Language is incredibly powerful. Words have the potential to shape our world.
How confident do you feel writing about equity, diversity and belonging in your organisation?
Do you have a tone of voice guide in place? If so, does it touch on these areas?
If you’re looking for advice and guidance, you’re in luck as I have a guide to share with you.
Rob Yeldham is a CIPR Chartered PR practitioner and Director of Strategy, Policy & Engagement at The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP), the professional body and trade union for physiotherapists in the UK.
CSP has over 61,000 members working in a variety of settings across the National Health Service (NHS), in the community, the military, private practice and sport. He has over 30 years’ experience working in communications across the public and not for profit sectors.
I spotted a Tweet from Rob earlier this week @RobYeldham saying he was happy to share a guide CSP has developed. I got in touch and he kindly agreed to let me share it with you and has kindly written the following guest article. I’ve also asked him some questions, which you’ll find at the end of his guest post.
Thank you Rob for sharing your guide. I hope you find this useful if you are writing about equity, diversity and belonging in your organisation. I’ve included further reading on this topics via the All Things IC blog and my Candid Comms podcast at the end of this article. If you have guidance you’d be willing to share, please see my blogging guidelines and get in touch.
I believe as professional communicators, we have a duty of care to amplify the voices and views of employees. I hope you find this guide helpful if you’ve been having these conversations inside your organisation.
I’ll hand you over…
How to write about equity, diversity and belonging
Alastair Campbell was recently reported as saying that using the right language feels like walking on eggshells. It can feel like a minefield. Concepts like white privilege can be triggering for people who do not feel that privileged.
Each impairment or long term health condition community refers to people differently. Understandings of sex and gender are fiercely debated. Add cancel culture and it can feel too scary to want to talk about equity, diversity and belonging.
The language we use matters for many of my colleagues who identify as being from marginalised backgrounds.
If we want them to feel they belong in our organisations we must use language which speaks to them and which understands their lived experiences.
Words matter. Using appropriate language helps us be clear about what we are trying to achieve and for whom.
For example in the CSP we talk about belonging rather than inclusion. This is because we want people to belong and not just be included.
You can be included by being invited to a meeting, but if you are not called on to contribute, you won’t feel you belong there.
How to make a difference
One of ways professional communicators can make a difference is to help colleagues overcome their fear of using the wrong words. Having a style guide can make colleagues feel safer about talking and writing about equalities issues. They can also serve to inform and educate people about why specific terms are preferred and what they actually mean.
For these reasons, I developed a guide to writing about equity, diversity and belonging for Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) staff.
Having the guide isn’t about virtue signalling. Nor is it there to stop people debating issues.
It certainly isn’t about telling people off for using the wrong words. CSP colleagues from all backgrounds have welcomed it. Some tell me that it helped them understand ideas which are being talked about at work.
There is a challenge here for communicators. We usually translate the complex into everyday language. Yet in the fields of race, gender and disability there is a wealth of academic and activist terminology. Not using it can look like evading uncomfortable truths.
At the CSP we consciously try to use plain language. That is itself a key part of our equalities approach. Plain language can make content accessible to people with limited education, for whom English is not their first language or who have specific impairments. Yet we deliberately choose to use some terms which are not in everyday use.
Decisions about when to do this have been guided by three things:
- listening to our member reference group discuss equity, diversity and belonging
- market research testing the strategy language amongst staff and members
- a plain language review of the strategy.
These all helped me to make deliberate choices about the terms we wanted to use, even though they are not plain language. Where we use such terms we aim to explain them in plain language in our content.
In our writing guide we are clear that it is not universally applicable. Depending on the audience, there can be a need to vary our use of language.
Our guide is also a living document. I encourage staff feedback about the language we use and update the guide as our thinking evolves.
So why am I, a white, middle aged, middle class, straight, non-disabled, male comms director writing this? Well, because not engaging is a position only the privileged can choose. People like me need to talk to others in privileged positions to influence them.
My advice to you is don’t be put off by Alastair Campbell’s worries. It is all of our responsibility to address inequity and exclusion.
You need to be brave because you will get things wrong. You will have to apologise sometimes. You will feel out of your comfort zone. But this is how to learn and to make change happen.
So why don’t you develop your own guide for your organisation? I am happy to share our guide with others, but would also like to learn from you.
Post author: Rob Yeldham.
Thank you Rob, I asked what prompted him to create the guide.
He said: “Our choice of language matters. We want to use terms which help us be clear about what we are trying to achieve and for whom. Equality isn’t the same as equity. Belonging is more meaningful than inclusion. How we talk about race, impairment, sexuality and gender matters to our members and colleagues from marginalised backgrounds. To be able to feel that they belong in our organisation using the language that they feel is right is important.
