Note: Underlined words are defined in the glossary at the end of this article.
Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you. As a child, this was the most egregious lie I was ever told.
Language matters. It is an integral part of who we are, how we’re seen by the world and how we relate to those around us. The words we choose and the way we use them characterize our identity, manifest our belief system and join us or disconnect us from others.
Creating inclusive language in the corporate world begins with how we understand inclusivity in society as a whole. For instance, when providing sensitivity or anti-discrimination training, employers remind us to be aware of those around us and to not do anything that denigrates others; however, this assumes we understand what others consider denigrating. While we know that intentional language is unacceptable (e.g., calling someone a name, racial/homophobic slurs, threats of violence), less overt language is more difficult to pinpoint or regulate. As a cisnormative woman, my use and understanding of language is very different from that of my transgender son.
For my son, who was assigned female at birth, being told by the teacher to form two lines – one for girls and one for boys – opens him up to bullying by those who are confused by his presentation or those who knew him when he presented as a girl. When I hear the boys in his class taunt each other with “you run like a girl,” I wonder if my son feels he’ll be outed to those who know him only as a boy, or if he’ll feel critiqued, that somehow he’ll never be seen as his authentic self.
One of the nuances in creating an inclusive environment is understanding how unintentional language is a systemic problem. Words should be gender neutral and free of stereotypes. Their delivery and intent should be devoid of coded meaning. Sometimes this is simple; oftentimes it is not.
We have all seen improvements to language over the years. If you are a Trekkie, you’ll recall that Star Trek changed their famous “where no man has gone before” to “where no one has gone before” in 1991. Recently, MTV changed their awards categories of “Best Actor” or “Best Actress” to just “Best Actor.” And even more recently, the Associated Press and Washington Post agree that “they” is an acceptable singular pronoun to include gender non-binary individuals.
When we picture discrimination in the workplace, we are prone to picture more overt acts (especially as those are the examples we’re provided in training). According to Newsweek, almost every transgender employee in the U.S. has experienced some form of harassment or mistreatment at their job: of the 90% of transgender workers who faced discrimination at work, about 25% were forced to use restrooms that did not match their gender identity, were told to dress, act and present as a different gender from their own to keep their job or had a boss or coworker share private information about their transgender status without their permission. But what about the other 65% (90% minus 25%)? Discrimination can be as simple as being misgendered or overhearing an inappropriate joke between colleagues. It can be as invasive as being asked about one’s health status (did you have surgery yet?).It can be as subtle as not being invited to lunch with your peers or not being called upon in team meetings. Or it can be as devastating as not getting a well-earned promotion or being told you’re not a good fit for the company.
How a company uses language sets the tone for its employees. While harassment and discrimination policies can solidify rules on how we treat employees and colleagues, our use of language is more difficult to regulate. Unconscious bias, stereotypes, misinformation and long-standing habits all feed into how we use language poorly. For my son and many others in the transgender community, reductive language is the worst offense. For example, the term “transgenderism” is considered problematic because it’s used by anti-trans activists to dehumanize trans people and reduce them to a condition. Or, more commonly, the term “transgender” is misused as a noun instead of an adjective: Instead of saying “the transgenders,” which is reductive, it is preferable to say, “the transgender people.”
The Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) is no longer the best approach; what if how you want to be treated is not how they want to be treated? The newer Platinum Rule (treat others as they would want to be treated) requires us to learn about and celebrate our differences, not just tolerate or acknowledge them; use the language we are asked to use (the correct name and pronouns); and own our mistakes (apologize if you accidentally misgender someone).
As a writer, editor and professor, I have learned many words; as a trans-advocate, I have watched language evolve and improve in its inclusivity. But as the mother of a transgender boy, the best words I’ve ever heard said to my son were, “You are perfect the way you are.” While words can hurt, they can also redefine us and, for many, make us whole.
Cisnormative: Pertaining to cisnormativity, which is the assumption that all human beings are cisgender, i.e., have a gender identity that matches the sex they were assigned at birth.
Misgender: To refer to someone by the wrong gender pronouns.
Non-binary: Neither masculine nor feminine. Gender non-binary individuals exist on the spectrum of gender identity, and often use gender neutral pronouns.
Transgender (trans): Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth.
 Silva, Christina. “Almost Every Transgender Employee Experiences Harassment or Mistreatment On the Job, Study Shows.” Newsweek: Feb. 22, 2018.
 Ennis, Dawn. “10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say).” Advocate: Feb. 4, 2016.
About the Author
Senior Consultant, Engagement, Conduent Human Resource ServicesMore Content by Margaret Botney