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These 4 phrases are sabotaging your DEI efforts

You may have the best intentions, but these words are doing more harm than good to your DEI efforts.

These 4 phrases are sabotaging your DEI efforts
[Source photo: fauxels/PExels]

Since the Diversity Tipping Point of 2020, companies are investing in commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts in a way they hadn’t before.

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In fact, according to McKinsey & Co., companies are spending over $8 billion a year on DEI trainings and programs. American companies have pledged $50 billion to help support Black communities. The demand for Chief Diversity Officers in the marketplace has surged, as companies look to ensure they have leaders to hold them accountable.

While these commitments are critical, the hard work of building inclusive cultures comes down to the conversations happening every day in boardrooms, in virtual team meetings, and in one-on-one interactions. The language we use when discussing our DEI efforts matter. The words and phrases we use reflect whether we understand the inequities that exist and are committed to the work for the long-term, or whether we are checking the box and looking for quick fixes.

Let’s all think twice before using these four phrases heard in many organizations when referring to our DEI efforts:

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Instead of: “underrepresented minorities,” use “historically marginalized communities”

Using the term underrepresented minorities (URM) has become increasingly popular as companies scramble to fulfill their DEI commitments. URM references the low participation rates of ethnic and racial communities in fields and industries relative to their representation in the U.S. population. Unfortunately, when we use this term, we don’t acknowledge that these communities have been systemically and historically excluded. By using only this one umbrella term, we also erase the differences of individuals in this group.

Instead of using URM, use the phrase historically marginalized communities. By using this language, you are acknowledging that there are communities that have systematically been denied access to economic, political. and cultural participation.

You should then follow up and be specific about what communities you are referencing and wanting to serve, for example, Black/African-American, Hispanic/Latinx, or Native American/American Indian/Indigenous American.

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Not being specific erases that community’s history and their voices.

Instead of: “diverse hire or diversity hire, ” use “building diverse pipelines, and diverse slates”

Using the words diverse hire (or diversity hire) can have a damaging impact on your DEI efforts. Diverse hire implies that the only reason an individual was hired is because of a specific dimension of diversity they bring to the table. And that they were hired because they were diverse, not because they were qualified.

Instead of using the words diverse hire, focus your language around building diverse pipelines, and ensuring you have diverse slates for roles. Focus on metrics recruiters and hiring managers have aligned on as you look to build a workforce that reflects the communities you serve. As a woman of color, I don’t want to be labeled as a diverse hire. I want to be known for my experience, my talent, and the wealth of knowledge I bring to an organization.

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Instead of “unconscious bias,” use “interrupting or disrupting our bias”

We need to reframe the conversation around unconscious bias. While much has been written about the failed efforts of unconscious bias training, we haven’t addressed the use of the phrase. “Unconscious” leads many of us to believe we have no control over our biases. Thoughts just pop into our head, and there’s nothing we can do. It also does not hold leaders who are consciously behaving badly accountable when all actions are categorized under “unconscious bias.”

Instead of using unconscious bias, focus your language on how we can interrupt or disrupt our bias. If we are human, we have bias. When I coach leaders, I remind them that it’s okay to have that first thought in your head, but then to be aware of how it could be rooted in bias. What’s important is what comes next, and what action you choose to take. By disrupting your own bias, you will likely make a better decision as a result for yourself and for the company.

Instead of: “diversity of thought,” use “diversity of representation”

Increasingly, diversity of thought has become a popular phrase to express what we believe to be the intent of our DEI efforts. By only embracing diversity of thought, we aren’t having uncomfortable conversations when it comes to gender and racial inequities in our organizations. We aren’t specifically talking about whose voice is missing from the table and why. And then doing the work to ensure more voices from historically marginalized communities are given a seat at the table.

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Instead of using just diversity of thought, use the language that “diversity of thought doesn’t happen without diversity of representation.” You can also use the phrase, “focusing on diversity of representation” when referring to what you hope to achieve through your DEI efforts. By being intentional in your language and being explicit about what matters, you will be showcasing your long-term commitment to make meaningful change in your organization.

Mita Mallick is a diversity and inclusion leader. Right now she is the head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta. 

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