An inclusive environment not only ensures equitable access to resources and opportunities for all, it empowers individuals and groups to feel psychologically safe, respected, engaged, motivated, and valued. This is especially true of Gen Z, the most diverse generation yet. Our recent Handshake Network Trends report found that more than half of respondents would not apply to a job or internship where there exists a lack of gender diversity among the workforce.
We may all be familiar with the idea of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). But to holistically and intentionally put what your culture preaches into practice, using inclusive language is a tangible way you can contribute toward an inclusive candidate experience and culture. Having an inclusive glossary at the ready will help you and your team learn and update your vocabularies so that you’re not unintentionally exclusive.
Improve your understanding of inclusive language by referring to this blog for:
- Principles to remember: Every language is built off of rules and frameworks; inclusive language is structured similarly. These principles can help you enter conversations mindful of an individual’s or audience’s preferences.
- Phrases to avoid: The list also contains everyday phrases with racist origins, and gendered or exclusive expressions and terms that will make candidates feel excluded, even if unintended.
- Concepts to know: Early talent recruitment and campus engagement are always evolving to keep up with the times. To be effective recruiters and DEI practitioners, it’s important to stay informed of new terminology, concepts, and trends that impact your work.
From a personalized message to a career event, every interaction that recruiters and candidates have are important to building foundational relationships. Using inclusive language helps students and recent graduates see themselves in your workplace.
When people at all levels and in all departments recognize and commit to the importance of inclusive language, place people beyond their descriptors, and embrace a growth mindset about updating their vocabularies, employees will feel a greater sense of belonging–and are 50% less likely to leave.
As inclusive language evolves, our empathy, vocabulary, and specific word choice should shift in tandem–so consider this list dynamic and ever evolving, and a great place to start!
Principles to remember
Every language is built off of rules and frameworks; inclusive language is structured similarly. Incorporate these principles to remember to approach conversations mindfully of an individual’s or group’s preferences.
- Put people first: It is essential to focus on the person, not their characteristics. For example, instead of “a blind woman” or “a saleswoman,” use “a woman who is blind” or “a woman on our sales team.”
- We are more than our descriptors: Avoid generalizations and don’t assume someone’s identity. Only mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial group or ability when relevant to the discussion, like inviting women students to meet your women in leadership at a STEM networking event.
- Use universal phrases: Idioms, industry jargon, and acronyms can exclude a candidate who may not have specialized knowledge of a particular subject and can lead to miscommunication. Plus, many idioms don’t translate well globally across languages or countries.
For example, the saying “Take the bull by the horns” could potentially turn your encouragement into a source of embarrassment if the person fails to grasp the expression. Instead, say, “I believe in you!”
- Use gender-neutral language to address a group: Saying “guys” or “ladies” to address a group of people is gendered language. To many English speakers, “females” sounds like a scientific designation one would use for animals or plants; use “women” instead. Inclusive ways to address a group include “folks,” “people,” “you all, “y’all,” and “team.”
- Recognize the impact of mental health language: “Bipolar,” “PTSD,” “OCD,” and “ADD” are real mental health diagnoses that people possess. Using these terms to describe everyday behaviors underplays the impact of someone’s experiences with a mental disorder. Avoid other derogatory terms that stem from the context of mental health, like “schizo,” “paranoid,” “psycho,” “crazy” or “insane.” These words give negative value and contribute to marginalizing individuals with mental health conditions.
- Ask if you aren’t sure: Inclusive language is nuanced and is meant to reflect an individual’s or group’s personal style and preference. Use personal pronouns when introducing yourself, in your email signature, in your social media profiles, and ask candidates which pronouns they use. On Handshake, early-career job seekers are able to self-report their gender identity and pronouns, making it easier for employers to see how a specific student identifies.
Personal pronouns, a consciously chosen set of words that allow a person to represent their gender identity accurately, are a great example of inclusive language. Pronouns include both gendered pronouns like “He” and “She” as well as gender-neutral pronouns like “They” and “Ze.”
- Approach inclusive language with a growth mindset: Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, positive intentions, and feedback from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than individuals with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). As you begin to update and correct some of your language, you may make some mistakes–but you are actively trying and that is how you will learn!
Phrases to avoid
This list of phrases to avoid contains everyday phrases with racist origins, and expressions and terms that will make candidates feel excluded, even if unintended. For a more inclusive culture, avoid these phrases at all costs.
