On October 26, 2023, CAFII hosted a webinar on inclusive language in the workspace titled Words Matter. The webinar was led by Elissa Gurman, who is a principal at MacPhie Consulting (a management consultant company). She specializes in organizational development, strategic facilitation, and inclusive communication. E. Gurman earned a Ph.D. degree from the University of Toronto and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion certificate from Cornell University.
Co-Executive Director Keith Martin began the webinar with an acknowledgment of those in attendance. In addition to the many representatives from CAFII’s 15 member companies and nine associates, in attendance from allied industry associations were:
- The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CHLIA);
- The Travel and Health Insurance Association (THiA);
- The Canadian Banker Association (CBA);
- British Columbia Financial Services Authority (BCFSA);
- Insurance Counsel of British Columbia;
- Alberta Treasury Board and Finance (ATBF)
- The Insurance Counsels of Saskatchewan (ICS); and,
- The Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSRA).
This Words Matter webinar is a part of a larger course offered through MacPhie on inclusive language. E. Gurman began her presentation by discussing the importance of language in the workspace, including the necessity of proper definitions of certain buzzwords – diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI. What do these terms mean?
Diversity means, simply, difference. It means both visible and invisible dimensions that result in individual and communal differences in our working habits and workplace experiences. Equity means a recognition of individual and/or group differences that may result in barriers within the workplace and society at large. Many confuse equity with equality, but they are not the same. Equality means we all have the same outcomes and are working towards one common goal; equity means working towards fair outcomes for people or groups by treating them in ways that address their unique barriers. Inclusion is a feeling. Where diversity acknowledges our differences, equity responds to these differences in a way that allows all employees to thrive; inclusion is the thriving in which all employees feel they can succeed. Inclusion is what allows for diversity and equity to find expression and permanence.
Understanding DEI leads us to inclusive language. The goal of inclusive language is to help others feel seen and respected. It is an ever-evolving practice since language is continuously changing. To practice inclusive language is to always be mindful and open to changing our language habits to be empathetic to others.
There is a lot of fear around inclusive language. This speaks to cancel culture, which turns inclusive language into a conversation about personal discomfort rather than the feelings of those around us. Therefore, inclusive language asks that, instead of only worrying about ourselves as the interlocutor, we must think about our listeners.
E. Gurman went on to give some key rules of conduct or pointers for a few specific categories:
- Disability & Illness: Use people-first language. This means putting people-first language to empower rather than limit someone to their disability and/or illness. An example is survivor versus victim; one implies strength and perseverance, while the other implies something done to someone.
- Race & Culture: Be specific. If you are going to talk about someone’s race or ethnicity, be specific. For example, when writing about people of Asian ancestry, say if they are Chinese, for example, or Malaysian. Another example is the use of the words African American. African America is not always interchangeable with Black and has been misused as an umbrella term for people of African ancestry worldwide, obscuring other ethnicities or nationalities.
- Gender & Sexuality: Remember that not everyone is a straight, cisgender man. English, like other languages, assumes the norm is straight and male; therefore, we should cater our workplace language habits towards more gender-neutral wording. Instead of using he as the default pronoun, use they or them. Instead of saying sexual preference, say sexual orientation; one implies choice, while the other implies nature.
The aforementioned rules and their examples are just a few of the many that E. Gurman provided for each of the above categories. She also provided historical and societal insights into each to contextualize many of the words, idioms, expressions, and habits we use or have that are rooted in an offensive history. For more information, please check out E. Gurman’s comprehensive course on Inclusive Language.
Before concluding the webinar, E. Gurman mentioned two more important points for inclusive language, which were:
- Be direct – avoid idioms and expressions that may be rooted in discrimination and bias.
- Consult with, respect, and defer to people with lived experiences. When someone tells you of their lived experience, listen to them.
There were many questions posed during the webinar. One person asked when it is appropriate or necessary to “call someone out” for using an outdated or outright offensive term. She suggested using your judgment; if the term is a slur, then calling this out immediately is right and necessary; however, it is up to your discretion to call out an idiom or expression that could be offensive. One such example is someone using a term like “grandfather;” often, people do not know the racist history behind this word and, therefore, do not intend it to be racist. It is up to your judgment (and dependent on your relationship with the individual) to gauge if, when, or how you want to let them know that that term is offensive. If you yourself are called out for using an offensive term, listen and be appreciative. Though it may feel like an attack or be embarrassing, it is not; this is a learning opportunity and a way to show your commitment to DEI.
The presentation made can be found here: