Associations as Champions of Inclusive Language

Your association serves as the moral compass of your membership, and as such, you have the responsibility to live your association’s values, including inclusivity. But what does that look like day to day?

Many of the best practices around inclusivity relate to language. When an association or vendor makes it a priority to use inclusive language (both internally and externally), it sends a signal to members, employees, prospective members, clients, customers and stakeholders that all are welcome and belong. And as an association leader, you can position your organization as an inclusivity champion, setting an example for others and providing additional value to your membership.

What is inclusive language?

The British Columbia Public Service resource on inclusive language, “Words Matter”, describes inclusive language as “language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also language that does not deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from feeling accepted.” An association that lives and breathes inclusivity ensures higher employee engagement, happiness and retention, while also expanding your potential member base.

Below is a primer on inclusive language that you can use as a starting point when examining your current language use, as well as the current practices of your organization.  Additional resources to help you and your colleagues on your journey to greater inclusion are also included.

Breaking it Down

Just as there are many ways in which a person can experience marginalization and exclusion, there are many categories of inclusive language to keep in mind as you learn more about practicing inclusion. The following tips will help you begin to reframe your thinking about how you communicate at work.

Language inclusive of the LGBTQ2S community

When it comes to including the LGBTQ2S community, remember that a person’s gender and/or sexuality should never be assumed.

  • Use the word transgender and never use transgendered. The latter term suggests that being trans is something that happens to someone, as opposed to an identity someone is born with.
  • When somebody tells you their pronouns, use those pronouns. Not doing so negates that person’s identity and is tantamount to hate speech.
  • State your own pronouns in your online bios. The more that cisgender people (not sure what cisgender means? It refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth), start doing this, the more common a practice it becomes and the less stigma there is attached to it.
  • When addressing groups, use gender-inclusive language: y’all, folks, everyone, fellow colleagues, students. Drop ‘ladies and gentlemen’.
  • When addressing one person, try your best to use ‘you’ rather than ‘ma’am’ or ‘sir’
  • When speaking indirectly, describe people as people. For example, don’t say ‘the woman over there’ but instead ‘that person in the green shirt over there’.
  • When in doubt, it’s okay to ask someone what their pronouns are. Say “what are your pronouns?” Try not to say, “what are your preferred pronouns?” as that implies it’s okay to call the person by pronouns that don’t reflect who they are. And if you don’t have the opportunity to ask someone, the singular ‘they’ is a fine gender-neutral choice.
  • Stop equating biology with gender. Menstruating or becoming pregnant does not equal ‘woman’. Having a penis or an Adam’s apple does not equal ‘man’.
  • Use the gender-neutral terms ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ when asking people you don’t know about their personal lives.

Language inclusive of people of colour

Creating a space that is safe for people of colour requires white people to do significant self-reflection on the ways they uphold whiteness, however inadvertently.

  • Do you pride yourself on being the grammar police? Though textbook grammar is important in formal business communications, mocking or nitpicking someone’s grammar in more casual communications is classist and often racist.
  • Capitalize the names of nationalities, peoples and cultural groups such as Black, Jewish, Asian, Inuit, etc.
  • Call out microaggressions and tone-policing when you see them. This work often starts with noticing these harmful behaviours in yourself.
    • Microaggressions: These are the small but frequent indignities (usually verbal) that people deal with. Over a lifetime, microaggressions can diminish and exhaust people of colour. Examples include asking someone “Where are you really from?”, asking Black women whether or not their hair is real, assuming someone’s ethnicity just by looking at them, or telling someone that their English is really good (the implication being that other people of colour don’t speak English well or that a person of colour must not be a native English speaker).
    • Tone-policing: This is a tool of conversational control that white people often use during uncomfortable conversations about race, distracting from or shutting down the issue being discussed when things get heated. Examples include phrases like “Let’s talk about this when you’re calmer” or “You’d get your point across better if you weren’t so angry”. What this inadvertently does is tell people of colour that your discomfort with the subject matters more to you than the oppression they face every day.

Language inclusive of people who are Métis, Inuit, or from a First Nation

It’s important to remember that Indigenous communities and First Nations do not belong to Canada, and their autonomy should be reflected in the language we use.

  • Do not use the phrasing “Canada’s First Nations”, but instead “First Nations located in Canada” or “Indigenous Peoples living in Canada”. This removes any colonial or paternalistic overtones.
  • Wherever possible, refer to someone as being from their specific band or First Nation, rather than describing them as simply ‘Indigenous’.
  • Do not use the phrases ‘spirit animal’, ‘pow-wow’ or ‘tribe’ unless you’re literally referring to those things. Similarly, refrain from saying ‘circle the wagons’ and using the totem pole as a metaphor for the corporate ladder.

Language inclusive of people with disabilities

Everyday language is rife with ableism. It takes a lot of effort to catch ourselves in the act, as words like ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ tumble from our mouths without a second thought. But these words, and many others, are harmful to people living with mental illness. There are also several terms and phrases we commonly use that are hurtful to those living with physical disabilities.

  • Instead of ‘crazy’, use ‘wild’, ‘ridiculous’ or ‘absurd’.
  • Refrain from using the words ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ when describing someone who is not actually blind or deaf.
  • Refrain from using the words ‘handicap’ or ‘cripple/crippled’.
  • Use people-first language. Instead of referring to someone as disabled, refer to them as a person with a disability.
  • Wheelchairs and other assistive devices are not weaknesses or items of pity, but tools of independence. A person is not ‘wheelchair-bound’, they simply use a wheelchair.

Language inclusive of people experiencing financial instability

  • Refrain from using terms like ‘poor’, ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘less fortunate’. Instead, use people-first language and phrasing like ‘people experiencing homelessness’.

What’s next?

Again, the above suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reframing the way you and your association communicate. To become true champions of inclusion, we encourage you to familiarize yourself with the resources listed here and to remember that both language and our ideas around what constitutes inclusive language and what doesn’t are always changing. Keep an open mind and never stop learning.

Karen is the Marketing & Communications Coordinator / Associate Editor for the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association (CCCA) and is passionate about diversity and inclusion. She is a member of the CSAE Trillium Young Professionals Committee and a new member of the CSAE Trillium FORUM Committee.


There are numerous resources and guidelines about inclusive language available on the web. Here are some of our favourites:


“Words Matter: Guidelines on Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace.” BC Government, BC Public Service, 9 Mar. 2019,