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Guide to Equality Language

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A NATFHE Guide to Equality Language

This guide has been produced with the aim of helping NATFHE members to eliminate inequality in the workplace. NATFHE has equality policies on many specific matters, such as a fair selection and recruitment policies, parental leave, equality and the curriculum. In recent years, it has increasingly been recognised that the use of discriminatory language is an important element among the forces holding back the achievement of equality. NATFHE has been working for many years to counteract the use of discriminatory language, and also towards a greater sensitivity towards the importance of the words we use in reinforcing prejudice and institutional discrimination. A first version of this guide was produced in 1993, and this second edition reflects the changes that have taken place in the intervening years.

Overtly discriminatory and offensive language can amount to harassment, which may be a disciplinary offence. Beyond this obvious area, however, there are problems laying down guidelines. Language is a fluid and dynamic medium, which reflects the changing society in which it is used.

The assumption behind this document is that language is not neutral, neither is it a simple transparent medium for conveying messages. Language can help to form, perpetuate and reinforce prejudice and discrimination. Because discrimination continues, so negative feelings and attitudes may come to be associated with a word or phrase that was originally coined with positive intention. No word is good or bad in itself. Its use can be judged on two criteria: the intention of the person using it, and the effect on the person about whom it is used. Few of us would have any hesitation about condemning words used with the intention to abuse or offend. But because of the frequent changes of terminology for describing groups that are the subject of prejudice, some people may unwittingly use words that others find offensive. The most positive role in these situations is to listen to groups who have faced discrimination, and employ the terminology they prefer.

The aim of this document is to produce a climate in which sensitivity to the power of language is used as a positive force for developing genuine equality in the workplace, and without making people unduly nervous of causing offence. The underlying principle at all times is to avoid negative suggestions about particular groups in the language we use. The guide contains suggestions for positive alternatives. It is divided into five main categories. We recognise that these will need regular updating as language changes.


Sexist language stereotypes people by gender. Non-sexist language treats all people equally, and either does not refer to a person's sex at all when it is irrelevant, or refers to men and women in symmetrical ways when their gender is relevant. Stereotyping can affect men, but the main problem with sexist language remains that generally it treats the male as the norm. The words man, he, him, are often still used in referring to human beings of either sex. That gives a distinct impression to the reader or hearer that women are absent, silent, or of no importance.

The problem can be overcome by:

1 Avoiding the use of he, his, him

Adding the female She or he, his or hers, s/he

Using the first person I, me, mine, we, our, ours

Using the second person You, your, yours

Using the plural They, them, theirs

2 Avoiding composite words containing 'man',

Instead of: Try:

Manning Staffing, running

Man-made Artificial, synthetic, ersatz

To a man Everyone, without exception

In the workplace, biased language reinforces the stereotyping of men and women, and the fact that they are often typecast as being suitable for particular jobs. The gender description in such terms as male secretary, women carpenter, male nurse, female director reveals this typecasting. Linking jobs to gender can be avoided by using different expressions.

Instead of: Try:

Chairman Chair

Headmaster Headteacher, Head

Businessman Executive

Fireman Fire fighter

Salesman/girl Shop assistant, Shop worker

Steward/ess, Air Hostess Airline staff, Flight attendant

Foreman Supervisor

In addition, there are a number of descriptive words and phrases that ascribe particular behaviour to each gender. Expressions such as 'He tackled the problem in a courageous and manly way', or 'Feminine intuition supplied her with the answer', might make both men and women feel uncomfortable. Much colloquial language is detrimental to women. Clichés such as 'hysterical', or 'hen-pecked', depict women very negatively. Women are also often described in a manner that portrays their lives in relation to men or children, as in 'Architect's wife swim's channel', or 'mother of four receives PhD'. They may be patronised at meetings by phrases such as 'it's nice to hear the feminine point of view', or 'have the girls got anything to say?'

The general principle is to avoid patronising or belittling members of the opposite sex by terms such as 'the little woman', 'the weaker sex', 'toy-boy'.

Wherever possible, principles of equality should operate. So, if surnames are being used, they should be used for everyone, and not 'Mr Jones' for the men, and 'Mary' for the women.

