Inclusive Language: Time to Move Beyond the Buzzwords

Submitted by Beatrice on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 08:12

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policies and initiatives have long been considered a pinnacle of ethical business practice. These seek to create an inclusive company culture, i.e. the absence of exclusion or perceived exclusion by team members. These relate to protected characteristics under the UK Equal Opportunities and Discrimination Act (Equality Act 2010): age; disability; gender; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion; sex; and sexual orientation.

Language is a powerful cultural tool. The words we use, no matter how subtle, subconsciously influence human thought, beliefs and behavior. As such, how we describe people and their identities can have a profound effect on how we perceive them, for better or for worse. It also transforms the experience of the reader or listener that either identifies or disagrees with the positions and descriptors that we use in our writing. Because of this, the importance of language has long been understood as a fundamental pillar of EDI practice.

However, ‘inclusive language’ and other EDI buzzwords are thrown around so often in corporate spaces that they sometimes lose their meaning and importance. What does this phrase really mean? How can our language as communicators work to pursue our EDI aspirations, from both a company perspective and as individuals? At AS&K, we believe that commitment to the following principles attests to the success of an inclusive writer.

1. Consider both your audience and your subjects.

We are taught that attuning to our audience – their level of comprehension, wants and needs – is paramount to producing an effective piece of writing. However, we need to go a step further and also adapt for those we are writing about, and do so empathetically and from a position of understanding.

Be sensitive to identity and consider identity-first language (e.g. person with diabetes vs diabetic person) and specificity, i.e. whether being specific about pronouns or protected characteristics is necessary to make your narrative clearer or if it serves to be exclusionary. Regarding your audience, make sure you are comfortable with the region(s) for which you are writing, as variations around correct terminology may exist.

2. Interrogate and understand your positionality.

Positionality is your own personal worldview and the position you adopt when you set out to write something. You may view the task from a unique social and political context, where any unconscious biases may cause blind spots in your writing. Sit with your own thoughts often so that you understand your own beliefs and whether it is appropriate to bring this positionality into your writing (e.g. in an opinion piece) or to remove it entirely and write from a neutral perspective (e.g. in an advisory board report).

3. Educate yourself on stereotypes.

Although we may think we’re entirely aware of extreme stereotypes, often there are much more subtle assumptions we can make whilst writing that may go unnoticed by the uninitiated but will be picked up on by those affected. Avoid reinforcing them.

4. Commit to evolving with the language of the present.

Language is constantly changing, as those who are marginalized become more empowered to express what makes them uncomfortable, and influence what becomes inappropriate in our language. Keep your ear to the ground in diverse spaces and on social media, where many of these changes occur and solidify.

Remember that writing inclusively is only part of the solution for a more equitable world. We must commit to educating our colleagues, friends and family about the importance of inclusive language (and the detriment that non-inclusive language can have), so that we can collectively shift wider discourse from irritation or rejection to acceptance and eventually advocacy.

Whilst one company alone cannot solve the problems of discrimination and prejudice, a company that walks the talk of EDI principles provides opportunities for the workforce to be exposed to different perspectives, beliefs and struggles, enhancing our ability to relate and empathize with each other.

When it comes to the pursuit of equity, diversity and inclusion, there is no finish line. Language will always evolve, and we will continue adapting our communication to the new paradigm. At AS&K, we are always challenging our understanding of the current cultural lexicon, using training and regular updates to EDI resources to keep our writing inclusive. Even though the race will never be over, unlearning and relearning in our pursuit of practicing EDI principles is a process that any aspiring company must commit to, to make a real difference.


Author name and role
Aysia Lawrence, Senior Medical Writer
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EDI for medical writers
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