Two colleagues a transgender woman and a non-binary person laughing in a meeting at work

Words Can Hurt Me: Why Inclusive and De-gendered Language Matter in the Workplace

Author: TL McMinn

As someone that identifies as queer, androgyne (a neutral gender between male and female, or neither male nor female), and disabled, walking into any space is nerve-wracking. No matter how confident I may feel, there are always lingering concerns of whether people will be respectful of my pronouns, how I present myself, and if they are secretly judging my use of a cane because I look “too young” to need one.

Many people share my fears and have ones of their own, but no one should be afraid of going into any space, let alone your job. A 2019 study found that employees’ overall sense of belonging within their workspace and their productivity levels are linked. Companies that foster an inclusive atmosphere can experience a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% reduction in turnover risk, and a 75% decrease in employee sick days (Deloitte 2020). This indicates a need for inclusive spaces, but creating inclusive spaces is not a one-step process. Promoting inclusive language practices is one key way to start and is about making an effort to adapt the ways we communicate so that all individuals feel welcome and safe. Through positive, accurate, and equitable representation, inclusive language shows sensitivity, respect, and open-mindedness toward all individuals and groups. 

Inclusive language can take many forms, and the following three categories can be a start to your journey into inclusive language practices. Our list is not exhaustive, but it includes powerful tips that you can utilize today.

Images by Zackary Drucker for the The Gender Spectrum Collection.

De-gendering Language

The workplace can be a hotbed for gendered language. Gendered language are words and phrases that assume a gender, for example, terms like businessman, manpower, and chairman are gendered. It is important to realize that these phrases, and gendered language in general, can be harmful to women, trans, and non-binary people (World Bank 2019). We included just three of the reasons why gendered language can be harmful. 

1. They ignore the contributions of women

Language expert Stan Carey highlights that “phrases like man’s origin and modern man overlook women’s contributions to civilization; man-made and man as a verb downplay women’s labor” (STEM Women 2021). By continuing to use this type of language, we are subconsciously giving men credit for humanity’s achievements, picturing men over women, trans, or non-binary folks, downplaying their contributions to society and limiting their future contributions. Actively removing gendered language from job postings, articles, and meeting notes can help ensure that women, trans, and non-binary folks feel welcome going after jobs, engaging in specific learning opportunities, and contributing to projects.

2. They play into gender biases that disadvantage women, non-binary, and trans people

Using gendered language increases the risk that you are misinterpreting someone’s identity. Stereotypical gender roles or “false generics” are a contributor to this when it comes to specific jobs with terms like “male nurse,” “working mother,” “chairman,” or “businessman” being used without regard for a person’s gender.

Personal misrepresentation as a result of gendered language also includes patronizing language masked as “jokes,” such as referring to a woman as “dear,” “sweetheart,” or telling a woman to “calm down” if she is getting upset or excited over something. This type of language condescends and belittles their contributions; it also implies that passion is accepted in a man but is perceived as irrational in women.

A key place this misrepresentation appears in the workplace is in performance reviews. Performance reviews when directed at women tend to be more abstract than those given to men. For example, being viewed as aggressive towards a project would more likely be seen as a positive aspect when directed at a male colleague, but would be seen as negative when directed towards a woman, this is because women are still primarily seen as docile and nurturers, to which aggression would not be a proper attribute.

3. They can misrepresent a person’s identity

Gendered language can be harmful when it does not match the gender of the person it is applied to. Because pronouns expand well beyond she and he and include many non-gendered pronouns (e.g., xe, ze, sie), if you are unsure of a person’s gender or how they identify, opt for the singular they. The singular they is now accepted in most writing styles and is becoming more common as a personal pronoun, especially among millennials and generation Z. This is also why it is important to shift our language away from guys or “ladies and gentlemen” as a universal greeting or grouping, try using “everyone,” “folks,” “you all,” “employees,” or “people” instead.
It is important to accept and adapt our language to accommodate individuals of all genders, not just those that fall into the binary of female and male, to show our trans and non-binary colleagues that they also matter. Sharing your pronouns, if safe to do so, can be an impactful way to start. Never assume how someone identifies – when meeting someone new, state your pronouns after saying your name.

Ableist Language 

Ableist language is language that is offensive to people with disabilities, and much like gendered language, ableist language is deeply ingrained into our everyday lives and can be hard to notice. Ableist language goes beyond the use of more “obvious” derogatory terms, it includes common sayings like “turning a blind eye” and “falling on deaf ears”; these two phrases associate disability with people’s (often bad) behaviors and make a comparison between blindness, deafness, and ignorance. In the same way, the use of the phrase “that’s lame” – meaning “uncool” – also reinforces the idea that people with physical disabilities are lesser.

Disabilities come in different forms and are not always visible, so it is best to never make judgments or assumptions. Utilizing “people first language” is a good policy overall when talking about individuals with disabilities (e.g., people with autism vs. autistic person; a person who uses a wheelchair vs. wheelchair-bound). However, it is equally as important to respect individuals’ personal preferences when it comes to how they identify themselves, even if you don’t think it is correct. Some people opt for identity or disability-first language, this puts the disability before the person, as a disability is a part of us rather than something we can put to the side, much like I am a queer person, I am also a disabled person, for “as an identity category, disability does not merely describe an individual body or mind, but membership within a wider cultural group” (People With Disability Australia). The term “Crip” (short for cripple), much like “Queer,” has been reclaimed by many within the disability community, myself included (Now Then Magazine). To identify as Crip “subverts the idea that disabled people should hide their disabilities to comfort non-disabled people … it is based [on] the radical idea that disabled people can be openly disabled and still be deserving of respect” (Making Queer History).  

Much like other minority groups, disabled people are a heterogenous community and not all people with disabilities identify the same way, so it is best to ask how someone identifies before you assume anyone’s identity.

Culturally Competent Language

Culturally Competent Language is also about using language that acknowledges the historical context and present day uses that make a word or phrase harmful. It removes harmful idioms from everyday use, like telling your colleagues that you are having a “pow-wow” instead of calling it a meeting, or when in a meeting making remarks like “I don’t need any more comments from the peanut gallery,” a phrase which originated from the section of an audience reserved for Black patrons that were then labelled as “rowdy.” 

Culturally competent language also means that we acknowledge people’s identities, but we do not boil them down to a single attribute. This can look like referring to people by the color of their skin, the style or texture of their hair, or cultural clothing. There are a multitude of different ways in which we can refer to another person, such as the color/style of their outfit, or the type of shoes they are wearing. In doing this, you are not ignoring that these identifiers impact their experience, but you do not use that as a way to refer to them.

There are many other ways in which inclusive language should be used, and Lunaria Solutions can help you along that journey. It is important to note that inclusive language is not meant to be an isolated effort, it is critical that these suggestions are paired with systemic changes to promote inclusion. 

To continue on your inclusive language journey, explore the guides below or Book a support session with us to learn how we can support you along your DEI journey.

Anti-Ableist Language Guides: Ableism/Language

LGBTQ Inclusive Language Guide: A Guide to Using LGBTQ Inclusive Language in the Workplace

Overall Inclusive Language Guides: Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace, Inclusive Language Guide, OHSU Inclusive Language Guide, Words Matter – Guidelines on Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace, Inclusive Language Guide Living Document

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