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Adapting to Ever-Evolving Language

Respect and inclusion are key to a collaborative, healthy work environment, and that’s made harder by the fact that language, especially around gender and sexuality, evolves so quickly. In this talk, we’ll go through some examples of more gender-inclusive language, methods for practicing, and strategies for rolling with the punches when we make mistakes. By the end of the talk, you’ll feel confident in navigating the changing language around gender and sexuality.

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Hello. Oh had been my gosh. What a beautiful intro. Thank you so very much. It is such an honor to be here today. I love You Got This. There has been so many great talks already that I haven't been able to catch yet because of how my schedule has been. I'm very excited to dive into later. Very honored to be part of this today. And today I am talking about adapting to ever-evolving language. You may have heard, my name is Mia Moore, work at a company called Camunda. I have heard it called Camunda, you nailed it either way. One thing about me is that I really like birds. I like birds of all kinds. And I will end up telling you bird facts if we hang out for more than 5 seconds. So, if we haven't met before, now we're friends. It's so nice to meet you.

So, before we dive into more about inclusive language and my tips and tricks for it. I want to share a little bit more about my personal coming out story. If you are queer, or you know queer people, you know that we come out constantly. It's never a one time thing. I came out, and it turns out you come out all the time. I knew from a young age that I wasn't straight, but took me to 22 to come out. Because I wasn't fully gay or because my partner was a cis man, it didn't matter that I had this other part of my. A lot of my friends were queer, neurodivergent and queer people run together in packs. We find each other before we know we're queer. I was feeling a little bit left out that have. Oh, I have this whole community that doesn't know that I belong. Maybe if I don't tell people that I'm bisexual, it will go away. That wasn't true. It kind of felt like for me. This is a mission, I'm sick of some people knowing and some not knowing. I ended up coming out via Facebook post. This was 2014. I would use different language now. It's very binary and I have found out since spoilers for the next slide, I'm non-binary. Do you like boys or girls, yes, excludes a lot of people that I'm attracted to. This is the easiest way for everybody to know that I'm queer and I don't have to worry about who knows and who doesn't. So, I was proudly bisexual. Yes, I'm a bisexual woman and I'm very confident in that. A few years later, I started learning more about gender.

Especially there was some sort of discourse about is bisexuality inherently transphobic, it's bi, does that mean two, only men and women? Lots of conversations around that. TL;DR, it doesn't. Your identity is whatever. And plenty of queer people are bisexual. The more I learned about gender and interrogated myself on my own views on gender and gender for myself, the more I thought about it, the less things really made sense and I ended up having a lot of gender feelings. And if I was not comfortable with my sexuality, I was not comfortable with the gender feelings. I feel I was complicated as a human being or too much for a lot of people. I know this about myself, know that I'm not entirely cis. Nobody has to know, same thing with my sexuality. I will keep it close to my chest, and I will know it about myself, but other people don't have to know. I subtly changed any pronouns from she/her to she/they. Some queer friends noticed and others didn't. Than they/she, and thinking the order mattered. That mattered a little bit, I saw a little bit of an uptick of people using they/them for me. But not many people noticed. Turns out, similar to my sexuality, I couldn't hold it in and I got tired of not being seen fully for who I was.

I was being tagged in a lot of women in tech kind of lists. It made me feel awful. It felt like a lie of omission or people weren't seeing me for who I was. But I was going through they/she pronouns until I was introduced by a bio. I used they/them pronouns throughout. But out loud, they corrected it to she/her. And it made me feel really bad. I don't know if the speaker was uncomfortable using a singular they. I don't know the context. But I wrote it using they/them on purpose, I don't know why that was changed. But I had told everybody I also use she/her. Things have changed. I am no longer comfortable with that and not comfortable with being referred to as she/her most of the time. There will always be strangers that assume my pronouns are she/her. That 10% is fine. But people that know me, they/them. Just like Marie Kondo said, I put up my pronouns on the shelf, thank you for all you have done, and I'm moving on and now just using they/them.

I wanted to introduce a little bit more about me because my experience with gender and my experience as someone from a couple of historically excluded groups in tech have made me really passionate about inclusive language. I do believe that it matters. In this talk, I hope to teach you why inclusive language matters, give you examples of gender-inclusive language, and what to do when you make a mistake. And I hope by the end up have confidence in navigating the ever-changing language around these topics. A quick disclaimer, I'm speaking from a gender and LGBTQ+ perspective. Is some of the things I'm talking about today apply to other areas, but do additional research to be sure. And I also life in the United States and only speak English. That means my perspective is inherently biased. I tried to account for a lot of different things. Just so you know where I'm coming from.

Inclusive language, language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people. I also wanted to point out that this includes things like company-specific acronyms or jargon or anything like that. It's about making language more accessible to everyone.

