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Making Our Language and Behaviour More Inclusive

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To avoid excluding people we need to gain more awareness when we are in the wrong and be introspective to find out why someone is upset or offended by what we have said or done. By being excluded people will eventually leave their jobs, communities or profession, which is something that we need to prevent. Peter Aitken suggested taking a positive approach when addressing inclusion issues.

Aitken, agile Ruby and JavaScript developer at Litmus and organiser of the ScotlandJS and ScotlandCSS conferences, spoke about inclusive language and behaviour at Lean Agile Scotland 2017. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries, and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Aitken about inclusive language and behaviour.

InfoQ: What is inclusive language and behaviour?

Peter Aitken: It is language and behavior that is considerate to all the people you engage with. We should be making people feel valued as a base minimum in all interactions.

It can be easier to look at this from the opposite perspective for specifics; "what are the elements of language and behaviour that exclude people?"

Patronising, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist and bigoted (as well as many other kinds) language and behaviour cause hurt and offence in any environment be that at home, with family or friends, in the workplace or our communities.

InfoQ: Why does it matter?

Aitken: By being excluded people will eventually leave their jobs, communities or profession.

Society gives the impression that equality exists. Unfortunately, equality is journey that society is on and still has a very long way to go.

The majority of developers in tech come from a very privileged position and generally have a lack of appreciation of the hardships people from underrepresented groups suffer in our field and outwith it.

People are bullied, harassed and vilified in many ways with the underlying, sometimes unconscious, source being that they present in a manner that is different from a cis white hetero able-bodied male (a stereotypical software developer).

It is that lack of understanding and appreciation that allows the majority to maintain their perception of equality.

In Scotland alone, the gender stats (binary) that you can find vary between 4 and 12% of developers are women. These figures are never going to balance our perfectly at 50-50, however something clearly is wrong here given the current figures.

To bring about true equality we need to educate and bring about understanding so that people can be more aware of where they have gone wrong in the past and enable them to better deal with issues in the future.

Without this, people from underrepresented groups will continue to have their confidence and self-worth chipped away at, day upon day until they change job or profession.

InfoQ: What can you do if you see that someone inadvertently excludes a person?

Aitken: Take a positive approach which gives the highest opportunity for learning.

My advice would be to take the person aside, away from a group environment, and explain what they said and why it is inappropriate, offensive and exclusionary.

Ideally there will be a shared understanding by the end of the conversation and the best outcome is that you are thanked for providing this feedback, and then the person takes what they have learned back to the group, apologises and shares what they’ve learnt.

All of this will probably be somewhat uncomfortable for the person, however by taking them away from the group environment you are not publicly shaming them which would elicit a more defensive reaction where learning and self improvement are less likely to occur.

InfoQ: What if you feel excluded yourself, how can you let the person who is excluding you know?

Aitken: You can take the same approach as mentioned above. If this doesn’t make a difference you can raise an issue within your place of work, or if at a community event approach an organiser regarding a Code of Conduct violation.

Diversity and inclusion matter to reach business objectives and to be seen as a social responsible organization. In the InfoQ article on diversion and inclusion, Shaheen Akram explained what organizations can do to create an inclusive environment:

Shaheen Akram: Equipping managers to be effective managers is critical and in my experience is the starting point. Encouraging managers to build better relationships, to trust and grow their people, to be conscious of potential bias or stereotypes they may carry will only enhance the experience of both parties. This should deliver positive results in terms of engagement, commitment and meeting objectives.

InfoQ: How can we make our language and behaviour more inclusive?

Aitken: Collectively, and individually, we need to better understand the hardships of people who have less privilege than ourselves. In terms of learning, follow people from backgrounds different from your own on social media and learn about their struggles.

We need to gain more awareness when we are in the wrong and when we need to be introspective to work out:

  • Why is someone upset or offended by what we have said or done?
  • What could we do better in future?
  • How do we make amends?

At a recent conference during one of the talks a speaker said something inappropriate and the very next thing they said was "I’m sorry, that remark was inappropriate." By this action the speaker demonstrated their awareness of how they had acted and immediately rectified it.

We need to lift each other up by sharing our newfound understanding. By this action we visibly make it acceptable to demonstrate we each are an imperfect work-in-progress that are striving to improve.

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