"It is important for us to pause for a second and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

- Barack Obama

 

Our words have the power to transform. They have the power to  heal. They have the power to welcome. Thoughtfully chosen and  carefully communicated, they can signal to every stakeholder  what really matters. An absence of mindful communication is a  dangerous void in organisations. The fear of making a mistake or  of being criticised often prevents leaders from speaking up on the  topic of inclusion and diversity.  

However, the necessary vulnerability that comes from talking about  our common humanity and the biases within our society and systems  is part of the learning needed to be an inclusive leader. When we  speak about these topics, we learn more about them, we engage in  dialogue, we connect and create the environment for other peoples  to thrive. This is not a clean process. It is messy. It requires courage,  humility, openness and curiosity. All qualities of an inclusive leader.  When you are committed to the process of inclusion, then you are  wise to reflect on and use words that demonstrate your values. 

Know Your Destination 

The first step in any journey is figuring out where you want to go.  However, this may be less straightforward than it sounds. Often the  same goal can be framed in different ways: you can focus on the behaviours you want to encourage, such as being more inclusive;  or on those you want to prevent, such as the risk of harassment.13 A wealth of psychological research has shown that a focus on  positives, on the outcome you want to happen typically leads to  better results. Focusing on prevention, on the other hand, often  makes matters worse regardless of the intention behind it.14 For  example, even when individuals are actively trying to reduce their  prejudice and promote egalitarian values, a focus on preventing  prejudiced behaviours, rather than promoting inclusion, tends to  work against them and ends up increasing prejudice.15 

Language Differences 

How often have you referred to the chairman or the salesman, rather  than the chair or the salesperson at work? It may seem a trivial,  irrelevant difference, but research shows that the use of gender specific language significantly alters our sense of who belongs in a  particular position. Women who hear male-specific language during  an interview – even something as subtle as using the pronoun ‘he’  exclusively when discussing the role – feel less belonging, less  identification with the job, and less motivation to do it well.16 

A subtle shift to gender-inclusive language flips all those effects and  creates more belonging, more identification, and more motivation.  In a similar vein, research by academics Jane Stout and Nilanjana  Dasgupta in 2011 showed that using gender-inclusive language  signals more positive attitudes toward transgender and gender  nonconforming individuals.17 There are many other benefits to using  inclusive pronouns as well, including a reduction in stereotypes  and discrimination.18 This is a very small linguistic change with very  large benefits. 

One of the most challenging aspects of language is how rapidly it  evolves. Indeed, universally agreed language about issues relating to  race are almost non-existent. Even the most frequently used words in  any discussion on ethnicity can easily cause confusion and at worst  controversy and hostility. It is essential to achieve a degree of shared  understanding, particularly when using the most common terms.  

For example, given the changing demographic trends in the US, the  word ‘minority’ no longer accurately reflects the four-primary racial/ ethnic groups. The terms ‘emerging majority’ and ‘people of colour’  have become popular substitutes for this grouping term. The term  

BAME – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic – has long been used in  the UK to define people from an ethnic minority. In the UK, that it  is approximately 13 percent of the population. However, it has its  limitations.  

Labels 

Using a term like BAME, allows the topic to be raised, while not  necessarily acknowledging the level of nuance necessary to have  meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity in the workplace.  It gives permission to glaze over the variety of specific issues  different ethnic groups might face. Grouping a wide range of ethnic  minorities together under a single ‘non-white’ grouping is a starting  point, but not the end point. At the same time, labels such as BAME  and LGBTQ+ allow disparate groups, bound together by similar,  though not identical, experiences to collectively act and to be  represented in greater numbers. Acknowledging the limitations  of labels when using them helps to demonstrate an awareness of  the power and the poverty of words.  

Beyond the individual groupings within many of the diversity labels  are the overlapping layers of identity within those groupings. The  term ‘intersectionality’ has grown in usage during recent years. It  describes the combination of different demographic identities that  each of us have.  

For example, I am a white, cis-gender, university educated, English  woman.19 In this description, I have listed four categories of diversity  that I identify with. How I feel about each of them will depend on  many factors, including the reception in society and at work. The  reality is that I noticed, nor desired, by those who enjoy its benefits. However, what it  does mean is that my life has had significantly fewer barriers than if I  was a black woman who identified as transgender, had never attended  university and lived in a country that outlawed her gender identity. 

“Put down your armour; be prepared to be wrong; 

use the words that welcome; and listen more than you speak.”

 


Hephzi Pemberton, Founder and CEO

"It is concerning to see there has been a decrease in the number of ethnic minority CEOs since the report by INvolve was published in 2018. After three years, one would also hope to see more female CEOs appointed, but we have only moved by one percent. When so many companies talk about valuing DEI, it’s disappointing to see the lack of visible results at the most senior levels of leadership."