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Finding the right words to Break the Bias

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Why language is so important on International Women’s Day

By Dr Julie Mills OBE

In thinking about International Women’s Day this year, it seems so important to think of the women and girls of Ukraine – those who have been forced to flee their homes for foreign lands to seek sanctuary from the fighting. Even in the direst conflicts like the one we’re currently witnessing, small things matter, and the impact of words can be so great. Before the last few days, how many of us would have appreciated the difference between the Russian spelling of Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev and the Ukrainian spelling of Kyiv, and why it matters so much?

Language also matters a great deal when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion. We’ve recently seen more than fifty corporate membership organisations write to the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, calling for the use of the word chairman on the website of Companies House (the national register of companies) to end and for it to be replaced with the non-gendered chair. The signatories to the request are pretty much a roll-call of the big opinion formers in business, from the British Chambers of Commerce to the CBI and the Institute of Directors. Mr Kwarteng’s apparent refusal to make such a change is slightly baffling, and hopefully this single, simple change in policy will not be too far away. Taking the gender-specificity out of words is important. The women and girls who International Women’s Day seeks to empower, cannot aspire to be a chairMAN, but they can dream of chairing a big company. Such use of language does have an impact.

This is why Milton Keynes College Group produced an inclusive language guide. It’s the kind of initiative which it’s very easy to dismiss as tinkering at the margins but it really is far more impactful than that. Up until 1999, female police officers were called WPCs (Women Police Constables). At that time, only one woman had been appointed as Chief Constable to a British force. Today, a third of Chief Constables are women. Getting rid of the gender-based title obviously isn’t the only reason for that change, but in creating a sense of sameness, of equal worth, validity and potential between men and women, the ground was clearly laid for more equality of opportunity for promotion.

The Group has recently taken the decision to invest in equality, diversity and inclusion training for senior members of staff under the banner of “Inclusive Leadership.” The fact is, however well-intentioned we might be, unconscious bias is present in us all. Who doesn’t remember a lightbulb moment when words we used or actions we took were identified to us as being less than equal? There’s that flash of embarrassment coupled with enlightenment resulting in positive change. Sometimes we just need to be shown how to be and do better.

If we really do want to Break the Bias, we as women will not achieve it alone. Allyship from men is as vital as it has ever been in the struggle for a more equal world. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be wonderful if every woman who reads one article about International Women’s Day this year were to show it to one man and get them to read it too? Even if only half of those men were to be just a tiny bit better informed and supportive, how huge would be the ripples that spread across society? It’s all about talking to each other, and of course, using the right language.