Language is important when it come to diversity and inclusion. But it’s not just about what you say, it’s about what you write.
Throughout my life I’ve had to explain to people how to speak to me, and about me. My mother is Mexican and my father is Puerto Rican. Growing up, I spent my early adolescence with people always pointing out how I said “tortilla” or “salsa” different to how they said it. I spent a lot of time explaining why I wouldn’t “just speak English because this is America”. I tried to explain why my culture and my language was so important to me as an American. I learned early on that while our letters looked the same, they didn’t sound the same, and I remember thinking: “This language wasn’t made for me”.
Things got even more complicated when I came out as non-binary (which means that who I am in my head is neither a woman nor a man) last year.
I had to explain to my parents that I wasn’t their “hija” (daughter) anymore, but I was their child. I had to explain that they couldn’t say “ella” (she) anymore, and they should say “they” instead. I realised that the native tongue that I had clutched onto for so many years, had been betraying me.
A part of why it took me so long to understand my non-binary identity was because I didn’t even have the words to describe myself; Latinx – a gender-neutral alternative to Latino/Latina – didn’t even exist until a couple of years ago.
Language has always been a continuous obstacle in my life. Who I am and the impact language has had on me, are married.
A clean slate
After coming out, I decided I wanted to live in a city where no one knew me by my birth name, so I started looking for jobs on the West Coast. I saw a position for a diversity and inclusion role at a major tech company in the Bay Area and I applied through the company’s online system. When asking for my name, there was only a field to write my legal name, which is my birth name. Every time I met someone new in my final round, I spent the first 10 minutes explaining why my birth name wasn’t my actual name.
Instead of actually interviewing for the job, these conversations turned into basic training in trans and gender nonconforming etiquette. It feels needless to say, but you should know that I didn’t get the job. Afterwards, I kept thinking to myself: “How do you get a job when people don’t have the words to describe you?”
Everything that I already knew about being trans in the workforce was playing out before my own eyes. Trans people are three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the rest of the population, and if you’re a person of colour, it’s four times as likely. I kept thinking of ways that I could land a job without bringing up who I was or, better, hide it.
I had visions of a “Trojan Horse” moment where I’d land the job as a woman and then come out as non-binary later – but I decided there was no way I was going back in the closet. I wanted to work somewhere where I could bring my authentic self to work and not have to spend extra mental and emotional energy hiding. I wanted to join a company who saw me and accepted me.
Hopeless, I stared at my LinkedIn feed. I kept seeing this company called Textio pop up, so I did some digging and was immediately drawn in. The CEO was this badass woman with a Ph.D in linguistics from UPenn and the team had invented Augmented Writing. After speaking to the CEO, I realised I had never met another human more deliberate and intentional with their words. It wasn’t just her, either. Everyone I interviewed with was careful and non-assumptive. I felt like I was dreaming.
Not only was my interview better than I could have imagined, their work was backing up everything I had ever experienced in terms of how much of an impact language has on inclusivity – with real data.
Analyses is done on the language in job descriptions and predicts who will get hired and how fast. It’s not just the words used, but how the words are strung together and their format. For instance, job postings that are more than 50 per cent bulleted content will most likely attract men to the role. And that’s just the beginning.
Candidates want inclusivity
The data in Textio shows that gender-neutral jobs fill faster than ones that are biased. The most qualified candidates care about inclusion and want to work for inclusive companies.
If your company says they “value their LGBTQ brothers and sisters”, you should be able to explain how. Are their “brother and sisters” trans? Do they have access to gender-affirming surgeries under your healthcare plan? Can they pee safely in your office? If not, your gender neutral job description and the rainbow on your website means nothing.
To get this right and to have any lasting impact, we need to have more follow through. We need to systematically address the unconscious bias in our hiring, in our daily interactions, in our workplaces, and even in our systems and software (yes, applicant tracking systems too). We need to be clear about our values and explicit on why having people like us at the table is important. We’ve got to commit to a more systemic approach, and we first have to all know and agree that we’re up against a systemic problem.
This is an edited version of Adi Barreto’s LinkedIn article.
Raise awareness of both conscious and unconscious bias and its impact on decision making in the workplace, with the AHRI’s training toolkit Managing unconscious bias.