Don't Watch Your Words. Choose Them.

Graham-Dixon shares why words matter, especially when it comes to bias (or unconscious bias).

If long evenings lost to qualitative research groups have taught us anything, it’s that context is everything.  Under the bright lights of the research room, people bend to method, moderator and sequence.  They overthink what they say, rather than saying what they think - a natural consequence of putting both creativity and people under a microscope.

Unfortunately, much unconscious bias training takes place in a similar setting.  The result: a conversation where people are led by context.  To give an example, many unconscious bias sessions start with this riddle:

A father and son are involved in a car accident.  The father dies at the scene.  The boy is rushed to the hospital, but when the surgeon enters the room, they refuse to operate, saying "I cannot operate on this boy, for he is my son."  

Two people out of ten immediately put their hands up.  "The surgeon is his mum!" says one, looking around incredulous at others’ delay. The rest of the room looks as though they may never speak to a woman again (including the women).  Someone limply offers "Two fathers?" by way of apology.  By the end of the session, materials highlighting racial bias, other minority groups, and non-traditional families have provided more uncomfortable moments.  Finally, everyone leaves the room, trying to avoid eye contact.  And no one speaks of it again.

It’s important to note that this is about context.  Looking deeper into what was going wrong, and beginning by changing the riddle from a son to a daughter – "A father and a daughter are in a car accident…" -- shifts seven masculine words to just four, and introduces three feminine ones.  In the original version of the riddle, up to 86% of people get it wrong.  But the altered version has a far reduced fail rate - around 62%.  Pronouns are easy to overlook because they are sentence-forming words of little interest.  But they have a silent and compelling dark power.

Academia backs up the role of language with a growing body of work from Scandinavian gender linguists showing strong correlations between gendered language and countries with a high tolerance for sexual discrimination, low maternity benefits and higher pay gaps.  NB: The definition of gendered language in this context is language that heavily uses gender pronouns (‘he’ or ‘she’ equivalents, in place of ‘they’).

So language itself creates bias - it is a power structure.  This makes historic sense:  language has grown up as an expression of a world dominated by patriarchal systems.  But the significance now is that we have inherited a broken tool for creating change.

Having identified that language is a huge contributor to inequality, we are left with the question of how to create change.  Changing any structure is hard, but the good news is that language changes faster than political or professional institutions because it changes constantly. The OED was founded in 1879 and has always been a crowdsourced endeavor.  These days, it is built from AI tools that sweep the internet and new publications, constantly mining them for new words.  But despite the enriching of our vocabulary, the English Language won't lose its gendered pronouns overnight.  So, we have to change associations with existing language, too.  So, here’s a good place to start:

When it comes to our personal and professional lives, use language to describe, rather than to classify.  Black is neutral when it’s a description, not a label.  I write as a woman, from my personal experience, but in my job, I take issue with being called a "female planning director."  And I write with feminist purpose, on a broader equality agenda because I don’t define my feminism versus others.

Language can be a prison when it classifies and contains, but it is a liberator when it describes and illuminates.

So choose your words to light the way.

Elle Graham-Dixon is a group planning director at BBDO New York

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