the use of “words and phrases that reinforce stereotypical male attributes such as ‘determined’, ‘winner’, ‘relentless focus’, ‘necessary gravitas’, ‘can own the room’.”

It’s the little things

“Inclusive language creates space for meaningful conversations to take place….instead of shutting [people] out, it creates opportunities for honest dialogue to emerge” says Matthew Jones for Business Insider. This is exactly why we should make the effort to adjust our language. With a little thought and care, inclusion can really be articulated easily.

Take the London Underground for example that has recently replaced the phrase ‘ladies and gentlemen’ with terms like ‘everyone’ in its announcements to help make “everyone to feel welcome on our transport network” and to be “fully inclusive, reflecting the great diversity of London” according to Mark Evers, director of customer strategy at TfL.

Mindset change will take time but results can be pretty instant! Social media scheduling application Buffer was alarmed to find less than 2% of the applicants for its engineering roles were women. They soon learned that language had a huge role to play. Simply replacing the word ‘hacker’ with ‘developer’ resulted in a 7.5% increase in female applicants. “The vagueness of the term meant fewer people, especially women, were able to see themselves in the role, so they opted out of applying” according to Chris Lennon in Recruiting Trends.

Going back to Anna Kegler’s piece on ‘the sugar coated language of white fragility’, Kegler writes that “White fragility has to shift before the language can shift. To start effecting that shift, we can think more critically about what words we’re using now, and why.”  

I believe the two go hand-in-hand. We must be mindful of the challenge we create by highlighting difference (diversity) without helping individuals to articulate with compassion for their peers. If we are to effect the mind-set shift then we need to help - by using language now that, over time, will become embedded in everyday conversations and will entrench itself into a healthier corporate culture.

Where on earth do you begin!

Language is a powerful tool which can have a significant impact (both positively and negatively) but is it truly possible to understand the impact from your communication, before the damage is done!

In my opinion, there are a couple of simply things any organisation can do to be sure they’re heading in the right direction...

  • Track the Media: where organisations simply haven’t considered a campaign from a number of perspectives, it’s often in the news! Remember to research online to be sure you don’t fall foul to previously highlighted poor use of language.
  • Survey the audience: don’t be afraid to get opinions from a wide range of employee and candidate stakeholders. Rather than guessing, they’ll tell you how they feel and the impact that reaction will have on their behaviour. 
  • Don’t view a single point in time in your approach: consider the impact from a number of micro messages over time.  What I mean by this, is that you should consider the language being used and behaviours at every point in a candidate and employee journey.  Sometimes it’s simply what you don’t say which is as meaningful as the words you DO use!
  • Test, test, test: TFL won’t necessarily have happened upon the right use of language immediately. They’ll have tested the response and refined over time. 

Author Kirstie Kelly

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