Increasingly, gender-neutral pronouns are being embraced as part of a range of measures to increase inclusivity within workforces.
As part of such efforts, most organisations, however, recognise that changing email signatures and social media profiles alone is not enough. Authentic strategies to increase inclusivity within an organisation and drive long-term meaningful change need senior leadership commitment alongside changes to existing policies and processes.
What are the main drivers for change?
Increasingly, and often as part of wider diversity and inclusion strategies, businesses are further reviewing how to address inequalities and drive meaningful change, with measures to drive inclusivity regularly forming part of such initiatives.
Aside from the strong desire from corporates to meet diversity and inclusion targets, growing external pressures from suppliers, customers and investors and employee expectations are often the other driving forces.
In addition, there is desire to manage reputational risk, including the risk of litigation in the event of failures to encourage and enforce workplace equality. The ongoing rise in claims for discrimination in employment tribunals shows that employees are increasingly willing to enforce their rights in this forum.
Discrimination in the courts
Employment tribunal data from the Ministry of Justice shows that despite courts running at lower capacity in the last financial year there were still 117,926 accepted claims – a 13% increase on the previous financial year.
Of these, discrimination claims continued to rise, with age discrimination being the basis of 15,336 claims (compared with just 2,434 the previous financial year) and other types of discrimination claims being significantly less prevalent but generally continuing to rise: disability (7,430), sex (5,172), race (4,175), pregnancy (1,435), religion or belief (733) and sexual orientation (438).
This data reinforces just one of the many reasons why efforts by companies to create a culture of inclusivity throughout their organisation are so important.
Brand guidelines and email signatures
While this is just a start, it is a visible way of demonstrating genuine commitment towards creating an environment where everyone feels included and respected, irrespective of gender or gender identity.
However, a considered approach to rolling-out such measures should be taken. Educating and raising awareness of gender identity considerations; explaining how this fits alongside wider diversity and inclusion initiatives, the reason for the measure and its timing; ensuring that employees understand the voluntary nature of the measure and the benefits of normalising the inclusion of gender-neutral pronouns; and considering in advance how any concerns will be addressed, will all be key.
Including, within education and awareness measures, the wide range of reasons why using terms that reinforce gender stereotypes or further embed socially constructed perceptions of gender can inadvertently exclude people will be important.
That may also extend to where the appropriate pronouns may not be obvious due to a name being used by people of different gender identities or names being unfamiliar due to different ethnic backgrounds.
Processes and templates
Removing gender-biased language goes further than just email signatures. An organisation considering written communications as part of its commitment to creating an inclusive environment will also therefore need to look at its full suite of internal and external documents.
Many organisations use template documents for pitching, or for saving time when completing administration tasks such as adding new suppliers. These, along with internal processes established over years to improve efficiency or make tasks easier, should form part of the review, to identify and address any historic inclusion of gender pronouns or gendered terminology.
The policies that a company creates are the building blocks of its culture and offer a window into its values. Therefore, it is vital to demonstrate inclusivity in an organisation’s written policy documents, including the company code of conduct, disciplinary policy, and equal opportunity policy. As well as making company intentions clear and reinforcing values, this can give new, existing and prospective employees confidence in the organisations wider commitments to embedding inclusivity.
Creating an inclusive culture that places respect and support for everyone at its core and empowers all employees to fulfil their potential is a challenge, but one that many UK businesses are addressing.
Removing gender-biased language as part of inclusivity strategies is just one element of this. However, simply changing email signatures or social media profiles will not be enough and organisations should also consider an inclusive approach to communications with workers and clients more generally, including in process, policy and contract documentation.
Removing gender-biased language and embracing gender neutrality is a thorough process, but employers that step up to the challenge are likely to see the benefits in all parts of their business – employee, employer and customer.
Naeema Choudry is a partner at Eversheds Sutherland
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