- At risk: This categorization can be harmful. There are complex reasons for students who show lower levels of academic success. “Risk” should not describe a person, and is better used to describe a situation.
- Bossy: Often misconstrued for assertive, this term is negatively skewed to describe a woman that is direct and communicates expectations. Women are 2x more likely than men to be labeled “bossy” at work. Try “driven” instead.
- Limited English Proficiency (LEP): In the past, LEP was used to refer to people who do not speak English as their primary language and/or who have a limited ability to read, write, speak, or understand the English language. More inclusive terms are English Language Learners, First Language Not English, or Emergent Bilinguals.
- Ghetto: This word was previously used in Europe to describe a quarter in an urban area where Jewish people were forced to live. It’s now used as a bigoted term that gets tossed around to mean poor or working class.
- Grandfathering or grandfather clause: This term originated in the American South in the 1890s as a way to defy the 15th Amendment and prevent Black Americans from voting. Used to connote exemption from a change because of conditions that existed before the change (e.g. grandfathering users on a rate for a streaming plan.) A good alternative might be “legacy.”
- Gyp/gypped: Racial slur for being defrauded, swindled or cheated. The term stems from an abbreviation of ‘gypsy,’ a word commonly used to describe the Romani people. Try “duped” instead.
- Hacker: In job descriptions, the term ”hacker” can be gender biased. Alternatives include “engineer” or “developer.”
- Handicapped: This is not a word that should be used to describe a person, as it is about one’s condition, not their characteristics. Use “person with a disability.”
- Housekeeping: In reference to office work, such as the section of a webinar agenda when presenters share how to use the Q&A or chat feature, this language can feel gendered.
- Hip hip hooray!: While used in American English as a a congratulatory cheer, the history of this term is thought to have derived from the anti-Semitic chant “Hep hep!”, a rallying cry to attack Jewish people in and around the German Confederacy in 1819 during what came to be known as the “Hep-Hep riots.” What to say instead: “Hooray!” or “Yay!”
- Indian/American Indian: This language dates back to Christopher Columbus naming a people based on Anglo-Saxon perception. Use the term “Indigenous American” instead, or ask for the terminology that the community prefers.
- Lame: Originally used in reference to people with reduced mobility, and often a synonym for “uncool.” Both types of uses are ableist (a concept we describe later in this list).
- Lower the bar: Based on the erroneous idea that a company has to relax hiring standards in order to add people from different racial/ethnic/gender backgrounds.
- Man: The usage of this term as a synonym for work– as in “man hours,” “man the inbox,” “man the conference booth,” –this is unnecessarily gendered language. Try simplifying by using “work” instead.
Less inclusive: Chairman, foreman, councilman, manpower, man hours More inclusive: Workforce, personnel, workers, team, Chairperson, chair, moderator, discussion leader, councilmember, folks, people, you all, y’all, teammates
- Master/slave: Used in computing and technical concepts; reflecting how systematic racism is built into computer science. Replacements include primary/replica, primary/standby, parent/child. Related: avoid common workplace sayings like “slaving over a project” and “master copy.”
- Mental disability: The use of this phrase implies that someone who may have a psychiatric diagnosis is disabled and unable to do their job. This is likely to make them feel stigmatized and unwelcome in the workplace. Use “neurodiverse” instead.
- Meritocracy: Belief in the flawed idea that hard work and talent alone are all that’s needed to achieve success. The existence of implicit bias, structural inequality, and varying degrees of privilege or disadvantage mean meritocracy isn’t a reality.
- Minority/underrepresented minority: This word is sometimes used as a blanket term for people from underrepresented groups. People of color (POC) will comprise a majority of the nation’s population by 2040. In fact, children from Black, Latine, Asian and bi-racial births now account for more than half the births in the US. Update your vocabulary by saying “students from underrepresented backgrounds,” “systemically minoritized groups,” “marginalized groups,” “POC,” “HUG,” “BIPOC,” or specify a specific group.
BIPOC is an acronym that stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities, and POC is an acronym standing for “Person of Color.” HUG stands for “historically underrepresented group.” These terms are more inclusive alternatives to dated language like “minority”.
- Ninja/rockstar: These words should be removed from job descriptions as they can be gender biased and discourage some groups from applying.
- Opposite sex: This term can be seen as offensive for people who don’t identify as male or female or anyone who sees gender as a continuum rather than a binary construct.
