Posted: 29 Jun. 2021 8 min. read

The Power of Inclusive Language

Building diversity and inclusion in the workplace

The Power of Inclusive Language

We, as a society, are at an important inflection point in modern history. As our world faces a global pandemic, political unrest, and a heightened awareness of racial injustice, a new normal is emerging.

The workforce is becoming increasingly diverse and a recently published article asserts that “the new workforce is focused on being valued for the multiplicity of their identities—their whole self—as opposed to just the singular conventional delineations to which they belong.”1

In order to meet the demands of this increasingly diverse workforce, we need people who are willing to lead in new and more inclusive ways. Highly inclusive leaders exhibit six core traits – curiosity, cultural intelligence, collaboration, commitment, cognizance, and courage.1 Actively and consistently demonstrating these traits often requires purposeful shifts in behaviors and mindsets. One important way to demonstrate inclusive behavior is by using inclusive language.

Like any other skill, becoming fluent in inclusive language takes commitment, time, and practice. As shown in Deloitte’s Equity Imperative, “equity…takes commitment to examining and redressing the bias and racism built into everyday decisions, which may appear fair on the surface, and which may have even been designed with good intentions, but ultimately have disparate effects on racial and ethnic minorities and other marginalized identity groups.”3

In this blog, we highlight the importance of inclusivity, discuss the case for inclusive language, and share practical tips for using more inclusive language.

The Importance of Inclusivity

“If we don’t intentionally include, we unintentionally exclude. The power of diversity thrives in a culture of inclusion.”
 —Corey L. Jamison and Frederick A. Miller, The Linkage Leader: 7 Actions for Creating an Inclusive Organization

An organization cannot leverage all the benefits of an increasingly diverse workforce without an environment that is inclusive and encourages people to bring a variety of experiences, ideas, and perspectives to the workplace. Creating an inclusive environment and fostering a culture of belonging requires all levels of an organization to demonstrate inclusive behaviors.

Deloitte’s recent Human Capital Trends research4 identified belonging as a top human capital issue organizations face today, with 79% of organizations agreeing that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce was important to their organization’s success in the next 12–18 months; yet, only 17% of organizations have the processes in place to advance these initiatives.

While the business case for inclusion is well-documented, the pace of change towards meaningful inclusion is slow. The delayed change has several culprits, but a major one is that without a cultural transformation, inclusive practices are likely to be performative and unsustainable. A recent study found that while inclusion-focused initiatives are important, exhibiting inclusive behavior is essential for real, sustainable culture change and fostering greater inclusion.5

The Case for Inclusive Language

Language is an extremely powerful tool. It can unite people and facilitate shared understanding. Inclusion is influenced by everyday words or phrases that we use. One practical and effective way to demonstrate inclusive behavior is by committing to continuously learning about and using inclusive language.

So, what is inclusive language?

Inclusive language is the recognition that words matter and that word choice can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, to include or exclude others. Using inclusive language communicates with people in a way that is respectful and brings everyone into the conversation.

Language is not static and cannot be used independently of historical context. While the meaning of certain words may change over time, it is often challenging to disassociate words from their original meaning or traditional use. 

For example, the term “peanut gallery,” which some may use to mean “observers,” historically refers to the cheap seats in a theater where non-White patrons were forced to sit. Given how this term was historically used, peanut gallery has racist connotations.6

Inclusive language is essential to help people who have been historically marginalized (because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability status, and/or other aspects of their identity) feel included. We all have a responsibility to remove words and phrases from our vernacular that may be harmful to others. An intentional effort to use inclusive language may challenge deeply ingrained habits or beliefs but is needed to foster a sense of belonging for all within the in.

Inclusive Language in Practice

Using inclusive language is a continuous journey of education that includes actively listening to learn and being open to feedback (e.g., not responding defensively if someone recommends adjusting your word choice or phrasing in a given situation). Word-choice is often habitual. Another aspect of building one’s inclusive language capability is being open to acknowledging and correcting a mistake. Listening to others, asking questions, and learning the historical context of words and phrases are important steps to take in order to use more inclusive language.

Here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Use people-first language that centers on the individual rather than their descriptor.
    For example, using “people with disabilities,” rather than “disabled people.”
  • Set aside any assumptions about the background and preferences of others; use neutral words related to gender, sexual orientation, and other distinguishing qualities.
    For example, saying "you all" rather than "you guys," or "spouse or partner" rather than "husband” or “wife”.
  • Consider the historical context and implications of words and phrases. It can be surprising to learn the origins of seemingly neutral idioms are based on oppression or cultural insensitivity.
    For example, the phrase “divide and conquer” has connotations of the oppressions of colonialism, and “grandfathered in” has roots in Jim Crow-era voting laws that discriminated against Black individuals.
  • Listen to others when they share words or phrases they find harmful.
    For example, at one organization, colleagues who identified as Black were asked to share words and phrases they find harmful or non-inclusive. Some, specific to voice and appearance (“can I touch your hair”, “you’re so articulate!” or “you sound white”), others with historical weight (“slaving away”, ”cracking the whip”), and still others pointing to a lack of cultural sensitivity (“what are you mixed with”, ”where are you from originally”).

 

Additionally, practical tips to consider when you hear or say non-inclusive language are highlighted below:

Conclusion

Inclusive language is a powerful tool for demonstrating inclusive behavior and cultivating a sense of belonging among an increasingly diverse workforce. It takes deliberate action to break habitual use of words and phrases that are not inclusive and often requires one to commit to a continuous journey of listening, learning and growing, the benefits and positive impact of which can be far-reaching across an organization’s workforce and beyond.

Authors:

Contributors:

Endnotes

1 Moving diversity and inclusion from categories to completeness

2 The Six Signature Traits of Inclusive Leadership 

3 The Equity Imperative

4 2020 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 

5 Unleashing the Power of Inclusion

6 https://www.businessinsider.com/offensive-phrases-that-people-still-use-2013-11#3peanut-gallery-3

Get in touch

Christina Brodzik

Christina Brodzik

Principal | Deloitte Consulting LLP

As a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP, Christina brings more than 20 years of experience to the human capital space. She focuses on financial services and insurance, and specializes in a wide range of transformations including strategic change, talent strategies, learning solutions, talent acquisition, and diversity & inclusion. As the national leader of Deloitte’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Client Service practice, she is a certified facilitator for Deloitte’s Inclusive Leadership Experience and Strategy Inclusion Labs. In addition her client responsibilities, Christina has served as the Financial Services Women’s Initiative lead for partner/director talent planning, as well as the Human Capital Women’s Initiative deputy.