If referring to men as boys, then it is reasonable to refer to women as girls. But if you are referring to men as men, then it is unreasonable to refer to women as girls or ladies.

If men are not required to reveal their marital status, but can use the neutral term 'Mr', then it is not reasonable to require women to reveal their marital status by 'Miss' or 'Mrs'. The use of 'Ms' should always be offered as an alternative.


Racist language is language that promotes and maintains attitudes that stereotype people according to their skin colour or racial origin. It often involves stereotyped attitudes to culture and religion. Anti-racist language treats all people equally, and either does not refer to a person's race when it is not relevant, or refers to black and white people in symmetrical ways when their race is relevant. Although there may be examples of language that negatively stereotype white people, the main problem with racist language in our society is that it is either deliberately offensive to those who are not part of the white anglo-saxon majority, or it assumes that the majority is the norm, and that nobody else even exists. For example, to speak of all black people as 'non-white' would make as much sense calling men 'non-women'. It is directly exclusive, and it implies that black is a deviation from some norm.

At the end of the Second World War, many people decided that even to accept the term 'race' was to slide into racist discourse, and tried to avoid the word. Almost no-one still holds that people are defined primarily by their membership of fixed, biological races, based on immutable differences that no-one can escape. But since the 1960s, racial categories have become unavoidable, partly as a result of some politicians trying to use racism to scapegoat black people, and partly also because of the campaigns of black people to live freely in Britain. Meanwhile, racism has also taken in prejudice against groups of people that are today normally considered 'white' (Jews in Europe, the Irish in Britain). In recent years, the so-called 'War on Terror' has accentuated discrimination against all Britain's black communities. The law does not help by distinguishing between race, nationality, national origin, language and ethnicity – when several of these terms overlap, and almost all of them are subjective.

The term 'immigrant' is usually inappropriate, because it is most often used lazily to describe all black people. The user risks forgetting that most black people were born in Britain, and so often were their parents. In a different context, the neutral-sounding 'asylum seeker' also has problems. The term was coined by the government in the late 1990s to distinguish between genuine refugees and those who were merely seeking asylum, the implication being that the former were legitimate and the latter somehow 'bogus'.

Some anti-racists employ the terms 'ethnic minority' or 'ethnicity', to refer to racial, cultural or religious groups. 'Minority ethnic' reverses the emphasis in order to stress that all people belong to ethnic groups. In the UK, white people are the majority, but that is not the case in other countries. This analysis leads to one popular phrase 'Black and Minority Ethnic' (BME), although at the time of writing this phrase is still more often employed by college managers rather than by black college staff.

The term West Indian has fallen out of favour, as has Afro-Caribbean. Preferred phrases include African-Caribbean, Black British, African and Caribbean. Asian is often used in the UK to refer to the peoples of South Asia and their descendants. Oriental should be avoided.

NATFHE's preferred use is the term black, which we take to be a matter of self-definition. For example, we organise a regular black members' conference. Our definition of 'black' takes in people of African or Asian origin, as well as others who believe that they face systematic discrimination in society on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

A number of phrases may cause offence. Some like 'working like a black' have their roots in an openly racist past and should be avoided. There is also a problem with using the word 'black' as an adjective. It is malicious parody to pretend that anybody objects to 'black' as a purely neutral descriptive adjective, as in 'black coffee', 'black car', etc. The problem arises rather because so many uses of the word are still linked to negative or worse associations, as in 'black sheep', 'black mark', 'black Wednesday', and 'black magic'. A sensitive use of language should take on board these meanings.

Where religion and ethnicity overlap, it is also best to avoid phrases that may give the impression of stereotypical thinking, such as 'extreme Hindu' or 'strict Sikh', or 'Muslim fundamentalist'. In addition, such words as 'Irish' or 'Jew' may be used in some contexts not neutrally as descriptions of people's race or nationality or religion, but as indicating negative qualities like stupidity or meanness. Such use of the words is always offensive.


In comparison with other civil rights movements, the organised campaign by disabled people for equality is a recent development and systematic discrimination against disabled people is widespread. Disabled activists argue that this discrimination arises because capitalist societies view 'disability' as a characteristic contained within an individual. This Individual or Medical Model of disability is all pervasive, advocating the cure or containment of 'flawed' people.

