Inclusive language guide for ICAS members
ICAS has created a guide that can help members to demonstrate their inclusive leadership and ensure that the organisations they work for remain relevant and can keep and attract the best-available talent.
ICAS’ commitment to ED&I
ICAS recognises the benefits of having a diverse membership and sees widening diversity as an essential facet of a modern and global profession. We place equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) at the heart of everything we do, helping us to build a diverse membership that reflects the communities we serve, and to lead our profession, so that we can learn, grow and advance together.
As highly influential and respected individuals who form an international business network, our members are also in a position to lead by example, able to influence the organisations and industries in which they work.
From an ED&I perspective, one simple way in which you can make a positive difference is through considering your use of inclusive language, which our guide (see below) should help you to do.
What is inclusive language?
Inclusive language is communication that proactively uses words, phrases and expressions that are welcoming and, where possible, avoids assumptions that may stereotype or exclude people. The exclusion may be inadvertent but it can still have a negative impact.
An example of non-inclusive language might be using a gender-specific term to describe a position within your organisation, such as ‘Chairman’, when the inclusive alternative could simply be ‘Chair’.
Using inclusive language is everyone’s responsibility and it takes practice. This guide will contribute to ensuring our organisations remain relevant and can keep and attract top talent. We have to continuously learn from each other to use the correct and current inclusive language. Demonstrating inclusive leadership through the language we use helps us lead by example and create a welcoming and safe place for talent who want to do their best work and thrive.
Tracey Rob Perera CA, Chair, ICAS ED&I Committee
Why inclusive language is important
The benefits of inclusive language are the same as those for all forms of inclusivity. By not being inclusive you risk alienating certain groups, creating a culture that fails to encourage, is unrepresentative of wider society and prevents everyone from being able to fully contribute to the best of their abilities.
- Allows individuals to be seen as they want to be seen – especially important in relation to gender identity.
- Helps you to move with the times – language changes quickly, so being aware and open to shifting language means your whole organisation can evolve in an agile fashion.
- Challenges both conscious and unconscious biases – language is powerful, so adjusting words and phrases can shift mindsets too.
- Supports disclosure and declaration – by creating a safe space and making people feel valued.
Where and when should you use inclusive language?
You can consider the use of inclusive language in all the various ways in which you communicate, whether that’s when speaking to colleagues, emailing clients, writing job descriptions or preparing text for use on company websites and publications.
Remember that language is fluid and evolves over time – meanings and intentions of words can change rapidly. As a result, it’s important to consider this information as a guide and to use inclusive language principles rather than always relying on specific terms that have been used historically.
Your own organisation may also have its own ED&I or inclusive-language guidelines for you to follow, so please make sure to consider those in the first instance.
Browse the ICAS inclusive language guide:
The elderly, old man/woman
An effective and diverse team
A young and diverse team
An experienced workforce
An older/middle aged workforce
10 years' experience is required
Try to avoid using age as a collective term e.g., the young, the elderly.
Don’t define colleagues by their ages: mature employees, dynamic young team of staff.
Try to avoid using obviously ageist language, including terms – such as elderly, OAPs, pensioners, youngsters – and instead use terms that are objective:
- Child (4–12 years) not boys or girls
- Teenager (13–19 years)
- Young people/adults (16–24)
- Adults (19–64)
- Older people/adults
- Over-65s, over-75s
Ageist language in job descriptions
Try to avoid unnecessary age-related criteria which are potentially discriminating and mean you might miss out on experienced and high-quality candidates.
When writing job descriptions, focus on the skills and core capabilities a candidate requires to be successful in the role, rather than number of years of experience.
(the) handicapped, (the) disabled
Has [name of condition or impairment]
Afflicted by, suffers from, victim of
Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound
With a learning disability (singular), with learning disabilities (plural)
Mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal
Person with cerebral palsy
Person with a mental health condition
Mental patient, insane, mad
Deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment
Deaf and dumb, deaf mute
People with visual impairments, blind people, blind and partially sighted people
Person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression
An epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on
Someone with restricted growth or short stature
Fits, spells, attacks
Autistic person, person with autism, neurodivergent person/people and neurodiversity when used as a noun
Neurodiverse person/people, non-neurotypical people/person
It is estimated that 20% of the UK working-age population is disabled. However, typically far fewer employees share their disability with their employers. Some people who would be regarded as disabled under the Equality Act would never regard themselves as disabled.
Invisible or hidden disabilities can be physical, mental or neurological conditions that limit a person's movement and senses. The very fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions and judgments. Examples of invisible disabilities are depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes, HIV and epilepsy.
Much of the language used to describe disabled people is negatively phrased, defines those with a disability by their disability and either suggests that disability is abnormal or perpetuates stereotypes of weakness.
Tips and Hints
- Use person‑centred language which puts the person first and the disability second e.g., ‘a woman who is blind’ instead of ‘a blind woman’ or ‘a person with schizophrenia’ instead of ‘a schizophrenic’.
- Try to avoid language that frames any adaptive equipment as a limitation rather than something assisting the person e.g., ‘wheelchair user’ or ‘person who uses a wheelchair’ rather than ‘wheelchair bound’.
- Avoid phrases that suggest victimhood and negatively frame people e.g., ‘afflicted by,’ ‘victim of,’ ‘suffers from,’ ‘confined to a wheelchair’.
Gender and gender identity
Hi all, folks, team, friends, everyone
Hi girls, guys, ladies, gentlemen
Boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife
Best person for the job
Best man for the job
Decided to be a man or woman
A trans person or a transgender person
Sex change/Looks ‘better’ as man/woman
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, LGBTQ+
Tips and Hints
- If you do not know the marital status of a woman, you could use 'Ms' instead of 'Miss' or 'Mrs'. A new gender-neutral title 'Mx' is now being widely used by the Government and many businesses in the UK. Use this if a person asks for it.
