As part of Pride Month this year, I joined our newly formed LGBTQ Employee Resource Group to learn more about inclusive language and gender identity. As inclusive language evolves, our empathy, vocabulary and specific word choice should shift in tandem.

At Handshake, we believe students are more than a GPA and major and want to help every student bring their full-self to the career search. Over 70% of students shared with us that they prefer a company that is diverse, inclusive, and makes them feel included regardless of race, geographic location, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, and appearance. As recruiters prepare for campus visits, each interaction should reflect a student’s or group’s style and preference.

To help, Handshake’s Employee Resource Groups identified language principles that would ensures all students are treated with respect and dignity. The list of terms includes concepts to know, expressions to avoid, and words to incorporate into your vocabulary, job descriptions, and conversations with students.

Assessing phrases and words that usually go unchallenged, and changing personal habits requires patience and empathy. Some of these words are harmless and meant to be educational. Others are hurtful; usually said unintentionally without knowledge of their history or implications.

This guide will provide you with:

  1. Principles to remember: Every language is built off of rules and frameworks. Inclusive language is structured similarly. These principles help you enter conversations mindfully of an individual’s or audience’s preferences.
  2. Concepts to know: Student recruitment and campus engagement have changed dramatically. To be effective recruiters and diversity practitioners, we need to stay abreast of new words, concepts, and trends that impact our work. This list comprised of concepts from the education, diversity, and recruitment world — some of which you may be familiar with and other new.
  3. Phrases to avoid: The list of phrases contains two types of expressions: gendered or exclusive terms that will decrease the likelihood of attracting a targeted candidate profile; and everyday phrases with racist origins.

In the spirit of inclusion, and to be sure this guide is representative of all students from every culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, socioeconomic status, etc., feel free to add phrases or examples we didn’t cover in the comments below.

Principles to remember

Every language is built off of rules and frameworks. Inclusive language is structured similarly. These principles help you enter conversations mindful of an individual’s or audience’s preferences.

Put people first: It is essential to put the person first — to focus on the person, not their characteristics, e.g., instead of “a blind woman” or “a woman salesperson,” use “a woman who is blind” or “a woman on our sales team.”

We are more than our descriptors, so putting people first keeps the individual as the essential element. Only mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial group or ability when relevant to the discussion.

Use universal phrases: Idioms, industry jargon and acronyms can exclude a student who may not have specialized knowledge of a particular subject and impede effective communication as a result. Many idioms don’t translate well from country to country. For example, saying “Hit it out of the park” could potentially turn your encouragement into a source of embarrassment if the person fails to grasp the expression or baseball’s cultural impact and significance. Instead say, “I believe in you!”

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. Also, avoid derogatory terms that stem from the context of mental health, like “schizo,” “paranoid,” or “psycho.”

Use gender neutral language. Using “guys” to address all people is gendered languages that may insinuate that men are the preferred gender at your organization. Instead, work in inclusive words such as; folks, people, you all, y’all, and teammates.

Growth mindset: Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed.

Ask if you aren’t sure: Inclusive language is nuanced and used to reflect an individual’s or group’s personal style and preference. If you’re not sure, ask your colleagues and students how they talk about themselves.

Phrases to avoid

The list of phrases contains two types of expressions: gendered or exclusive terms that will decrease the likelihood of attracting a targeted candidate profile; and everyday phrases with racist origins.

Bossy: This term has been skewed to be a negative term to describe a woman that is direct and communicates expectations.

Guys: Using “guys” to address all people is gendered languages that may insinuate that men are the preferred gender at your organization. Instead, use gender-neutral language such as; folks, people, you all, y’all, and teammates.

Girl/Girls: For anyone over 18 years old, woman or women is a better choice.

Grandfathering/grandfather clause: A way to exempt some people from a change because of conditions that existed before the change (e.g. we’ve grandfathered some users on an unlimited data plan.”) The term “grandfather clause” originated in the American South in the 1890s as a way to defy the 15th Amendment and prevent black Americans from voting. A good alternative might be “legacy”

Gypped: Racial slur for being defrauded, swindled or cheated. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term is “probably an abbreviation of ‘gypsy,’ a word commonly used to describe the Romani people.

Ghetto: According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word was first used in 1611 to describe a quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted under the Nazi regime during WWII. In America, the term became associated with poor areas with non-white residents. Now, it’s a bigoted term that gets tossed around to mean low-class.

Females: To many English speakers, “females” sounds like a scientific designation one would use for animals or plants. Try “women” instead.


