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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion language

It’s easy to make the case for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. McKinsey say that top-quartile companies for ethnic diversity outperform those in the fourth quartile by 36% in profitability.


Yet progress is slow – the UK government’s 2021 longitudinal small business survey found that only 6.1% of SMEs were led by a majority of people from an ethnic minority (excluding white minorities).

Language is a key factor in addressing the problem. If we use the right language, we include rather than exclude. We open up conversations instead of discouraging difficult questions. We get people thinking, rather than just accepting the way things have always been done.

Language and society evolve together – when one progresses, so does the other.

Language is essential to your DE&I efforts.


“There is a huge business case for diversity. You will be making products for people you don't understand, you don't interact with. If you don't have an inclusive, diverse workforce, it makes you myopic.”

- Renee James, CEO listed on Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women

Set yourself up for success

To be successful, DE&I should be integral to everything the organisation does – from mental health support to hiring practices.
But it’s not just what you do that matters. How you communicate can make a big difference too.

Good communication isn’t simply about choosing the right word – it’s the intention behind those words, the tone and delivery, the people you’re communicating with. Your DE&I language strategy will only ever be successful if it accounts for the ever-changing, complex nature of communication. A dos and don’ts list isn’t enough.

Get the basic principles right

Language changes all the time. A definitive list of terms to use or avoid will be out of date in a few years. But having an inquisitive, open and flexible attitude to language means you’ll always be up to date.

Follow these basic principles, and the words will sort themselves out:

1   Think first, write second.

Words are powerful, so use them with care. Try to understand as much about your audience as possible before you write – if you know what they need from you, you’re less likely to exclude them.

2   Don’t make assumptions. 

You can never know what it’s like to be someone else, so don’t try. Instead, let them speak for themselves, and ask them about the language they would like you to use when you speak about them – including their pronouns.

3   Keep language positive

In general, talking about people as victims or deficient in some way isn't a good approach. Instead, focus on their strengths and use terms that define them in a positive way.

4   Make it relevant

Don’t highlight unnecessary details about someone if it’s not important to the context. Readers don’t need to know someone’s gender, skin colour, disability etc unless your content depends on it.

5   Never stop trying

You will never be able to create a definitive list of terms to use and terms to avoid. Instead, focus on encouraging a culture of being open to change. Speak out against inappropriate language and learn to improve as an organisation.

Work to actively avoid inappropriate language

Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to use words and phrases that go against what you’re trying to achieve with your DE&I initiatives. Some of these are so ingrained in our culture that it will be many generations before they’re gone.

It’s important to keep reminding yourself and others around you whenever you hear inappropriate language. Decades ago, unthinkable terms were common language – it’s only through constant effort that we can remove them from people’s everyday vocabulary.

Here are some common terms that we should be avoiding today:

Terms that define people “the handicapped” or “the homeless”. Instead, use language that focuses on the person like “person with a disability” or “people without a home”.

Gendered terms “mankind”, “chairman”, “dinner lady”, or assumed pronouns.

Making someone out to be a victim

...for example “afflicted by”, “crippled”, “impaired”.

Making someone out to be a criminal

...using phrases like “committed suicide”, “prostitute” or “illegal alien”.

Phrases that imply white supremacy

...such as “whitelist”, “non-white”, “black market”, “coloured”
(when referring to anyone not white).

Phrases that imply an unequal relationship 

...including “poor”, “lower class”, “third world”, and “empowerment”.

Making Anglocentric assumptions

...such as writing about Christmas as if everyone celebrates it.

Terms that legitimise unethical practices “child marriage” which is only ever a forced marriage, or “marital rape” which is no less wrong than rape.

The word "normal" always tricky. Never use it to imply someone’s disability, sexual orientation etc isn’t normal.

“Inclusion is not a matter of political correctness. It is the key to growth.”

- Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist


Transform your organisation’s culture

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is high on the agenda for any organisation. And with any DE&I initiative comes change. New terms to learn. Old language to move away from.

Some of these changes will be obvious. Some might not make sense until you look into the reasons behind them. But behind all of them should be an ambition to actively improve equality for everyone – going beyond simply discouraging problematic language to encouraging people to think about what they say and the affect it has on others.

Don’t let resentment build

Even with the best intentions, DE&I language initiatives can be divisive. Many organisations have people that resent being told to be “politically correct”, so it’s important to explain your efforts in a constructive way.

Here are a few suggestions:

Focus on results

Talk about connecting with audiences, maximising engagement, or increasing conversions. Even the most anti-woke sceptic can be won over by results, whether that’s more customers or more sales. To gain internal buy-in, how about framing DE&I language as a way of widening your prospect base and converting more people?

Explain, don’t shame

People are often afraid of or angry at things they don’t understand. Being prescriptive with terms and condescending to people who get it wrong isn’t helpful. So, if there are certain terms that might not be obvious to some team members, simply explain what they are without patronising anyone.

Be flexible

Change takes time. And language is always evolving. A fully decolonised, feminist, non-ableist way of talking is more of a goal to work towards than a fully realised reality. Lead by example and keep people focused on the wider goal, rather than individual mistakes.

Don’t just avoid negative language, encourage positive behaviour

Even the most inclusive organisation needs to keep improving to avoid sounding inappropriate within a few years. Remember, there’s no absolute right or wrong language, just whatever is right or wrong for your audiences at this particular moment in time.

Focusing too much on the words themselves means you can miss the bigger picture. For example, we could remove all racist language from an organisation, but if that organisation still has systemic problems, like a lack of representation in the board, not much has really changed. An anti-racist approach says it’s not enough to be “not racist”. Instead, we need to dismantle racist systems and disrupt the way people think.

“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘it’s always been done that way.’”

- Grace Hopper, computer science pioneer

Know when it’s time to move on

Change is a key theme we’ve discussed here. To stay relevant, organisations must adapt to changes in society and language.
If everyone in the organisation works hard to educate and encourage each other, those changes won’t come as a surprise. The way you communicate will constantly and imperceptibly shift as the world moves on.

By working on your culture and giving staff the confidence to think about language critically, the words will take care of themselves.

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