Harnessing the Power of Inclusive Language

My guest Jenifer Clausell-Tormos has created some fantastic technology that can help increase the diversity of workforces and increase inclusivity within the workplace. I’m always interested in talking with technologists because I can see the role that technology can play in helping organisations scale up all that they do around diversity and inclusion.

We began by Jenifer telling me about her background, her journey to her current company and her exciting technology project.

‘I am the CEO and co-founder of Develop Diverse. I originally come from Spain, Valencia. Gender equality is not our strength in Spain. I grew up in a family where gender roles were very stereotypical and I was not supposed to challenge them, but I kept challenging them since I can remember! It was not and I think this is what drove me to pursue higher education and to live, study and work abroad. My PhD was in developing tech platforms, both hardware and software. I worked for over 10 years within biomedical applications. My role was as a research scientist using my expertise to speed up the process of finding new medicines. Four years ago, I decided to transfer my expertise in technology to speed up the process of closing the gender and the diversity gap.

The reason was that about four years ago I found my highly-educated female friends who were having children started experiencing the same issues that my mother did when I was young.I couldn’t understand how this could still happen today. I felt so strongly that it made me quit my job as a research scientist in the biomedical field and move into founding Develop Diverse.

Our vision for Develop Diverse was  to create equal opportunities by normalising diversity through inclusive communication using technology and  close the gender and diversity gaps in a decade rather than in a century.’

Inclusive Language

Develop Diverse specialise in inclusive language. I asked Jenifer to tell me what this is?

‘We are all accustomed to using language in a certain way. We don’t always think that sometimes language can affect us all in different ways. But most of us can agree that language is very powerful. It doesn’t only help us express ideas but to actively help us to shape them, to determine how we understand the world and this affects how we shape our culture. So it’s very important if we want to have a culture of inclusion, that we ensure that we have an inclusive language.

So what is inclusive language? It’s language that doesn’t carry any stereotypical connotations and therefore doesn’t spread or reinforce any stereotypes, even unintentionally. It can be everything from individual words to grammatical structure. If we don’t use inclusive language, it will prevent us from creating workplaces where diversity and inclusion can be leveraged.

I can give you some examples. In job descriptions, phrases like “competitive company” or “ambitious teams” or “ground-breaking ideas”, phrases that we use very often, they are actually more attractive to men, whilst discouraging women. If we use “nurturing company”, “thoughtful ideas” or “cooperative teams”, those phrases are more appealing to women.

If we want to appeal to all diverse applicants, we need to use inclusive words and inclusive words for these types of phrases could be “aspiring company”, it could be “motivated teams” and “innovative ideas”.  But why are certain words more appealing to men or more appealing to women?

Men have long been associated with having agentic traits, meaning they’re more achievement-oriented and individualistic, being the breadwinners, the ones leading the future. Women have been more associated with communal traits, meaning that they have been expected to take care of their family, to ensure harmony and be thinking more of the community rather than the individual. Those are beliefs that reinforce the traits men and women are expected to have. They actually affect how women and men perceive words and how they relate to them, and if they feel encouraged or discouraged by them.’

When I was working at the BBC in our user experience and design team, we rewrote our job descriptions and job adverts, carefully looking at the language we were using. We didn’t have any technology to help us, so it was a manual effort. We noticed the difference in the gender balance that we were receiving from job applicants by switching some of the words around. Since Jenifer  had mentioned that inclusive language isn’t just about masculine or feminine traits, I asked her what other forms of language can impact on different types of diversity?

‘There is language that will discourage people due to their age group or ethnicity. It will also affect a person if they identify as neurodiverse. Language will also affect people with physical disabilities, so it goes well beyond gender. People have internalised beliefs about these different groups, that’s why it affects how we write job descriptions. We picture a person before we even interview somebody and when people read it, they picture themselves with certain traits due to those stereotypes.’

Unconscious Bias

Jenifer agreed with me that this process she has described happens without people consciously thinking about this when they are writing, or reading the job description, or recruitment advert.

‘We know that women are as ambitious as men are. That men are as caring or helpful as women are. So both women and men have communal traits and agentic traits. So on the conscious level, they will not say, “Oh, I’m not ambitious” or “I’m not necessarily… ” or “I’m not helpful”. But on the unconscious level, they will not feel represented by the job’s descriptor words and will feel discouraged.

It’s very important to say that it doesn’t mean that if women feel discouraged by the word “ambitious” that they are not ambitious or vice versa; if men get discouraged by the word “nurturing” it doesn’t mean that men are not nurturing. It’s just that these words and for them on the unconscious level have a negative connotation since they are counter-stereotypic.’

One thing I learned when I’ve researched this in the past was that it’s not so much about male and female, but masculine and feminine. So you can be a man and have feminine traits, and you can be a woman with masculine traits. I asked Jenifer if that is correct?

‘We are moving away from the terminology of feminine and masculine within the psycholinguistic field and slowly shifting to using agentic and communal. Agentic traits are what we could say we identify more with the masculine traits, and communal traits are what we identify more with feminine traits. We want to move away from labelling men and women because research into communal traits shows that not only do women identify with them, but the older population and non-represented ethnical groups or other minorities like neuro-diverse and disabled people do too.  Agentic traits are also more among men, but they are also representative of the young population, and they also represented ethnical groups, and neuro-typical and non-disabled groups. So because these terminologies go beyond gender and are associated with other groups as well, we are moving towards using them.’

