Inclusive Language Guide for Tech Companies and Startups

Thaisa Fernandes
Aug 10, 2020 · 6 min read

Language is one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings, and it’s extremely important to make sure we’re using it to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome. Therefore, we need to ensure that language evolves over the years so as to not exclude people.

It’s crucial to keep an open mind and understand that there’s always something we can do to better include marginalized groups so that they don’t feel discriminated against because of their culture, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, ethnicity, race or socioeconomic status.

This is a subject that I deeply care about so I decided to write about my thoughts and what I have been doing. The main goal of this post is to bring awareness and promote conversation so that we can benefit and learn from each other.

Having English as my second language may have helped me to see non-inclusive language in common expressions, but also may have prevented me from seeing other non-inclusive communications because I might not even fully understand the meaning at first. After I saw the below tweet, I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I decided to learn more and reset the way I was communicating.

I want to propose an exercise. Let’s not focus on what we think and what is important to us. Some changes might seem unnecessary to you or your friends because they don’t affect your life or existence in the world. Let’s keep in mind that these changes might make people or groups feel more welcome in places or discussions where they didn’t feel welcome before.

Let’s also keep in mind that using inclusive language is not always enough. You can still hurt or disrespect someone even when you use inclusive language because of the way the communication can make them feel. So, let’s be mindful of that too.

We’ll probably make many mistakes. What matters is our willingness to try, to keep an open mind, and to strive to improve. Of course, we can ask for forgiveness even if it was a long time ago, and we just realized now how that word or phrase was inappropriate.

What Is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language is designed to avoid excluding people on the basis of gender, sexual preference, age, race, ability, etc., avoids offensive language, and aims for social justice. This means using language that avoids expressions that imply or express ideas that are sexist, racist, ageist, biased, ableist, or prejudiced to any particular group of people.

An environment that is inclusive helps to ensure equitable access to opportunities for everyone. An inclusive environment ensures individuals and groups feel welcome, respected, and safe. Diversity definitely helps to create a fair and high-performance team and organization, and team diversity leads to diversity of ideas, and in turn, creativity and innovation.

Why is this important?

The language we use matters in our day-to-day business activities with team members and also stakeholders. An important part of building a company is to help everyone feel included and welcome. Inclusivity is a broad topic, and there is much we can do to improve.

In general, we should keep in mind the following tips for more inclusive communications:

  • Personal characteristics: Let’s mention characteristics like gender, racial background, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or ability only when relevant to the context or discussions.
  • Be an ally: Support diverse groups other than your own. Be open to learn new things and invest time studying and taking action.
  • Meritocracy: This is the inaccurate belief that talent and hard work are the sole things needed for an individual to achieve success. This is a dated idea that doesn’t account for structural inequality, degrees of privilege or disadvantage, and implicit bias.
  • Gender-inclusive practices: Consider using the pronoun ‘they,’ and don’t ask about gender in the new candidate application process.
  • Amplification: An ally can listen and amplify the message of a marginalized group or person while giving them credit for it, of course.
  • Avoid acronyms and jargons: If you don’t work in the field and/or English isn’t your first language, it can be extremely difficult to understand what people are saying when they use acronyms and jargons. Make sure your language is appropriate to your audience.
  • Tokenism: The practice of including one or a few members of an underrepresented group on a team or company, without giving them authority or power equal to that of other group members is tokenism. Not only is this inequitable, but this places a burden on an individual to represent all others like them.
  • Impact of mental disability: When we use real psychiatric disabilities as an expression or metaphor, we’re dismissing the serious impact of mental disabilities. Examples may include casual references to “crazy,” “mad,” “psycho,” or “OCD” (obsessive-compulsive disorder).
  • People first: Put people first in constructions that describe their characteristics. For example “a person who is deaf” instead of “a deaf person.” By doing this, you’ll be ensuring that individuals are more important than their characteristics.

We all should gather knowledge and not expect marginalized groups to teach us. That is not their job, we can do our homework, practice and learn, and expand our conscience. The language we use evolves with our empathy and words of choice. Below you can find a list of terms currently used in tech and suggestions for inclusive replacements:

Gendered words

Inclusive communications make everyone feel included because they allow space for everyone’s identities. Here are some expressions commonly used and how you can incorporate inclusive language:

  • She/hers/her or he/his/him → They/them/their
  • Guys → Folks, people, you all, y’all
  • Wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends Spouses, partners
  • Manpower, man hours Labor, labor hours
  • Mothering, fathering Parenting
  • Mom test, girlfriend test → User test
  • Chairman, foreman → Chairperson, foreperson
  • Girl/Girls → For anyone over 18 years old use woman/women
  • Middleman → Middle person

Note: Don’t assume the gender of anyone. If you need to reference their gender, just ask. You can also include your preferred pronoun in your business email signature, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Ableism

Discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities reflects the dominant attitudes in society that assume that some characteristics are better than others and excludes people with disabilities. Here are some examples of common expressions and suggested replacement language:

  • “Normal” → Typical
  • “Crazy” Unexpected, unpredictable
  • “ODC” → Organized, detail-oriented
  • Handicapped → Person with disabilities

Dominant practices

Dominant practices are those seen by many as the way things are supposed to be and preferred. Beliefs centered on dominant culture and values. With this, marginalized people and groups are left behind, feeling they aren’t included or don’t have a voice in the dominant culture. Some recommended replacements for non-inclusive tech expressions follow:

  • Culture Fit Values Fit, cultural contribution
  • Master/Slave Primary/replica, primary/standby
  • Whitelist → Allowlist
  • Blacklist → Denylist
  • Minority Marginalized groups, underrepresented groups

Ageism

Ageism is the belief and actions discriminating on the grounds of a person’s age or in the case of a group, the age of its members. Below are some expressions used that reinforce ageism:

  • Grandfathering/Grandfather Legacy
  • Using “old” as a negative
  • Using “young” as a positive

I don’t know everything, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on how we can do better and shift our communications towards inclusivity. Hopefully, we call all approach inclusivity from a place of curiosity, empathy and willingness to try.

We might not get it right at first, but we should continue to evolve and change non-inclusive language habits that might not mean much to you or your friends, but can positively change someone else’s experience towards the world we live in.

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Thaisa Fernandes

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Problem solver and perfectionist in recovery willing to stretch myself and risk making mistakes to achieve innovative solutions and validate my learnings

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