No Label: exploring the language of diversity and inclusion

No Label: exploring the language of diversity and inclusion

Posted: Thursday 7 September 2017. Author: Kirstie Kelly.

“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...

Kirstie Kelly

Kirstie Kelly

Kirstie Kelly leads the diversity and inclusion practice at Capita HR Solutions. With more than 20 years in the Recruitment and HR space, Kirsty is passionate about people in business. She believes that the world of work should be a positive place and that technology is the disruptor with the potential to finally bring about that change. Kirstie was one of the founding directors of LaunchPad, a video-led technology that enables businesses to make fair, inclusive and un-biased decisions, and she’s also advisor to a number of fast-growth businesses. In her work with clients she helps businesses to change entrenched behaviours - creating systematic and engaging processes to improve decision making about people and culture. An active speaker and blogger, you'll find Kirstie musing over the subjects of the changing face of HR and business where fairness and inclusion matter.