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Inclusive Language Guide

Understanding how to use inclusive language when talking about EDI can help you engage in conversations with confidence and increase your awareness and understanding.

EDI and language use

During the development of this toolkit, leaders in research reported their concerns about using the “wrong” language when discussing EDI topics. Many people find it difficult to find the words to engage in conversations, either because they are unaware of the terms or because they worry that they will accidentally offend someone or say something that is unintentionally rude.

It’s important to remember that it’s okay to get language wrong. Nobody expects you to be perfect. We are all on our own journey of learning around EDI issues. Talking to people about issues and concepts can be intimidating when you are learning and forming your own thoughts and opinions. It’s better to talk, say something wrong and learn from it, than shy away from these important topics.

Language is always evolving, and it is important to be mindful of any trends. Language can also be individualised – what one person finds acceptable; another may find inappropriate in certain contexts.

If you do unintentionally offend someone by using the wrong terminology, you can always apologise and ask the person what the preferred term/language choice is. It is much better to go into conversations with humility and being open about not being knowledgeable on certain topics. It shows you are open to learning and engaging in these important conversations.

You may feel uncomfortable talking about EDI issues, but this is just normal. Injustice in society is uncomfortable, but it requires all of us to talk about it for changes to happen. You may feel a lot of emotions: fear, confusion, frustration, anger or guilt. This may depend on whether you have experienced discrimination or injustice because of a particular characteristic, or because you haven’t. Either way, just ensure that all conversations are kept respectful.


Talking about gender

Sexism can often be subtle in conversations, and we can all be guilty of it without realising. For example, women are twice as likely to be interrupted in conversation as men, and the language used to describe women and men are very different.

Society often suggests that men can’t express their emotions or be “feminine” in any way. This can have a variety of impacts – from suggesting that women are weaker for expressing their emotions, to the mental health impacts that this can also have on men. Be wary of your biases. Feisty, bossy, sassy, cold, dramatic, overambitious… These are words typically used to describe women in the workplace. If you wouldn’t use an adjective to describe a male colleague, reconsider whether you should use it to describe a woman.

The decreasing representation of women academics with increasing seniority has often been referred to as the ‘leaky pipeline’. Whilst widely used as a ‘shorthand’ for a reduction of women across career stages from postgraduate student to professor, over time, this has become a less preferred term. There are good reasons to move away from the use of this metaphor as it marginalises and demotivates those already in the system, stereotypes career pathways through academia (which can be varied) and devalues transitions to other sectors. It is useful to bear this in mind if you are thinking about using this term, or avoid its use altogether, and is an example of how change in acceptable language can occur over time.

It is good to practice referring to colleagues by their name. If referring to a group, call them friends or colleagues. Avoid patronising or gendered terms, such as girls, pet, or ladies.

Avoid phrases like “man up” or “grow some balls” or “don’t be such a girl”. They are incredibly sexist phrases which you may hear in conversation. When these are used to address men, they also perpetuate the stereotype that men can’t be emotional, and simultaneously indicate that men are stronger than women.

You can head over to the section discussing Gender as a protected characteristic to find out more.

Talking about gender affirmation

Try to pay attention to your language and find ways to switch to gender-neutral terms. Here are some definitions of terms you may come across in this toolkit. You can also explore the Stonewall Glossary. You can also find definitions in the expander below.

You can head over to the section discussing Gender Affirmation as a protected characteristic to find out more.

Talking about sexual orientation

Sexuality is an important part of our personal identity. Whether or not sexual identity is overtly discussed in the workplace, it is present in many of our conversations and interactions. For example, talking to your colleagues about your husband or wife alludes to your sexual orientation. There are many different types of sexual identities. Familiarizing yourself with terminology will help you when having these conversations. You can find some definitions in the expander below.

You can head over to the section discussing Sexual Orientation as a protected characteristic to find out more.

Talking about race

It is important to approach the topic of race with humility, sensitivity and respect. We need to be open and willing to listen to others and learn along the way. It’s good to be informed of the issues which surround and perpetuate race inequality in order to have meaningful dialogues. Rather than turning to friends and colleagues who are not the same race as you, we recommend self-directed learning.

Even if you do not identify as being racist, the way we speak, the jokes we make and the way we address people can perpetuate or normalise racist stereotypes and systematic bias associated with race. Some may feel defensive and uncomfortable when talking about racial inequality and injustice. This has been coined as ‘white fragility’ by author Robin DiAngelo. White people need to be part of the conversations to help dismantle institutional racism. It is important for a white person to engage in conversations which may make you feel uncomfortable and listen to personal experiences.

Understand that you may be discussing ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’, which are not synonymous. ‘Race’ is linked with physical attributes such as skin colour and hair texture. ‘Ethnicity’ is broader and linked to cultural expression and identification.

Language is constantly evolving. Keep in mind that acceptable terminology changes with time. Many phrases that were okay to use in the past, may not be acceptable to use today. For example, the word “coloured” was previously used to describe someone's skin colour, but this word is not acceptable to use today, because of its significant association with colonialism, slavery and apartheid. You can find out more about why the term “coloured” is offensive in a video from Show Racism the Red Card.

There are some words that you should be mindful when using. A term that was previously used and considered acceptable may no longer be recommended because the language has since evolved. For example, the terms BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) and BME (Black, Minority Ethnic) are no longer recommended for use. This is because they suggest homogeneity amongst distinct groups, and emphasise certain ethnic minority groups (Asian and black) and exclude others (mixed, other and white ethnic minority groups). ‘Asian’ in ‘BAME’ is a very broad term, as it could be referring to East Asians, or South Asians. The experiences and difficulties of the Black community are different to those who identify as Asian. This can make individuals feel like their racial identity is not represented or understood. In March 2021, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended that the government stop using the term BAME. Instead, you should refer to ethnic minority groups individually, rather than as a single group. This is another reason why mistakes can happen, and people do understand this. Be open to being wrong and being corrected.

Be open to challenging individuals if they do say the wrong thing, and equally, be open to being challenged yourself. When challenging someone’s language use, do so in a respectful way that identifies what it is that they are saying which is wrong, why this is the case and what they can say instead. You should also think about your response if you are challenged. Avoid responses like, “I’m not racist” or “I was taught to treat everybody the same”, as it ends the conversation. Don’t engage in conversations simply to reassure yourself that you are not racist. Instead, think about what you can do to be an anti-racist ally.

You may have seen or heard the phrase “playing the race card”. This is an extremely offensive and harmful phrase, often used to invalidate the experiences of those who have experienced racism. It is a technique used to shame and silence those who speak out about racial injustice and discrimination. Keep conversations open and do not belittle other people's points of view if you don't immediately understand them. Instead, you can respectfully ask questions and learn more about other people’s experiences.

You can head over to the section discussing Race as a protected characteristic to find out more.


You can download a PDF copy of the Inclusive Language Guide.