Every day, organizations use language in a variety of ways. They produce press releases, job announcements, product information, and advertisements for the public. Internally, they must communicate with staff about new benefits, job opportunities, and policies through brochures, e-mails, and other means. Moreover, employees communicate with one another on a regular basis. Each of these communications provides an opportunity for an organization to assert its values. Therefore, organizations that are committed to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion must avoid biased language in their communications.
Biased language may seem like a minor issue. Some may think that one or two words make little difference. In fact, the opposite is true. Researchers have found that job announcements that use masculine language discourage women from applying. Race and gender bias in textbooks can negatively impact students. Customers may avoid companies that use insulting language. Because biased language matters, organizations take care to avoid it. Read on for tips on avoiding biased language in some common areas.
Avoiding Biased Language when Discussing Race and National Origin
Race can be a sensitive topic. Therefore, care should be exercised when referring to racial groups. Here are some suggestions:
- Use the latest terms. Currently, the proper terms for racial groups in the U.S. include African American, Asian American, and Latinx. (Latinx avoids gender bias that may come with the use of Latino or Latina.) Never use outdated or offensive terms (e.g., “Oriental,” “colored”).
- When in doubt, ask. Some people descended from the first North Americans use the term Native American. Others prefer American Indian. Some request that their tribal affiliation be used. When in doubt about which term to use, ask.
- Avoid terms that subtly reinforce biases. When speaking about multiple racial groups that are not white, use the term “people of color.” Older terms such as “minorities” or “nonwhites” reinforce the idea that whiteness is the norm.
- Avoid pejorative terms. Referring to someone as “an illegal” is insulting. If the person’s immigration status is relevant, use the term “undocumented person.” Never refer to any immigrant as a “foreigner.”
Avoiding Biased Language when Discussing Gender
Gender-biased language is so common in the United States that we don’t often think about the biases the words carry. Also, thanks in large part to transgender advocates, our understanding of gender is rapidly evolving. For these reasons, leaders and organizations must evaluate all communications for gender bias. Here are some guidelines:
- Avoid making casual references to gender. While it may seem normal to address a group by saying “C’mon guys,” or “Attention, ladies and gentlemen,” these terms display gender bias. Women are not “guys.” Moreover, some gender fluid people may not identify as ladies or gents. Therefore, it is best to use neutral phrases such as, “Welcome everyone,” or “Attention, please.”
- Be careful about pronouns. When preparing documents, avoid using “he” as a stand-in for all genders. Also, some gender fluid persons prefer to use the pronoun “ze” or a singular “they.” Be aware of and honor these preferences.
- Offer more choices. If you must ask employees or customers about their gender, go beyond the standard “male” and “female.” Include options for gender-fluid persons and those who identify with neither gender. Include an option for those who prefer not to answer.
- Review your job descriptions. Does your organization have positions such as “chairman” or “foreman”? Do postings refer to “manpower” or “manhours”? Women may react react negatively to such ads. Ask a team to review job announcements for gender bias or hire an outside consultant to do it.
Avoiding Biased Language when Discussing Sexual Orientation
In the past ten years, the nation’s understanding of sexual orientation has shifted. Our language patterns must shift as well. Here is some advice on writing and speaking about members of the LGBT community:
- Use the correct terms. The proper term is “sexual orientation.” “Sexual preference” implies that one’s orientation is a choice. Gay is preferred over homosexual. Transgender is correct; transsexual is not. Offensive or derogatory terms should never be used.
- Use the correct terms correctly. A man who is romantically involved with other men is a gay man. He is not “a gay.” Similarly, a person who has transitioned is a transgender person, not “a transgender.” Be aware of how terms are used.
- Use “spouse” or “partner.” Forms or invitations that require employees, clients, or customers to disclose their marital status must be drafted carefully. Do not use terms like “husband” and “wife” in a manner that assumes heterosexual marriage (e.g., “Men, bring your wives.”) To avoid this, use “spouse” or “partner” instead (e.g., “Spouses are welcome to attend.”).
Avoiding Biased Language when Discussing Disabilities
Those with disabilities have worked hard to dispel the myths associated with many physical and mental conditions. But language patterns have been slower to change. Here are some tips for discussing disabilities:
- Put people first. People are more than their disabilities. When writing or speaking, always put the person before the disability. (“John, who is visually impaired, walks to work each day.”)
- Do not use language that unnecessarily praises or pities a person with a disability. “Oh, poor John, confined to that wheelchair.” “He’s so brave!” Comments such as these treat disabled persons like children rather than adults that are capable of leading rich and full lives.
- Don’t joke about mental illness. “Her desk is so clean. She must have OCD.” “He’s so bipolar.” “She’s crazy.” Unlike physical disabilities, most people with mental illnesses do not show outward signs of their condition. Though comments such as these may seem lighthearted, they can insult or shame people with actual mental illnesses. Such remarks do not belong in the workplace.
- Who’s normal? Do not use “normal” as the opposite to disabled. Similarly, avoid the term “able-bodied.” If a distinction must be made, the term “non-disabled” should suffice.
Respectful communication is a hallmark of cultural competence. To communicate with respect, we must learn the language of respect. Avoiding biased language is the first step in the right direction. To learn more about language, bias, and cultural competence, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses. The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.