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Four Ways to Make Your Organization’s Language More Inclusive

By Michael Hickey

Associations are taking sweeping measures to evaluate and improve inclusivity in their organizations. But inclusivity isn’t always about drastic changes to leadership or operations. It’s about the little things, too—like language.

Word choice matters, and the subtle ways in which we communicate every day can either bolster an inclusive environment for employees and members or erode their ability to feel comfortable participating in your workplace and member community.

Consider these tips to make your organization’s language more inclusive.

Encourage the Use of Pronouns in Communications

GLAAD recommends adding pronouns to email signatures, bios on your organization’s website, and introductions in meetings to show employees how their colleagues identify and how they would like to be referred to in the third person. This not only reduces the chances of employees using the wrong pronouns to refer to someone, but also demonstrates an organizational acknowledgment and acceptance of gender diversity. Plus, it provides an opportunity for employees to volunteer their pronouns so they don’t have to correct others.

That said, how one identifies is inherently personal, and the Society for Human Resource Management points out that some employees may not feel comfortable publicly presenting their gender every time they send an email or join a meeting. While encouraging the practice may promote better gender acceptance, requiring it may backfire.

Use Phrasing That Doesn’t Assume Identity

Substitute phrases such as “Hey guys” and “you guys” with “Hey everyone” or “you all” to avoid speaking as though you’re in a male-only space, and use “they” instead of “he” or “she” when referring to an unknown or unspecified person. Similarly, instead of assuming that someone has a “husband” or “wife,” ask about a “spouse” or “partner.”

The American Psychological Association recently opted to use the singular “they” as the generic third-person singular pronoun as a way to be inclusive of all people and avoid assumptions that may reflect bias. HubSpot’s Caroline Forsey offers an example: Referring to a fictitious VP or CEO as “he” may suggest an assumption that people in high-level positions are, or should be, men.

Consider People- and Identify-First Language

People-first language intends to be respectful of those with disabilities and keep the focus on the individual by putting the person before the disability. For example, it would be more appropriate to say “adults with disabilities” than “disabled adults,” according to the principles of people-first language. The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities offers a list of preferred people-first expressions.

That said, keep an eye on how your employees and members respond to people-first language, because some people may prefer identity-first terminology.

One example: “In the autism community, many self-advocates and their allies prefer terminology such as ‘Autistic,’ ‘Autistic person,’ or ‘Autistic individual’ because we understand autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity,” said Lydia Brown, an autistic disability rights activist.

Review Association-Specific Language

Associations serve a specific population—but if that population is evolving, the language you use might need to shift as well. The La Leche League Canada and La Leche League USA, which support advocacy and education for nursing parents, are predominantly associated with cisgender women. But as the organizations’ understanding of gender identity evolved, they recognized that the term “breastfeeding” didn’t resonate with some transmasculine and nonbinary parents who were nursing.

“Language is always evolving, in the breastfeeding and lactation world as elsewhere,” the organization said in a statement. “Many of the terms used 20 or 30 years ago would be unfamiliar to parents today, and La Leche League must continue to adapt and evolve as language in the lactation area does as well.”

The statement explained that the organizations use the word “chestfeeding” alongside “breastfeeding” and “nursing,” taking a step toward normalizing a new term. “[O]ur volunteer leaders warmly accept whatever term a family chooses for their own experiences,” the statement said.

Use Plain Language

Inclusive language isn’t just about representing everyone. It’s also about being understandable to everyone. Some metaphors or expressions—such as “this is a piece of cake”—are specific to a certain culture and may be confusing to those who don’t come from that culture. That’s why it’s important to strip away jargon or expressions that cloud meaning.

So, instead of saying “this assignment will be a piece of cake,” say something more straightforward, such as “this assignment will be easy to complete.”

Depending on your audience, you may also want to evaluate the complexity of the language you use. Long sentences can inhibit comprehension, including among people who read English as a foreign language. That doesn’t mean every communication needs to be stripped down, but consider who is receiving the materials you’re disseminating and whether your language is inhibiting members—or potential members—from seeing what you have to offer.

This article ran on 12/10/21 in Associations Now.