So, the first reason why inclusive language is important is because language matters. And I think actually a really great example of this is that this conference is all about core skills. I love that it's a core skills conference and not soft skills. Because saying soft skills implies they are less important or not essential or only for people who are feminine. Obviously if you're here, you understand that these core skills are crucial to your career and to your life in general. Just that small change in language I think makes a huge impact. That's why it matters in all other aspects as well. The other reason it's beneficial because it helps connect with as many people as possible. From capitalism, that's widening your audience, which means more potential dollars. One of the main frustrations I hear from folks, why do I have to keep learning new things I can't keep up with this. It changes all the time. It feels like yesterday I could say this word and now it's out of favor. I totally understand it. Especially if you're not part of the community in question, it feels like it's changing all the time. That said, if you're watching this talk and conference, I hope you enjoy learning new things and growing. I hope to show you why this matters and how you can grow your knowledge in a way that is easy to incorporate in your day-to-day. And like anything, practice makes improvement. If you put in the effort, it will get easier and easier to remember and easier and easier to do in your day-to-day life.

So, some of the advantages of using inclusive language. It also leads to better communication. So, it's usually more specific and accurate when you use inclusive language, for example, hi, everyone, instead of "Hi, guys," if not everyone in a group is a guy. It's understandable. This is part of avoiding jargon. The tech example that works well is something this was a white list and blacklist is now an allow and block list. And that works well for folks whose English is not their native language. It's more literal. It's easier to understand because you don't have to understand the connotation of certain words, just the dictionary definition. It can be more relevant to the audience, help them feel seen, also more respect and feel leads to better communication.

Let's talk a little bit about the cost of exclusion. I want to point out these are the numbers for LGBTQ+, and I'm sure it's similar for other historically excluded groups and multiple identities, but these are the numbers I'm going to focus on today. 46% of LGBTQ + workers are closeted at work. They are not out as year at work. 31% of LGBTQ + workers felt unhappy or depressed at work and 25% feel distracted from work. The main reasons they are not out at work, they have a fear of stereotypes and don't want to be stereotypes and don't want to make their coworkers uncomfortable. They report lying about their personal life. If you have to hide your partner or how your family is structured, that gets uncomfortable. And one in five avoid happy hour, lunch, holiday parties, that sort of thing. And one in five also report staying home from work because of the lack of acceptance. It makes a really big impact on queer employees. LGBTQ + employees don't feel they can bring their full self to work. Feel unseen or unvalued. It can be a distraction from doing work or doing work at the work place. Lead to social isolation and sometimes they leave the company they're at because they don't feel included. From an employer perspective, if you don't have LGBTQ + employees, you lose this very important and diverse perspective. It can result in reduced productivity and job satisfaction and it means that you cannot retain or attract LGBTQ + talent. Okay. We have talked about the importance, let's dive into some of the examples.

Going through the points one by bun, but for a screenshot, this is the one I would recommend, this is the gender-inclusive cheat sheet. Avoiding unnecessarily gendered language, avoiding assumptions, remembering pronoun etiquette, and others.

And first, we want to avoid unnecessarily gendered language. So, masculine terms, at least in English are seen as neutral or the default. But they're not. For example, the word guys, a lot of people argue I'm using it in a gender neutral way. But makes people uncomfortable. A boss would say, hey, guys, and Mia and I thought that was really funny. Oh, yeah, I remember that word doesn't apply to everybody in the group. But I don't know what to call you. So, you're Mia.

Which, I don't know, it's very cute. So, the way to get around this is to think about, is it necessary at all to have gendered language in this context? If it's not, can you remove the reference to gender all together. If it is necessary, do you know how that person or everyone in that group identifies? And if you are specific about your audience, that can help you figure out what word to use instead. So, for example, colleagues is more gender neutral and more specific than either saying ladies and gentlemen or guys. APA's bias-free language guide describes this as describing things at the appropriate level of specificity which is very important. You don't want to over or under-specify. Use the best word for the situation. A couple of practical examples. I find in the work place, a lot of the unnecessary gendering comes from greetings. So, instead of good evening, ladies and gentlemen. You could just say, good evening. Or welcome. But to use words, distinguished guests, esteemed guests, everyone, if you say guys a lot, guys and gals or ladies. Try friends, friends and enemies, team, people, folks, y'all, all, fam. Guys and gals and non-binary pals. If you say dude a lot and you want to get rid of that, dude, man, bro. They can be omitted entirely, or friend, buddy, pal, thing like that. Be sure to Google, a lot of fun ones are out there.

