The Power of Language in Diversity and Inclusion

Language can be inclusive and divisive. Despite UK Finance releasing its guide two years ago setting out how the financial sector can remove non-inclusive language commonly found within the tech and cybersecurity sectors, its recommendations have recently made headlines again after the Tory MP, Nigel Mills reportedly said, “You’d think bank bosses would have their focus on the country’s economy rather than this woke nonsense”. 

“Language is one of the most important tools we have as individuals and when used well, it can create a common understanding and feeling of belonging. Conversely, when used negatively it can also create and reinforce barriers and feelings of alienation. The use of non-inclusive language is a sensitive, broad and complex topic and covers both the language used in social settings with friends and family and the language used within the workplace.”

- UK Finance Report on Language in Technology and Cybersecurity

The report by UK Finance – a trade body for the financial services sector - sets out how the financial sector can work to remove non-inclusive language commonly found within the technology and cybersecurity sectors.

The purpose of the report and its recommendations was to help drive positive action and remove language that portrays people in an unnecessarily negative light, after research and industry insights indicated that contentious terms have become synonymous with race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, accessibility and criminality, with some terms creating barriers to recruitment and creating inclusive cultures.

Many of the report’s recommendations apply specifically to terms and phrases used in the technology and cybersecurity markets, but also includes recommendations to commonly used phrases such as: 

  • Replacing “black market” with “illegal market”
  • Replacing “grandfather” terms with “legacy” terms
  • Replacing “sanity check” with “sense check” or “spot / confidence check”
  • Replacing “dummy” with “beginner”

As part of driving more inclusive cultures, many employers, industry bodies and regulators have been looking at how we communicate with each other. Phrases such as “man hours”, “hey guys” and “black box”, or describing people as “mad” or “OCD” have already been identified by some employers as non-inclusive language. But this is a sensitive and complex area, which can quickly divide opinion even amongst the most collegiate of teams as some efforts to drive inclusive language can be seen as ‘woke’. 

Ultimately, it is on every person to take responsibility for ensuring the language they use both in and outside the workplace is inclusive. But every workplace also needs to have a degree of trust and empathy in order to foster safe environments where colleagues can speak about these issues openly and appropriately without fear of saying the wrong thing. The UK Finance report sets out three sensible principles of respect to help with this:

  1. Think before you speak. 
  2. Do not be quick to assume malice; and 
  3. Be quick to apologise – it doesn’t matter who was in the right or wrong, be quick to apologise if you have upset someone by something that was said and learn from the experience – it’s how we deal with the situation that defines us.
Further reading: 

UK Finance Review: 

UK Finance Language in Tech and Cyber Technical Paper_FINAL.pdf
UK Finance, EY and Microsoft launch joint report on language in technology and cybersecurity | Insights | UK Finance