“We already had some advice in our style guides because as a health union and professional body we regularly communicated about impairments and equality. But as we developed our corporate Equity, diversity and belonging strategy we evolved the guidance to cover more areas. We were able to use the learning we got from listening to our member reference group discussions about the language they wanted to see in the strategy to inform this.”
I was curious to know what the reaction has been like internally. Rob told me: “One or two people had questions but most people have really welcomed it. They find I helpful to avoid what they see as making mistakes and it has opened up understanding of things like the difference between inclusion and belonging.”
Thank you Rob.
Here is the CSP’s guide.
Writing about equity, diversity and belonging – by the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
Using plain language will aid accessibility for all.
The most important thing to remember is to keep your writing simple:
- use simple sentences
- use short words instead of long ones
- leave out unnecessary words
- use everyday words instead of technical terms wherever possible
- if you have to use a technical term explain it in plain language
- break long sentences into several short sentences.
With due credit to George Orwell.
Equity, diversity and belonging
The CSP has an equity, diversity and belonging strategy. The strategy should always be referred to as the equity, diversity and belonging strategy in full and NOT as the EDB strategy as that is not a meaningful acronym.
Because our aim is equity, we should write about whether things are equitable, rather than whether they are equal eg equitable opportunities not equal opportunities.
Belonging should be used instead of inclusion in most contexts. Achieving a sense of belonging for members with marginalised identities, backgrounds and experiences is our aim.
EDI should only be used where we are quoting or referring to the terminology other organisations use.
“People with protected characteristics” should be used when referring to people equalities legislation recognises as at risk from direct or indirect discrimination on the basis of; gender, sexuality, religion, race, pregnancy, age, disability, gender reassignment or marriage/civil partnership.
“People with different needs, identities and experiences” and “people from marginalised communities” can be used when seeking terminology which encompasses a wider range of characteristics for example to include class or carers.
Race and ethnicity
Both race and ethnicity can be used, depending on the context.
Do not use ethnic minorities or BAME as generic terms Say “people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds”.
Avoid using generics eg if the evidence is that specifically Asian physios are more likely to be subject to HCPC investigation say this, not Black, Asian and minority ethnic are more likely to be the subject of HCPC investigation.
People with long term conditions or impairments
People should not be defined by their health condition or impairments. Use language that respects people as active individuals with control over their own lives.
The term disability needs to be used carefully. Individuals are only disabled by the barriers society put sin their way and not because they have an impairment. However, some people may choose to describe themselves as disabled and that choice should be respected.
The section below is based on current usage by organisations of or for people with specific impairments or long term conditions. Note that different communities prefer different ways of referencing individuals with the specific impairment or condition.
- Age – Older age is not an impairment. We should be specific about an age group if discussing older people. Do not use “elderly” and do not equate age and frailty.
- Autism – refer to autistic people or people on the autism spectrum.
- Deafness – refer to deaf people, people with hearing loss or people with Tinnitus as appropriate, but not “the blind”.
- Blindness – refer to blind and partially sighted people or people with sight loss, rather than the blind or visually impaired.
- Dyslexia – refer to Dyslexia as a learning difference and use people with Dyslexia, not Dyslexics.
- Learning differences – is a general term used for a range of conditions including dyslexia, ADHD or dyspraxia, however “learning difficulties” is used by some partners.
- Learning disabilities – this is a term to describe intellectual impairments that affect the ability of someone to carry out everyday activities and which are lifelong. Do not use mental handicap.
- Mental health – refer to someone who has a mental health condition. Do not use mad or insane. Do not say that someone committed suicide (this implies a crime) instead say they took their own life.
- Parkinson’s – refer to Parkinson’s rather than Parkinson’s Disease.
- Restricted growth – say someone with restricted growth or of short stature. Do not use midget or dwarf.
- Stroke – refer to stroke survivors, rather than people who have had a stroke.
Here are some general rules to use:
We use the term LGBTQIA+ as an umbrella term to include all people who identify as non-heterosexual and / or non-binary gendered, lesbian, bisexual and/or gay.
It is appropriate to use the term in written copy for the LGBTQIA+ community and elsewhere where the intended audience will be familiar with it. However, it may be unfamiliar to a general public readership. For general use refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Explain the term if it is needed to aid reader understanding.
For a glossary of LGBTQIA+ terms see www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/glossary-terms
We recognise that people may identify as women, non-binary or men. Some people will wish to further define their gender identity.
- Use gender neutral language where possible. Use them, their and they.
- Where people need to select a gender at least woman, non-binary and man should be provided.
- Do not assume a woman wants to be called Ms, Miss or Mrs. If you don’t know what she wants to be called, ask.