My second tip is to avoid assumptions. This relates back to the last point of assuming that male or masculine terms are the default. That's definitely not the only thing we have biased around. Talking to an individual, try to assume making assumptions with family structure. Oh, what did you do on mother's day, which assumes they had a mother or they're close with their mother. Or saying do you have a girlfriend? You could say something more neutral in case their partner doesn't identify as a girlfriend. Avoid assuming pronouns in gender identity. This happens to me a lot because I'm a very feminine person and people assume my gender identity based on the way I look. Always ask, don't assume. And you can use more inclusive language around terms like parental leave instead of maternity or paternity leave. And with personas, this is a place to be careful. Avoid reinforcing stereotypes around customer personas. When it's possible, use a real customer feedback to build a persona. And not have subgroups for a single generic persona. If you work for a software company and you create customer personas that are all male because up a mainly male audience, you might end up with a user experience that excludes women and non-binary people. We want to widen our audience, not narrow it down. And familial words, you can say parental leave, family leave. Mother and father. At least in this context. You can try birthing or non-birthing parent. Instead of husband or wife, you can say spouse, partner, significant other, many other examples. I have a friend who is non-binary and a wife. They are introduced as a -- not ladies and gentlemen, that's one of the ones I just said. Hello, this is any knife. Avoid mom/dad, daughter/son. And use versions, parent, child, sibling, nibling, family member or loved ones. And sexual preference, because it's not a preference, say sexual orientation or romantic orientation.

Another one that's not quite as often is gendered occupational titles. So, for example, if you're listing a job posting far sales representative. Use a neutral term instead of salesman, saleswoman. Because that can make people feel like I can't apply to this. That doesn't apply to me. More commonly is specifying gender when it's not relevant. Especially in tech and you are an under-represented gender you might end up being in a lot of women in tech lists. Instead of saying female doctor and male nurse, if it's not relevant, just say doctor or nurse.

Pronouns, I could do an entire talk on just pronouns. I have done a talk on how to use they/them pronouns. It's a huge topic. Today I'll just cover basic etiquette. Gender is really expansive. Avoid assumptions. A lot of people assume I would use she/her pronouns, but I use they/them pronouns. A couple of tips. First you want to include voluntary options for sharing pronouns. I say voluntary, it's not always safe to out themselves as trans. Don't make it necessary. But create an environment where it's clear that pronouns are respected and affirmed. During introductions, hello, my name is Mia, I use they/them pronouns. That makes it clear that pronouns are respected. And you could use it in the employee database, Slack and Zoom, a lot of these have places for pronouns. And physically, if you are in-person, you can include it on your name tag or badges for events. Maybe have little stickers or enamel pins. Lots of options. If yo don't know someone's pronouns, look it up. Especially digital. I will look on someone's Twitter bio a lot to see what pronouns they use. You can use they/them. And talking with them directly, ask what pronouns they use. Also make sure in theoretical examples, use they/them as a default or when they're unknown, you're not gendering them. You could say with the person in the red shirt, instead of the woman or the man in the red shirt.

Titles and honorifics. This is another thing where it's very complicated. Titles are very complicated. I found even more titles than I knew existed previously in research. There are a lot of them and they're mostly not neutral. So, for example, if someone uses Mrs., Miss, or Ms. That can reveal they do or do not want to share their marital status and what it is. Learn someone is a reverend or a doctor just based on titles. Very few forms include Mx, MX with a period. There's not a neutral option on most forms. Not getting into military, doctor titles. If you're knighted, do you have to put that on paperwork? I have no idea. It gets really complicated really quickly. The main thing I would focus on here, is this data necessary? There are examples where it's legally required to have someone's title. In that case, do your best to allow open answers or at least include a neutral option. But if it's not necessary, and don't think that formality is a requirement, because most people I talk to don't care about titles and being addressed by them. I would suggest omitting titles all together or making it optional.

Okay. So, a couple more examples. You want to avoid saying preferred pronouns. Just say pronouns, they're not optional, they just are. Same with identifies as versus is. Saying he is a trans man is way better than he identifies as a trans man. Feels like you're undercutting it. For forms, avoid Mr., Mrs., do Mx, omit entirely or let people put in their own or optional. And in generic situations, avoid using he/him as the default or his/her, or the S in the parentheses with he after. I don't know how to say that out loud, sh-he? I have no idea. A software developer should always check his or her work for bugs. Just say a software who were should always check their work for bugs. That's a will the more neutral.

So, mirror your coworkers. A lot of the things I have said work well in situations where people identify. But be an active listener. What words do they use to describe themselves? For example, I have a child and not all non-binary people like to be called mom or dad. But I'm fine with the word mom. If I describe myself as a mom, you can use that word to describe me in other context as well. You can also ask appropriate questions in appropriate situations. This is a little bit complicated. Maybe Google your specific type of question beforehand. But you have to just use your best judgment on what's appropriate to ask in the work place depending on the situation.