- Terms like 'policeman' imply that the occupation is exclusively male. Use terms such as 'police officer', 'firefighter' and 'salesperson'.
- Try not to make assumptions about the gender of someone's partner or erase LGBT+ couples with your language, e.g., ‘feel free to bring your husbands and wives.’ Instead, use ‘feel free to bring your spouses or partners.’
- Avoid describing someone as trans unless that is how the person identifies and is comfortable with sharing this information.
- There are three common gender pronouns: 1) she/her/hers 2) he/him/his 3) they/them/theirs. Use ‘they' (rather than his or her) when unsure of someone's pronouns. It is okay to ask people what gender pronouns they identify with. Some people highlight their support for gender identity by promoting their pronouns on their email signatures or on their LinkedIn profile. This does not mean that their gender is hard to determine, rather that they are making their colleagues and stakeholders aware that they are comfortable and an ally for transgender or non-binary people.
- If someone tells you they are non-binary and use different pronouns, you should use the pronouns they request and keep the reason for it to yourself. They will share the information when they are comfortable.
Race and ethnicity
Ethnically Diverse Person/People
BAME, Black Asian Minority Ethnic
Block list, safe list, allow list,
Blacklisted, white list
Other racial groups
People of colour
Mixed race, biracial or multiracial people
People from overseas, international students
Black people, white people
The blacks, the whites
Race and ethnicity are often regarded as the same thing – both are social constructs used to categorise and characterise at an individual and group level. However, while there is an overlap, they do differ and affect inclusive language.
'Race' is often used to group people on the basis of shared physical traits, particularly skin colour and hair texture, and a shared ancestry or historical experience as a result.
'Ethnicity' is more frequently chosen by the individual and linked to cultural expression. The term is used to describe shared cultural or national identity, such as language, nationality, religious expression and other customs.
Tips and hints
- Don't make assumptions about someone's national origin based on their appearance.
- BAME or BME stands for 'Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic' and 'Black and Minority Ethnic' respectively. These were widely used in the UK to refer to anybody Black, Asian and/or from an Ethnic Minority. Although often used interchangeably with 'people of colour', the two terms are not the same. ICAS uses a more inclusive term, Ethnically Diverse People.
- People can have multiple racial and ethnic identities that may not be obvious based on appearance. Do not assume that a person's skin complexion or appearance defines their nationality or cultural background. Being curious and asking will normally not offend.
- Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a statement which has become an important way for people to show their support for black people who have experienced discrimination simply because of the colour of their skin.
- The statement comes from the demand for all lives to matter equally, for society to value the lives black people as much as it values the lives of white people. Saying in response to this that ‘all lives matter’ misses the point that governments, law enforcement agencies and society in general has, in many countries, undervalued the lives of Black people. Also, saying ‘all lives matter’ can sound defensive, like there is another part of an equation.
- People who share protected characteristics may choose to refer to themselves by terms outlined in and outside of this guide by way of 'reclaiming' the slur. The use of language in this way has entirely different implications and effects than it would when a person from outside the group uses it, especially if used in an intentionally derogatory way.
First name, forename or given name
Jewish people, members of the Muslim community, Hindu and Sikh community
(Remember to capitalise as you would for Christian)
The Jews, the Muslims, all Sikhs
Those of all faiths and none
Believer and non-believers
Atheists and agnostic people
While religions have their origins in certain parts of the world, it would be incorrect to assume people whose ethnicity originates from those countries observe the same or any religion. A person's religious belief cannot be assumed by their name.
The extent to which followers of different religions observe or express their faith is personal to them and we do not challenge individuals on their faith or lack of.
Pregnancy, parents and caring
Mother and father
Mum and dads
The traditional ideas about the roles of women and men have shifted over time but the assumptions and stereotypes that underpin these ideas are often deeply rooted. It's common to assume a woman will have children, look after them and take a break from paid work or work part-time to accommodate the family.
Although shared parental leave is now available, it remains a rarely used resource, and it is common to assume that a man will only want to take the minimum time off work for paternity leave. Be thoughtful around such assumptions and stereotypes which can have the effect of seriously disadvantaging people.
Hints and tips
- Avoid making remarks such as 'baby brain' if someone is forgetful during pregnancy or call someone who leaves early a part-timer.
- Try not to remind people of the time they have spent off while on parental leave.
- Being away from work for a long period is life changing and can be challenging for many new parents. Find ways to keep them engaged and included. Remember to ask them for ideas on how to keep in touch before going on leave.
- Be cautious on assuming only women are affected by the challenges that come with having a family. Also consider the effect it has on men and be mindful of language and behaviour that may stop them from requesting time off to care for their family.
More useful examples
- Phrases that are very specific to UK English, such as ‘it's raining cats and dogs’ may need to be explained to international colleagues or stakeholders. Similarly, vernacular words or phrases have the potential to be lost on broader audiences.
- We may say something is ‘terribly good’. Does this mean it is good or bad? This is contradictory and confusing for international audiences and anyone who identifies with being on the neurodivergent spectrum, such as Asperger's and Autism.
- Use factual language rather than value-laden words and phrases. For example, ’older workers are more likely to be sick’ can be reframed to the more inclusive, ’as we get older, illness and disability are more common and as a result illness can be more frequent as people age’.
- Try not to erase certain groups with your language or to lump together all people within a certain group, e.g. the Muslims, all single mothers, all BAME communities.
What if I get it wrong?
We all make mistakes. The best thing to do is to learn and try to avoid making the same mistake again. If you think you have said the wrong thing to someone, apologise, correct what you have said, if needed clarify the correct term, and move on. Don’t keep bringing it up or you will both end up feeling awkward.