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Hacker: In job descriptions, the term ”hacker” can be tough for many to identify with. Alternatives: engineer, developer

Handicap: Some disability advocates believe this term is rooted in a correlation between a disabled individual and a beggar, “who had to beg with a cap in his or her hand because of the inability to maintain employment.” Better alternative: Disabled

Housekeeping: In reference to office work, this language can feel gendered. Suggested alternative: maintenance, cleanup

Indian/American Indian: This language dates back to Christopher Columbus and naming a people on a Anglo-Saxon perception. It implies that these nations are only defined by how they were perceived by Europeans after 1492, when their people were massacred. Use the term “Native American.”

Ladies/gals: Terms like “ladies”, “gals” or others can feel patronizing to some. Try women instead, or “folks” or “people” for mixed-gender groups.

Lame: Originally used in reference to people with reduced mobility, now often a synonym for “uncool.” Both types of uses are ableist.

Man: As a synonym for work — as in “man hours,” “man the inbox,” “man the conference booth,” — this is unnecessarily gendered language. Try using work instead. More inclusive: Folks, people, you all, y’all, teammates

Master/slave: Problematic term sometimes used to refer to one machine that has the original copy of data and others that automatically update themselves to match its data. Replacements include primary/replica, primary/standby.

Mental Disability: The use of this phrase implies that someone that may struggle or 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. Many people that struggle with mental health problems are great at their jobs, despite adversity, and supporting them can make them an even greater asset to your workplace.

Meritocracy: Belief in the flawed idea that hard work and talent alone are all that’s needed to achieve success. Challenges like implicit bias, structural inequality and varying degrees of privilege or disadvantage mean meritocracy isn’t currently a reality.

Minority: The word is sometimes used as a blanket term for people from underrepresented groups including African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and so on. People of color will comprise a majority of the nation’s population in a little more than a generation by 2040. In fact, children from Black, Latinx, Asian and bi-racial births now account for more than half the births in the US. Instead say, students from underrepresented backgrounds or specify a specific ethnic group.

Ninja/rockstar: Words sometimes used in tech job descriptions that can skew towards a gendered interpretation and discourage some groups from applying.

Peanut gallery: This term for heckling or unwanted disturbance originates in 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 at the time. The phrase was meant to poke fun at the idea of people of color engaging in intellectualism.

Concepts to know

Ableism: Discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. It also assumes that people with disabilities are inferior to the non-disabled.

Accessibility: The practice of designing and developing interview processes, creating resources and writing job descriptions that provide a great experience for students from diverse backgrounds, i.e., students who are first-generation or with disabilities.

Ageism: A system of beliefs, attitudes, and actions that stereotype and discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of their age.

Alaska Native: someone that is of indigenous heritage to Alaska, this includes the Aleut, Athabascan, Alutiiq, Cup’ik, Haida, Inuit, Iñupiat, Tlingit and Yup’ik people. The term “Eskimo” is widely perceived as derogatory.

Ally: Someone who supports a group other than their own (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.

Affinity groups: A group of people who choose to meet to explore a shared identity such as race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. These groups can be further broken down into smaller groups within the two major affinities (i.e. White men, White women, African American men/women, bi/multi-racial, etc.). At work these are sometimes called Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs.

Amplification: A technique an ally can use to boost the message of a member of a less dominant group by repeating what that person said and giving them credit for it. For example, Natalie says, “when you hear another coworker making a derogatory comment about or a joke at the expense of LGBTQ people, voice your concern about the impact of such comments on your company culture, emphasizing that there’s nothing negative about being LGBTQ.

Cisgender: Individuals whose gender identity and expression line up with their birth-assigned sex.

Code-switching: The practice of mixing various languages and speech patterns in conversation –or more broadly, changing the way you express yourself culturally and linguistically based on different parts of your identity and how they are represented in the group you’re with.

Culture fit: The likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization. As companies discover that looking for a “culture fit” does not promote inclusion, the term is being replaced with “culture adds”; values-aligned individuals who want to have an impact and contribute positively to the culture you’re building.

Diverse: Individuals cannot be diverse. Groups of individuals can be diverse, however, when referring to candidates, refrain from saying “diverse talent” or “diverse candidate.” Instead, try underrepresented talent or individuals, or HUGs (historically underrepresented groups). The use of this term also depends on where you stand. For example, underrepresented groups only look “diverse” to the overrepresented. So by using the term “diverse,” you accept the frame of reference of the majority.”

Diversity: Individual differences that include (but not limited to) ability, learning styles, life experiences, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, political, and religion.

Dominant culture: The cultural beliefs, values, and traditions that are centered and dominant in society’s structures and practices. Dominant cultural practices are thought of as “normal” and, therefore, preferred and right. As a result, diverse ways of life are often devalued, marginalized, and associated with low cultural capital. Conversely, in a multicultural society, various cultures are celebrated and respected equally.

Equity: Equity aims at making sure that everyone’s lifestyle is equal even if it may come at the cost of unequal distribution of access and goods. Social justice leaders in education strive to ensure equitable outcomes for their students.