- Peanut gallery: This term for heckling or unwanted disturbance originates from the 1920s when the peanut gallery referred to the back section of theaters, which were the only places that people of color were allowed to sit in at the time. The phrase was meant to poke fun at the idea of people of color engaging in intellectualism.
- Sexual preference: Avoid heterosexual bias and use “sexual orientation,” a more appropriate term as “preference” insinuates a degree of choice.
- Spirit animal: Using “spirit animal” to refer to something you love or identify with is a cultural appropriation of the belief of some Native American people in “spirit animals” or “totems” that guide and protect them. Say ”kindred,” “muse,” or “icon” instead.
- Spray and pray: A term that comes up in both recruiting and job searching for any type of mass outreach that lacks personalization. This idiom is derived from military usage and can be a triggering allusion to gun violence. Say “cold outreach” instead.
- Third world: Used negatively to connote undemocratic or impoverished countries or regions; try “developing countries” instead.
- Uppity: A racist term that was used in the American South to describe Black people who they viewed as “not knowing their place.” Instead, use arrogant.
- Whitelist (Blacklist): The idea of color coding to mean ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is racist; other related terms to avoid include “blackballed, black market, or whitewash”.
Concepts to know
To be effective recruiters and DEI practitioners, it’s important to stay informed of new terminology, concepts, and trends that impact your work.
Ableism: Discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. It also assumes that people with disabilities are inferior to the non-disabled.
Accessibility: Assume a wide range of abilities when addressing audiences; for example, a CTA that says “Watch video now” excludes someone who may be blind. Use inclusive alternatives like “Catch” or “Check out”.
Ageism: A system of beliefs, attitudes, and actions that stereotype and discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. When recruiting for internship or entry level roles, remember that candidates have different career journeys throughout their lives.
Ally: Someone who supports a group other than their own e.g. in terms of racial identity, gender, faith identity, sexual orientation, etc. Allies acknowledge disadvantage and oppression of other groups; take risks and act on the behalf of others; and invest in strengthening their own knowledge and awareness of oppression.
Amplification is a technique an ally can use to ensure that underrepresented groups are heard and respected.
Affinity groups: A group of people who choose to meet to explore a shared identity such as race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. In the workplace, these are often called Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).
Anti-racism: Being anti-racist isn’t just about being “not racist”–it’s about actively dismantling racism in your mind and in your sphere of influence, and working toward equity and equality for all.
Code-switching: The practice of changing the way one expresses themselves culturally and linguistically based on different parts of their identity and how they are represented in a group. It’s important to recognize that for POC, and the Black community especially, who have not been traditionally able to be their authentic selves at work, code-switching has been a survival tactic.
Culture add: As employers discover that looking for a “culture fit”–the likelihood that a candidate will conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization–does not promote inclusion, the term is being replaced with “culture adds.” This means recruiting individuals who want to make an impact and contribute positively to the culture you’re building.
Dominant culture: The cultural beliefs, values, and traditions that are thought of in society as “normal” and, therefore, preferred and right. As a result, diverse ways of life are often devalued, marginalized, and associated with low cultural capital.
In a multicultural society, various cultures are celebrated and respected equally. Being culturally mindful can be understood as leading out on policy, action, and communication that relates respectfully with and benefits people of all cultures.
Diverse/Diversity: Diversity means individual differences that include (but are not limited to) ability, learning styles, life experiences, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, political, and religion. Individuals cannot be diverse. While groups of individuals can be diverse, refrain from saying “diverse talent” or “diverse candidate” when referring to candidates. Alternate terms include “candidates from underrepresented backgrounds” or “historically underrepresented groups.”
Equality: Valuing every individual equally regardless of their circumstances, so that everyone has access to equal opportunities.
Equity: Recognizes that people have different circumstances and allots the resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. Racial equity, specifically, is about removing racial disparities and improving outcomes for all, prioritizing change in the lives of POC and is the process for achieving racial justice.
Gender identity: A person’s perception of their gender, which may or may not correspond with their birth sex. Cisgender individuals’ gender identity and expression line up with their birth-assigned sex. Nonbinary means any gender identity that does not align to the traditional and binary definitions of male or female. Transgender refers to individuals whose gender identity and expression is different than their birth-assigned sex. Learn more from the genderbread person edugraphic.
