How to Use Inclusive Language in the Workplace

26 of April of 2023

In her poem “Myth,” Muriel Rukeyser imagines an outcome for the tale of Oedipus that’s different from the one we all know. In it, the Sphinx tells him that his answer to the riddle, “What walks on all fours in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon?” was wrong: his answer was only “men,” and didn’t include women. Oedipus replies, “When you say men, that also includes women – everyone knows that.” But the Sphinx says, “That’s what you think.”

Sometimes, we tend to underestimate the power of language and communication. However, how we communicate and refer to things has a big impact on people and their environment. More than we can even imagine.

The impact of language on our reality

As Lera Borodistky stated (Boroditsky, 2009) and demonstrated in various experiments (Philips & Boronditsky, 2009), “language shapes thought.”

One of the structural peculiarities of some languages is that they have grammatical gender; each noun is assigned a gender, usually feminine or masculine, and these genders differ depending on the language. For example, the Sun is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish, and the opposite is true of the Moon.

Can this affect how people think? Does someone who speaks German think that the Sun seems more feminine and the Moon more masculine? That is, in fact, the case. If we ask German and Spanish speakers to describe a bridge (for example, the Concordia Bridge), “bridge” is grammatically feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers will use words like “beautiful” and “elegant,” which are usually considered feminine; Spanish speakers, on the other hand, will use words like “strong” and “long,” stereotypically masculine words (Boronditsky, Schmidt, Philips, 2002)

This impact that language has on the way we understand reality can create biases and prejudices that directly impact our daily lives.

For example, a recent study (Vainapel, Shamir, 2015) showed that, when completing motivational questionnaires, women score significantly lower when the questionnaire uses generic masculine words compared to when they use neutral language.

Other research, such as that of Barros del Río, shows how boys and girls already perceive STEM professions as “men’s” fields from childhood when inclusive language is not used to talk about them.

Towards a more inclusive language

What can we do to make the impact of our language more inclusive? Language habits may feel hard to change, but with some practice and a few simple tips, you can make the people around you feel more included, motivated, and committed with your message:

Here are some ideas to practice: 

  1. Incorporate gender neutral words to your communication

X    “The crew will man the construction site”

🗸 “The crew will staff the construction site”

  1. Pay attention to gender-based language

Using neutral words such as “humankind” instead of “mankind” goes a long way!

  1. Another key aspect of inclusive communication is how we use images, which can be just as important – if not more so – than words.

Some tips on using images:

  • Reflect the range of genders, cultures, ages, and other categories in your images. Representation is key.
  • Reflect diversity in your images in an active way, using words and holding various positions, including leadership
  • Avoid using images that show stereotypes.

Going beyond words

If there’s one thing we have to remember when communicating, it is that inclusive language goes beyond the words we use. It covers all aspects of communication. This includes content, tone, body language, and non-verbal cues. It includes the way we structure our conversations, who we include in them, and the topics we choose to discuss.

Inclusive language goes beyond gender and the use of neutral terms. It involves being aware of and respecting all aspects of a person’s identity, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, and ability. It means avoiding language that reinforces stereotypes or prejudices or which is offensive.

For example, use terms like “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled” or “handicapped”, or include a range of perspectives in a conversation to combat the marginalization of specific groups. By considering all aspects of communication, we can ensure that our interactions are respectful and inclusive for all, regardless of origin or identity. After all, that should be the point of all communication!

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