And then person-first versus identity-first language. This is kind of another huge topic that could be its own presentation. So, I'll give you the sort of 30-second version so you can get started with it and you can do further reading if this is something you're in into in. Person-first, enters centers the person. Person with autism, and identity-first centers the identity, autistic person. Some people prefer person-first and some prefer identity-first. Listen to how people describe themselves and use that language as a mirror to them, right? Reflect it back to them. It really is just individual and depends on the person. The other thing you want to do is avoid using generic language for individuals. So, for example, say she is bisexual or she is a member of the LGBTQ + community versus she is LGBTQ +. Or he is Black versus he is BIPOC or he's a person of color. People usually want to be called their actual identity not a more generic catch-all term.

And the last tip I have is to continue learning. Language and its meaning evolves constantly and over time. When you hear something new, listen and research and approach it curiosity. A couple ways to learn new things are participating in employee resource group activities. A lot of times they have things open to everybody. I'm part of the LGBTQ ERG. And we have workshops and events open to the company. You can join those related to you and to keep you in the know. If you're writing copy for a website or trying to build a more inclusive company culture or writing job descriptions to post, seek out professionals that know a lot to not use any biased language.

All right. Practicing and making mistakes. A lot of people are so afraid to make a mistake that they don't even want to try. And I understand that. It is very scary to make a mistake. Because you don't want to be seen as like not accepting something or anything like that. The first thing you need to do is understand that humans make mistakes. And it's probably going to happen. But that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. The way you handle a mistake says way more about you than the fact that you made a mistake in the first place. First off, him of humans make mistakes. If you're able to, correct yourself in the moment. If you accidently misgender somebody, correct yourself and move on. If you feel you should apologize, try to do that in a one-on-one situation. That also depends on the person. But for me personally, if you accidently use my wrong pronouns in the meeting and realize it in the moment and use correct pronouns. Slack me and say I'm sorry, rather than calling more attention to it. Avoid over-apologizing. There is a point that you are making the person that you harmed feel bad and they need to comfort you when you're the one that made the mistake. Avoid that. There's a fine line between not apologizing at all or not feeling sincere in your apology and going over the talk and making it seem the other person is like, no, it's fine. Don't worry about to it. Definitely work on your apology skills. There is a talk later I think about apologizing.

Also, there is not an apology saying, sorry, I'm just so bad at remembering this stuff. Not an apology. Feels like you're not trying and will not approve in the future. Practice makes improvement. That's the next slide. Commit to practicing to make fewer mistakes. And last, don't be defensive. If you are defensive and offer excuses why this is so hard for you, that's not relevant, just apologize, move on, and improve for next time.

All right. How to practice new-to-you language. I have practical and fun tips. Look up examples and resources. If you meet someone who uses pronouns that you have never heard or they/them, look them up. I have seen work sheets that you can do. Practice in your head and out loud. I've heard stories where people have a friend that transitions, has a new name, has new pronouns and they will meet with a mutual friend and practice same sentences with their friend and make sure they're using their names and pronouns correctly. And I think that's sweet and a fun activity. Get a coffee, make it fun. Slow down when speaking. This one is really hard for me. But I find I make the most mistakes when my mind is moving faster than my mouth and I'm just talking too quickly. Slow down, you'll make fewer mistakes. Recruit an accountability buddy. What I like to do, especially if I find myself saying something I'm trying to phase out, hey, guys. I'm trying to say "guys" less, can you let me know if I'm saying it. Recruit an accountability buddy to keep yourself accountable. A guys jar. I include this from Hotjar, if you want to use that in the resources, you can check this out. They did a voluntary activity, every time they referred to a group that was not all guys, they donated at the end of the experiment. If I say guys in my Twitch chat, they can add one to the tally and I add one to the charity. Just a fun way to make it a game. Unless you -- like hopefully that incentivizes you, but it's far good cause as well. Give compliments. This is my personal favorite and one I told previous coworkers. Every time they misgender me, they have to give me five compliments in their head or out loud. Just so you're not stewing and feeling bad, instead you're giving compliments to this person. Either in your head or telling them directly. I think that's pretty fun.

And the last thing, and this is not quite as easy as a tip, but I had to include it. Is to rethink gender. I can tell when someone is repeatedly misgendering me, they don't see me as a non-binary person, they see me as a woman. If you can sit down and interrogate yourself a little bit about what gender means, what being a woman or a man means, all that stuff, if you are able to think through the process of gender a little bit more, I promise you, it will be easier to gender people correctly. So, rethink gender, spend a little bit of time on that. All right. That is everything. Thank you so much for paying attention. I really appreciate it. You can find me everywhere as xoMiaMoore, I will be posting on Twitter and stream on Twitch twice a week and excited to see you there. And I'm excited to answer any questions that there are.