HSI: An acronym that stands for Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), institutions of higher learning where at least 25% of students are Hispanic. There are currently 569 HSIs in the US.
Implicit bias: The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions unconsciously.
Impostor syndrome: A phenomenon in which high-achieving individuals are unable to internalize their accomplishments and instead continuously fear being exposed as a “fraud.” Some research indicates that members of underrepresented groups are more likely to be affected by it than others.
Intersectionality: Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used this term to describe the experiences of people who experience race inequality in addition to other inequalities such as gender, sexuality, immigrant status, etc. that can create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Latine: Pronounced “La-teen-eh”, this gender-netural term is often used to describe a person of Latin American origin or descent, and as a nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina.
“Hispanic” is a term that refers to a Spanish-speaking individual typically of Latin American descent and includes people from Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin America, but excludes people from Brazil. “Latine” includes people from Latin American countries formerly colonized by Spain or Portugal.
LGBTQIA: An acronym encompassing the diverse groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex, and asexual populations and allies/alliances/associations. Get an abridged glossary of critical concepts for understanding and naming some lived experiences of the LGBTQIA community in our “Beyond Pride” hiring guide.
Mansplain: A portmanteau of the word “man” and “explain” used to describe the act of men explaining something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.
Minoritized/Marginalized: Minoritized groups are devalued by society and are given less access to resources than dominant groups, and are thus marginalized.
Meritocracy: Belief in the flawed idea that hard work and talent alone are all that’s needed to achieve success; does not take into account one’s background. Implicit bias, structural inequality, and varying degrees of privilege or disadvantage all contribute to notions of who is successful in society.
Microaggression: Comments or actions (e.g. racist, sexist) that can be consciously or unconsciously prejudiced toward marginalized groups. For example, a white person telling a POC, “You are so articulate!” Avoid commenting on how someone speaks, but you can recognize someone’s specific thought or idea.
Model minority myth: Refers to a minority group that is perceived as successful, e.g. the stereotype that all Asian Americans are good students. This puts pressure on certain groups to be held to a different standard.
Multicultural: Term for racially, ethnic, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups that includes acceptance of, respect for, and inclusion of others so that systematic exclusion does not exist.
Neurodiversity: A term that recognizes the strengths and diversity of thought of people with differences like ADHD and autism, and destigmatizes these differences.
Pipeline problem: The belief that the tech industry isn’t diverse because of a scarcity of available talent. This is not a holistic theory. For example, only recruiting from a select handful of schools from which the resulting group of candidates isn’t diverse is not a pipeline problem, but a recruiting problem.
Racism: Racism is a teaching and mentality that claims to find racial differences in things like character and intelligence; asserts the superiority of one race over another or others; and seeks to maintain that dominance through a complex system of beliefs, behaviors, use of language, and policies.
Sponsorship: An action that allies and those with privilege can take to advance the careers of members of marginalized groups. While mentors offer advice and support as needed, sponsors use their social capital and credibility to advocate for their protégés by promoting, protecting, and preparing them.
Stereotype threat: When someone feels at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group, which can harm performance and contribute to racial and gender gaps in academic settings.
Structural racism: A feature of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist, in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms perpetuate racial group inequity.
Systemic barriers: Persistent exclusion of POC from health, educational, social, and economic resources. For example, white people are more likely to access mental health counseling than other groups.
Tokenism: When a member of an excluded group is hired or promoted as a symbol of inclusivity, which places a burden on an individual to represent all others like them.
Tone policing: A silencing tactic used in arguments or discussions that focuses on the emotion behind a message rather than the message itself. For example, telling someone who is discussing an issue that makes them upset to “calm down” instead of responding to their concerns.
Underrepresented group: Groups who haven’t had equal access to economic opportunities because of their race, gender, sexual-orientation, disability, or low-income status.
White privilege: Refers to advantages white people have through systemic racial injustice, and is a way to call attention to how others are denied the same privileges.
How can I get started with using inclusive language?
This list can help you on your journey to update your vocabulary, improve job descriptions, and have informed conversations with students.
Reference this inclusive language toolkit any time, but since language is ever-evolving as a result of social and cultural movements and moments, know that the list is incomplete with only 70 terms.
As you adapt your vocabulary, there will always be more to learn so remember: it’s about progress, not perfection. Assessing inclusive phrases and words that usually go unchallenged, and changing personal habits, requires patience, persistence, and empathy.