A language of respect is everyone’s business
By Annie Makoff on 15 January 2021
“Ladies and gentlemen”, “manpower”, “girl boss”, “man flu”. What do all these phrases have in common? On the surface they may seem like harmless, everyday phrases, but through an inclusive lens, they are inherently gendered and can perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes.
Gendered language is problematic because it assumes that gender is binary, yet this is simply not true. According to Rachel Reese, founder of corporate trans and non-binary inclusion consultancy Global Butterflies, around 4 per cent of the general population in Europe and 12 per cent of millennials identify as transgender or gender non-conforming. In the future Gen Z workforce, it’s believed that 1 in 5 may identify as such. “The workforce and the client base are changing so language must change too,” says Reese.
Leyla Okhai, founder of D&I consultancy Diverse Minds believes that adopting gender neutral, inclusive language is important for staff to feel included and involved. “Inclusive language is positive and open across all workplace communications. It doesn’t make assumptions about sexuality, gender or any other demographic,” she explains.
Corporates as advocates
Reese believes the rise in hate crime towards the UK trans community is one of the many reasons why some companies are starting to embrace gender neutral inclusive policies. “Corporates and HR have actually become our greatest ally advocates,” says Reese. “I always say governments come and go, but corporates are forever. They simply want to do the right thing for their employees and their clients by being inclusive.”
For author and business coach Taz Thornton, one of the biggest minefields for employers is balancing all this with religious equality. “It’s ridiculously difficult to navigate those waters when so much LTBGTQ+ hatred and disrespect stems from religious doctrine and intolerance,” she explains.
Yet, as Thornton points out, inclusive language is ‘massively important’: it can be all too easy for someone’s unconscious ignorance to cause upset. Thornton recalls her own experiences of this in the workplace: the manager who informed HR they wouldn’t need to worry about Thornton taking maternity leave because she was gay. The colleague who suggested she should organise outdoor pursuits because ‘you’re like a man’, even though Thornton had long hair at the time and often wore make-up and long skirts. “I even had an evangelical Christian colleague complaining about me recruiting someone else who may be LGBTQ+ because ‘we have far too much of those people already.’”
Living by Values
Experiences like Thornton’s show that an inclusive workplace culture can easily fall apart if it was only ever a tick-box exercise. It’s why Jamie Love, founder of Monumental Marketing insists there’s a big difference in paying lip service to certain values and actually living by them.
“Inclusive values look great on a webpage but very few companies put them into practice,” he says. “What does being inclusive mean in a day-to-day context? When I set up Monumental, I created a culture based on the values I’d have liked to see in my previous roles. For us, being inclusive means having a really open environment where everyone is free to express themselves. Our team is 75% BAME and 50 per cent LGBTQ+ and all our socials have a diversity angle. This environment makes people feel at home and valued.”
There is rarely a need to use gendered language. Law firms for example, frequently use ‘Sir/Madam’ which can easily be replaced by someone’s full name, while terms like ‘plaintiff’, ‘defendant’, ‘third party’, and so on are already gender neutral. Meanwhile, many firms are replacing gendered honorifics with non-binary alternatives such as Mx (gender-neutral), Mre (mystery) and Ind (individual) or they’re getting rid of titles all together.
“Inclusive language needs to align culturally with an organisation,” says Reese. “There are no prescribed language books.” She recommends looking at the language in recruitment communications such as job advertisements, person specifications and job descriptions to ensure it’s inclusive. Education too, is vital.
“It has to start from the top. Every organisation I’ve worked for, the personality of the leader is in that organisation so once a leader starts using gender neutral language it will filter through. The leader needs to be the one setting the beat for the inclusion process.”
When delivering training around this, Okhai believes that inclusive language training is much more powerful than sessions around unconscious bias. Unconscious bias training tends to let people ‘off the hook’ because the premise is always ‘we all have unconscious bias’.
“People are more engaged with inclusive language training. We always have deep and meaningful conversations and individuals really start to see the impact their choice of language can have on others,” she says.
The importance of pronouns
Pronouns too, play a huge role. Reese explains pronouns are a ‘recognition’ of an individual’s gender expression and it’s respectful to use them.
But context is everything. Reese warns against unintentionally ‘outing’ an individual by suddenly asking in public ‘what’s your pronoun?’ It’s about reading the situation. “If you know someone’s pronoun, use it where relevant, otherwise just use their name. But in direct conversation, personal pronouns are rarely – if ever – used. We say ‘how are you?’ not ‘how is she?’. It doesn’t have to be a big deal asking for a person’s pronouns, but remember to give yours!”
Both Reese and Okhai suggest adding personal pronouns to email signatures, work badges and with names on video calls. “If it becomes part of the workplace culture, everyone has the option of being open,” Okhai explains.
Thornton agrees: Employers need to create a respectful, inclusive working environment where identity and sexuality are openly accepted. “Someone’s right to stay closeted must be respected too, though the working environment should be accepting and welcoming enough that nobody should feel the need to,” she adds.
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