Equality: Everyone is given equal opportunities and accessibility and are then free to do what they please with it. However, this is not to say that everyone is then inherently equal. Some people may choose to seize these open and equal opportunities while others let them pass by.

Gender identity: A person’s perception of their gender, which may or may not correspond with their birth sex.

Photo Credit: www.ItsPronouncedMetrosexual.com

HBCU: An acronym that stands for “historically black colleges and universities.” These are institutions of higher education in the United States that were established with the intention of primarily serving the black community, though they have always allowed admission to students of all races. Most were created in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

HSI: An acronym that stands for Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) are defined in Title V of the Higher Education Act as not-for-profit institutions of higher learning and undergraduate student enrollment that is at least 25 percent Hispanic.

HUGs: An acronym that stands for Historically underrepresented groups.

Implicit bias: The attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions unconsciously. These biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.

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.

Inclusion: A dynamic state of operating in which diversity is leveraged to create a fair, healthy, and high-performing organization or community. An inclusive environment ensures equitable access to resources and opportunities for all. It also enables individuals and groups to feel safe, respected, engaged, motivated, and valued, for who they are and for their contributions toward organizational and societal goals.

Inclusive development: The process of ensuring that all marginalized and excluded groups are stakeholders in development processes.

Intersectionality: The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender that can create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. The term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used it to describe the experiences of black women — who experience both sexism and racism.

Latinx (pronounced “La-teen-ex”): A gender-neutral term often used instead of the gendered “Latino” or “Latina” when referring to individuals with cultural ties to Latin America and individuals of Latin American descent.

Lower the barA phrase based on the erroneous idea that a company has to relax hiring standards to add people from different racial/ethnic/gender backgrounds. In fact, in many cases it’s the opposite: companies have a poorly designed hiring bar that fails to evaluate highly qualified, and often diverse, candidates adequately.

LGBTQIA: Acronym encompassing the diverse groups of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual populations and allies/alliances/associations.

Mansplain: A portmanteau of the word “man” and “explain” used to describe the act of men explaining to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.

Meritocracy: Belief in the flawed idea that hard work and talent alone are all that’s needed to achieve success. Challenges like implicit bias, structural inequality and varying degrees of privilege or disadvantage mean meritocracy isn’t currently a reality.

Microaggression: This term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe the tiny, casual, almost imperceptible insults and degradation often felt by any marginalized group.

Mood Disorder: This is a category of illnesses that describe a serious change in mood. Illness under mood disorders includes: major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder (mania — euphoric, hyperactive, over inflated ego, unrealistic optimism), persistent depressive disorder (long-lasting, low-grade depression), cyclothymia (a mild form of bipolar disorder), and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

Native American: Someone of indigenous heritage to North America. The term that one may identify as may differ based on age, region, or a specific nation.

Neurodiversity: A term to describe mental health to a more broad audience, including learning disabilities, as well as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression or anxiety. This also includes the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome.

Nonbinary: Any gender identity that does not align to the historically traditional and binary definitions of male or female.

Pipeline problem: The belief that the tech industry isn’t diverse because of a scarcity of available talent. The reality is that the pipeline is only part of the issue– better recruitment tactics and interview processes, a focus on retention and lots more can help create more diversity.

POC: An acronym standing for “Person of Color.” This term is used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white or Caucasian.

Pronouns: A consciously chosen set of pronouns that allow a person to represent their gender identity accurately.. Pronouns include both gendered pronouns like “He” and “She” as well as gender-neutral pronouns like “They” and “Ze.”

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, preparing, and pushing them.

Stereotype Threat: Stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. The term was first used by Steele and Aronson (1995) who showed in several experiments that Black college first-year students and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that the awareness can harm performance in academic contexts when one’s behavior is viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes.

Tokenism: The practice of including one or a few members of an underrepresented group in a team or company, without their having authority or power equal to that of other group members. This places a burden on an individual to represent all others like them. (Example: When the one person in an underrepresented group is consistently asked to speak about being a member of that group.)

Transgender: Individuals whose gender identity and expression is different than their birth-assigned sex.

Underrepresented group/underindexed group: This term describes any subset of a population that holds a smaller percentage within a significant subgroup than in the general population. For example, women are often an underrepresented group in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Universal access to opportunity: Universal access to opportunity is the ability of all people to have equal opportunity in employment, regardless of their social class, gender, ethnicity background or physical and mental disabilities.

Now what?

While this list of principles and concepts is meant to be a resource you can reference throughout the year. I recognize it is incomplete, so feel free to add your words and concepts to the comment section. Additionally, if there is a phrase you plan to use or stop using, we’d love to hear about it!

Thanks to Courtney Seiter, Director of People at Buffer and Co-Founder at Girls to the Moon, and the Handshake team for building an incredible list of inclusive language principles that make us better people and a better society for all.