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Diversity and Cultural Awareness

Eliminating Discrimination

Eliminating Discrimination

Discrimination has been a much discussed topic for many decades now (particularly in the so-called western world) but progress seems to have been slow to occur. Perhaps even worse, we can sometimes slip backwards and allow majority groups to introduce new exclusion or discrimination behavior which needs to be dealt with quickly if we wish to avoid it escalating.

Although advice on what we might do in a workplace setting when discrimination occurs is abundant, one of the simplest strategies we can adopt is to ensure that the language we are using is inclusive.  This is simply because it is easy to discriminate in our communication (both knowingly and unknowingly). But intended or not, discriminatory words often hurt. It is also often careless and unnecessary. And let’s not forget, it is also easy to discriminate in our writing also-both formal (in report and memos) and informal (when we are sending emails or text messages or just idly chatting!).

Language can act as a powerful vehicle of discrimination. If individuals or groups are labelled consciously or unconsciously in demeaning, harmful or stereotyped ways, they often experience pain of some kind or develop strong emotions which can lead to a negative self-image, feelings of inferiority and possibly expressions of anger or even hatred.

Forms or examples of linguistic discrimination

Although there are potentially many forms of verbal and written linguistic discrimination, here are a few examples to illustrate:

Invisibility/exclusion. “To our grandfathers, steam trains were the latest in fast transport. Their grandfathers thought the horse and cart was the best way to travel.” The use of the word “grandfather” not only obscures the fact that we have grandmothers who would have engaged in these activities but also excludes them.

Focusing on one characteristic to the exclusion of others. “The fundraiser of the year award went to Mrs Sheila W., who, despite being confined to a wheelchair, managed to raise $5000 for the club.” Clearly, raising $5,000 is a worthy achievement for anyone here.

Stereotyped descriptions of people. “Suzy, the glamorous wife of leading lawyer John B., declined to comment on the rumors that …”. Clearly this is sexist language that often applies to females a lot more than it seems to do for males.

Asymmetrical treatment in language. “Five people, including one Pakistani, were picked up for questioning.”  This draws attention to the minority when it is not necessary or helpful to do so.

Language that insults or denigrates people. This category includes all forms of swearing and derogatory, defamatory words and expressions. Usually they are easily recognized as discriminatory expressions. This category, however, also includes certain words and expressions used to make negative comparisons. For example: “The team was playing like a group of old [women].”

Non-discriminatory portrayal of the sexes. Sexist language is language that expresses bias in favor of one sex and thus treats the other sex in a discriminatory manner … Common forms of sexism in English include the use of “man” and “he/him/his” as generics – that is, nouns and pronouns referring to both men and women. E.g., “A manager will lead his team …”; “A supervisor and his assistant …”.

Non-discriminatory portrayal of people with disabilities. Disabled people have often been described as helpless people to be pitied and to be taken care of (the very word “disabled” hinting at this of course).  In other cases, feelings of horror, disgust, and fear influenced the language used to describe them – people with a disability, especially those with mental or intellectual disabilities, were portrayed as dangerous, untidy, and erratic.  But attitudes towards disability have changed considerably over the past ten to fifteen years.  It is also important to realize that it is mainly the environment of people with a disability which highlights their disability.  Discriminatory language in relation to the portrayal of disabled people is characterized by depersonalizing – they are treated as a disability, rather than as a person with a disability, by highlighting the disability as the only characteristic of the person and by stereotyping.

Non-discriminatory portrayal of people in relation to age. Labels such as ‘the old’, ‘the aged’, ‘inexperienced youth’, ‘juveniles’ are often commonly used.  Instead we can use descriptions such as older people, senior(s), senior citizen(s), a young person, young people. In other words, we can avoid stereotyping older people as frail, incapable of independence, a burden on society, no longer productive or active.  Similarly young people can be stereotyped as inexperienced, rebellious, immature or always energetic. In some contexts reference to age is not only gratuitous but also contributes to discrimination and detracts from more relevant matters.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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