Starting with President Kennedy’s Equal Opportunity Executive Order in 1961, which protected federal employees from discrimination, to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prompted the creation of the equal opportunity statement on job applications, the importance of inclusive language and diversity and inclusion awareness slowly came into the collective consciousness.
Progress in inclusive language has been made since those laws were enacted, driven by changes in social attitudes. But there’s still much work to be done to make sure our language is free of bias, intended or otherwise.
As companies look for ways to reflect their values around inclusion in everything they do, they are paying closer attention to what they, and their employees, say.
Here’s a breakdown of what companies are doing to ensure their language is inclusive:
The approaches vary depending on the program, but innovative approaches include InQuest’s gamified Contineo and Cornerstone OnDemand’s microlearning program. The goal is the same: to create a culture of inclusion, starting with the words we use at work.
Part of that formula is refining communication skills. That means learning how to incorporate inclusive language through real-time feedback and activities that show what biases sound like.
For example, in an exercise called “Just by looking at me” — which was put forth in an inclusion guide from MIT — a participant might disclose a learning disability and practice requesting from colleagues to avoid using the terms dyslexia or ADHD in a cavalier way.
AI Tools for Inclusive Language
For organizations or individuals who don’t have the time or the money for intensive anti-bias training, organizations like the Linguistic Society of America, GLAAD and the National Center on Disability and Journalism have put out great resources for inclusive language. These resources are updated guides on what language is appropriate and preferred by various communities.
“If you use terms that are inaccurate like ‘wheelchair-bound’ or calling an Indigenous person an ‘Indian’ you lose credibility with sources and audiences,” says Rachele Kanigel, editor of The Diversity Style Guide.
Resources like the Diversity Style Guide can help educate employees on the right language to use, and why even more under-the-radar insensitive terms like ‘elderly’ or ‘exotic’ can contribute to creating non-diverse cultures.
But remembering all of these guidelines is tough, especially as guidelines change.
In response, a new crop of AI tools are helping companies keep track of ever-evolving best practices around inclusive language. These are tools that correct language right in the browser, so employees never have to worry about whether they’ve unintentionally been biased or insensitive.
Job Description Anti-bias Tools
While the equal opportunity statement was the first national push to combat bias in the hiring process at private companies, tools like Textio, and Taprecruit have emerged to help address the issue of gendered language in job descriptions.
These tools aim to target explicitly biased language, like changing the word manhours to person hours or engineer hours. They also weed out implicit bias.
Implicit bias can come in the form of gender-coded language, words like ninja and aggressive. Words like inspire and collaborate can help to attract a more gender-balanced applicant pool.
By addressing these issues at the outset of the hiring process, companies can not only signal to potential hires that diversity and inclusion really matters, they can also help foster a feeling of belonging, too. This is especially important in industries and companies where minorities are already underrepresented.
Data-driven Diversity and Inclusion Tools
Good intentions can’t take a company very far when it comes to diversity and inclusion. With tools like Ascending, which helps companies measure and improve equity, diversity and inclusion, companies can back their plans with data.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many large companies like Ubisoft and Mondelez have launched diversity and inclusion initiatives with fancy microsites to market their commitment to diversity and inclusion.
But without data that actually measures the proportion of their workforce drawn from diverse backgrounds, as well as the retention of these employees, they may not have much impact.
What Ascending does is allow companies to audit and rebuild their culture through tactical training and specific hiring and retention standards around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
“DEI is the frontier of software, human capital management, and HR resources systems,” says Jeremy Evans-Smith, Ascending’s Founder and CEO. “At the beginning of ‘this is a thing,’ DEI was considered a luxury at some companies. Now DEI is business critical.”
MayHabibis co-founder and CEO of Writer,an AI writing assistant for teams. May graduated with high honors from Harvard, is a member of the World Economic Forum, and is a Fellow of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.
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