- If a women holds a doctorate or professorships their title should be used, unless they explicitly ask for them not to be.
Transgender is an adjective, not a noun. The shorthand trans is often used within the LGBTQIA+ community, but may not be understood by general audiences so use trans with care.
Many transgender people identify as male or female and their gender identity should inform the choice of pronouns (he, she or they) you use in writing about a transgender person.
Always use a transgender person’s chosen name.
A person who identifies as a certain gender should be referred to using pronouns consistent with that gender.
Cisgender is a term used to describe people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. It is usually shortened to cis ie cis woman. Cis may not be understood by general audiences so it should be used with care and explained where appropriate.
Gay is an adjective, not a noun. It is sometimes used as a shorthand term encompassing gay, lesbian and bisexual orientations.
While many lesbians may identify as gay, lesbian(s) is clearer when talking only about a woman or women.
The CSP has developed an equity, diversity and belonging glossary:
First issued 6 May 2021, last updated 10 November 2021.
FAQ shared internally at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists:
Why does this matter?
This isn’t just a pedantic style choice. Using this language helps us be clear about what we are trying to achieve and for whom. Equality isn’t the same and equity. Belonging is more meaningful than inclusion. Many members and colleagues who identify as being from marginalised backgrounds, think the language we use matters. They have informed this advice. To be able to feel they belong in our organisation using the language that they feel is right is important.
Isn’t this language stepping back from a more political tone eg fighting inequality?
The language is based on the feedback from the member reference group. It reflects what these members see as a clearer and stronger set of commitments in terms of our actions.
Does this apply to staff where they are writing things for partnership?
What you use needs to make sense for the specific audience and purpose. This guidance relates to CSP content for our audiences, but especially for member communications. Where staff are writing for partnerships such as CAPHR, the Community Rehab Alliance or joint unions, we accept that we can’t impose our terminology.
Other organisations use different terminology why don’t follow them?
In drawing up the advice we did look to a number of external sources as well as thinking about the language our members said resonates for them. Where people are quoting other organisations or communicating with them we don’t expect you to rephrase the language of that body to match ours.
Why do we have equality reps not equity reps?
The pilot scheme for workplace equality reps is in the context of the NHS where employers and other unions use this terminology. To enable managers and peers to appreciate their role in this context we have used equality. However, their aim is to secure equitable treatment for our members, not just equal treatment.
Doesn’t setting down language in this way limit how we discuss these issues?
The intention isn’t to stop people discussing issues and it certainly isn’t about telling people off for use of the wrong terminology. But the language we use is important.
Having a consistent approach which reflects our aims and what our members tell us is important to them is the right thing to do.
Who approved this?
The updated language reflects the discussions and decisions of the (then) EDI member reference group. We have had a style guide developed by staff with input from different teams for some years. Ultimately the SPED director is accountable for our style guides.
Why have we dropped “equal” and “equality” as these have legal meanings and are written into agreements?
Where terms have specific legal or contextual meaning they can and should still be used in context. But where we are talking about future intentions, especially with our members however, it is to achieve equity rather than equality. If you buy fruits for six friends, one of whom is allergic to citrus, and give them all an orange that is an equal outcome, but if you buy five oranges and an apple that is an equitable outcome.
Why has gender rather than sex been referred to in relation to protected characteristics?
The CSP is committed to challenging sexism and patriarchy and the use of gender not sex here does not change this. The law refers to sex in this context and where appropriate to the context sex should be used. But in the member reference group discussions focussed on gender which allowed for the recognition of discrimination against people who identify as non-binary.
 If you buy fruit for six friends, one of whom is allergic to citrus, and give them all an orange that is an equal outcome, but if you buy five oranges and an apple that is an equitable outcome.
 You can be included by attending a party, but if no one talks to you won’t feel you belong.
 In law it is sex rather than gender
 In the media men are routinely cited as Dr or Prof. but women are not. Redressing this is important.
Further reading via the All Things IC blog
- Have we made progress on diversity in PR?
- How Asda is building a diverse and inclusive culture – published 2016
- A Candid conversation about inclusion with Keith Riley – Candid Comms podcast episode 2021
- A Candid conversation with Amrit Nijjar, Inclusion & Belonging Manager – Candid Comms podcast episode 2021
- Ask yourself about diversity – published 2015
- Black History Month: a comms and inclusion case study – by Lia Crooks
- How to start a conversation about racism and unconscious bias – by Gihan Hyde
- Guidance from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations
- How to create a sense of belonging – Candid Comms podcast episode 2021
- How to create a sense of belonging for hybrid workers – written by Helen Deverell for my blog.
First published on the All Things IC blog 16 November 2021.