Agentic and communal seem to be much better ways of putting it, frankly. I was glad Jenifer said that perhaps people with disabilities are more communal because that’s something that I personally can relate to and probably where I end up on the spectrum. Language is hugely powerful. I read a book about unconscious bias, and they did a simple experiment where  researchers showed the same picture of a bridge to people in Germany and Spain. In Germany, the word for bridge is a masculine noun. So people described the bridge as strong and sturdy and robust. When they took the same picture to Spain, people described it as elegant and pretty and things like that. It’s amazing how a language can influence the way that we perceive something.

The Role of Technology

Jenifer explained how gendered words in different languages, such as having the masculine ‘o’ or feminine  ‘a’ at the end of a Spanish word, adds a layer of ‘unconscious effect’ for individuals.I continued by asking Jenifer how she thinks technology can help us accelerate what we need to do in terms of creating more diverse workplaces and more inclusive workplace cultures?

‘The reason why technology is so relevant is that it can give us objective data. We do not have to rely on subjective opinions and experiences. It helps us to design processes that are accurate, precise and more effective. That’s number one. Another reason why it’s important is that it helps us speed up the processes. It can help make those time-consuming processes more scalable, faster and more efficient. To change all those processes manually, such as in recruitment, we know that it’s a laborious and time-consuming process.

We are also influenced by our subjective opinions, so having an individual not only spend many hours trying to make language more inclusive whilst trying to avoid all their subjective opinions and experiences makes it very difficult for the individual to make language inclusive themselves. We are all affected by our own biases even unconsciously. That’s why it was important for me to use technology to help the individual to make their text inclusive and communicate inclusively within and beyond their organisation.’

With this being the context for the founding of Develop Diverse, I asked Jenifer to tell me a bit more about what the software does and how it works?

‘I’d like to highlight that it’s primarily based on scientific research. My strong scientific research background makes it important that what our software does is accurate and true. On top of that scientific base, we use cutting edge technology, so natural language processing and machine learning. This helps the user not only make their text inclusive but at the same time, unlearn their unconscious biases whilst typing. It has real-time application, whilst someone is typing, the software detects and highlights the phrases that have a stereotypic connotation and by simply hovering on those words, the user gets inclusive alternatives.

What’s important is that not only that for each word, the software proposes an inclusive alternative or multiple ones, but also gives an explanation of why the word is non-inclusive and why it has a stereotypic connotation. This way, the writer can not only identify the words that they need to replace but can also unlearn their own biases while typing. It’s an efficient way of unlearning your biases because we know we have been learning our biases since we are born. It’s going to take time unless we work every day, every minute if possible, to change such a way of thinking.’

Real World Application and Impact

I was curious to understand how people are applying the software in practice and Jenifer explained that right now it’s being applied mainly for external communication. So things like job descriptions, website content and social media posts because clients can easily quantify the demographic numbers that change when using the software.

Jenifer continued, ‘it can also ensure that the employer branding is aligned and consistent with the job descriptions because we know that any job applicant, before applying, will look at the material that they publish because we know this defines the company image.

Millennials care more about the culture of an organisation than the money they get. It’s becoming business-crucial for organisations, business-critical, to develop a culture of inclusion. A culture where everybody can drive and be themselves rather than fit into the box that has been expected from the way that business was run until now.’

Jenifer told me about the results clients of Develop Diverse are getting by implementing the software.

‘Our customers like to compare approaches. They say, “Okay, this action makes a difference.” They have been trying other types of approaches that didn’t help them that much. They are keen on measuring. We work with large organisations within different industries, European and worldwide. We work with Amazon Europe who compared their job descriptions run through our software versus job descriptions how they used to write them. From that experiment, they observed that they got four times more qualified women applicants in their talent pool.

Not only that, but they also got three times more men and three times more women from more diverse groups. They don’t measure the ethnicity itself, that’s why they couldn’t give us the numbers, but they are attracting more types of applicants, but also more qualified overall. We were very proud of that and they are excited.

In other industries, we have customers within the engineering construction sector. One of them is Vestas, who manufacture wind turbines. They are based in Europe but work globally. Within the first six months of using Develop Diverse, they measured all the numbers down the pipeline. This translated into 15% more women within leadership, which are striking numbers for them. It became very relevant for them to keep using inclusive language because of that.

We work with companies within finance such as the banking sector. They got 81% more women applicants using our software within a few weeks. When they do this through experiments where they compare one-on-one they can get those numbers so directly. We are very proud of that. I want to highlight that the reason why I focus mainly on gender numbers is that we work with the European-based companies where due to GDPR compliance or GDPR policies, they cannot measure beyond gender. We know that they get more numbers in other groups, but they are not allowed to measure it, and therefore we cannot get those numbers directly.

It’s so striking that if we can modify the language we see these results. It happens almost on the spot. It’s difficult to believe how changing a few words in job descriptions or employer branding will have such an effect, but it does. Because it does affect us on the unconscious level so deeply.’

To round off this fascinating conversation, I asked Jenifer for her thoughts on what inclusive growth is all about?

‘Within the context we’ve been talking about Inclusive Growth means that when an organisation grows it becomes more profitable as a result of leveraging diversity and inclusion. Those organisations will have teams that increase performance and productivity because they are diverse. Organisations that focus on leveraging the uniqueness of their employees, of team members, everything from personality, skills, experiences, background, and all that, because they ensure that they have a culture of belonging, of respect and inclusion. Otherwise, it’s difficult to get the individual to out-perform and develop themselves.

Connect with Jenifer Clausell-Tormos on her LinkedIn page. To find out more about using this technology to improve your talent acquisition processes drop by the Develop Diverse website

Harnessing the Power of Inclusive Language - Mildon