Inclusive campus leadership is more important now than ever before, for both students and staff. For instance, experts predict that the Class of 2025 will be the largest and most diverse group of students on record. And institutions continue to set ambitious goals to diversify their faculty and staff members and banish bias from campus.
But many leaders struggle to create a truly inclusive environment for employees and students.
This is a problem for students, as “feeling respected, welcomed, and valued is correlated with outcomes like higher grades, retention, and engagement,” writes Michelle DiMenna, who researches student success and equity at EAB. And for institutions, an inclusive environment could mean the difference between retaining and losing diverse faculty and staff, notes Maria Morrison, a senior analyst with EAB’s Advancement Forum.
But one simple way you can become a more inclusive leader is to reflect on the language you use on campus, says Daisy Lovelace, a senior lecturing fellow at Duke University‘s Fuqua School of Business.
“The words you use signal who’s in and who’s out,” says Lovelace in a LinkedIn Learning course on inclusive leaders. “Your language is culturally loaded whether or not you intend for it to be. Setting the tone for an inclusive team involves choosing your words carefully.”
In her course, Lovelace outlines a few linguistic tweaks that help create a more inclusive environment for employees and students.
1. Use the word ‘guest’
Use broad language to describe the relationships your employees have, recommends Lovelace. For example, if you’re throwing a holiday party for your team, ask your employees to bring a guest—not a spouse or partner. If you say spouse, you alienate those who aren’t married, while partner excludes those who may want to bring a friend along, she explains.
You can apply this rule in student communications, too. For instance, when you write commencement information for graduating students, use ‘guest’ instead of parents or family. If you describe graduation attendees only as parents or family members, you may unintentionally exclude students whose family members can’t attend.
2. Be consistent with how you describe situations
How you describe specific behaviors can unintentionally “reinforce negative stereotypes about minorities and women,” says Lovelace. “Two nearly identical situations occur but get described very differently based on the people involved.”
In a blog post about Lovelace’s course, LinkedIn Learning editor Paul Petrone points to a classic example: A man being assertive in a meeting is described as driven, while a woman acting the same way is described as bossy.
Whether you want campus leaders to act more assertively or more collaboratively is up to you, notes Petrone. But it’s important to describe the behavior consistently so all employees are treated fairly, he adds.
3. Avoid gender-specific language and pronouns
Pronouns may seem minor, but they can reinforce the idea that certain positions or spaces on campus are reserved for one gender.
For example, in orientation literature, take care to welcome first-year students, rather than freshmen. Many students want to see gender-neutral language on campus bathrooms, too. In fact, transgender students ranked gender-neutral restrooms as the most important resource on campus in a survey by Clark University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Similarly, in your job openings, use “they” instead of “him” or “her” to describe your ideal candidate, recommends Lovelace. If you use gendered pronouns in an ad, you unintentionally signal to others you want a man or woman for that role, she explains.
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