Disabled people have developed and refined their own models of disability. The social model contends that disability is a political, social and cultural construct. Whilst individuals may have impairments, it is society that actively disables them by imposing physical, attitudinal and economic barriers to participation. The affirmative model builds upon this theory and goes further by contending that people who have impairments should actively welcome and celebrate their difference from the mainstream.

However, the historic oppression of disabled people has left us with a legacy of images and language, which reinforces negative stereotypes and attitudes. Some terms that were introduced to overcome this negative labelling have tended to simply be euphemistic or have themselves become oppressive.

For example, the term 'special needs', which is widely used, is offensive to many disabled people who would argue that the provision of services and support to ensure that everyone can participate equally in society has nothing to do with 'special' treatment and everything to do with human rights. Other examples, particularly from North America, such as 'differently abled', 'physically challenged', 'person with visual exceptionality' depoliticise and individualise disability. The Disability Discrimination Act and other legislation uses 'disabled person' (social model) and 'person with a disability' (medical model) interchangeably which is confusing and unhelpful.

Language constantly changes, reflecting new ways of thinking. Expressions that may have been casually used in the past are no longer acceptable because they are now considered offensive and hurtful. Language around disability and disabled people is often a cause of anxiety and the list below gives some very basic guidance around preferred terminology.



the disabled

disabled people

people with disabilities

disabled people

able bodied

non disabled

the deaf

Deaf people/Deaf community/people with hearing impairments

wheelchair bound

wheelchair user

the blind

blind people/people with visual impairments

mentally handicapped

person with learning difficulties


person with a speech impairment


mental health system user/person with mental health difficulty


person with a mobility impairment

disabled toilet

accessible toilet

Sexual orientation

Homophobic language reinforcing the supposed norms of sexual behaviour is used to perpetuate negative stereotypes about gay men and lesbians and may be directed at anyone who is seen to conform to these stereotypes, whatever their actual sexual orientation. The cultural assumption of straight lifestyles tends to marginalise lesbian, gay and bisexual people and to create few positive cultural images of them.

The term 'homosexual' was first coined by the medical establishment in 1869 and has been an official term ever since to describe people who are emotionally and physically attracted to members of the same sex. Many lesbians or gay men dislike the term. Still worse is the use of 'homosexuals' as a collective noun – that is likely to be seen as hostile language.

The term 'gay' became popular around one hundred years later, as a positive and assertive term. It usually refers to gay men, but is also used by lesbians.

There is an almost endless list of words used by heterosexuals as terms of abuse for lesbians and gay men, including dyke, butch, poof, les, pansy, etc. There is also a long tradition of people in the gay community reclaiming words that began as terms of abuse, and using them positively. For example, many lesbians use 'dyke' as an assertive term. People will rarely appreciate hearing these words used by people living outside their community.

In the last twenty years, people have attempted to reclaim the word 'queer'. Supporters of this move use it to describe people whose sexual lives are treated by conventional society as deviant. So queer can include bisexual, transgendered, transsexual or intersex people, or heterosexual people who enjoy Sadomasochism. The opposite of queer is not 'straight' but 'judgmental'. In academic circles the phrase queer theory is now more common than the older 'lesbian and gay studies'. But queer is still a term whose origins lie in homophobic slurs. Its reclaimed, positive use requires a certain degree of trust. If in doubt, people should use the more neutral word 'gay'.

The term bisexual is normally acceptable. People in same-sex and opposite-sex relationships may identify as bisexual and therefore it is best not to assume anyone's orientation simply on the basis of their partner's gender.

Gender recognition

The term LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (or transgender). The term 'trans people' may be used to describe any people whose life expresses a contrast between their born sex and their gender identity.


Ageism is a form of discrimination, which will be illegal in the workplace after 2006. Although many managers trumpet their equality credentials, they continue to discriminate against workers at both ends of the spectrum. Phrases such as 'inexperienced' or 'juvenile' are likely to cause offence. Many older workers report having experienced discrimination or even harassment at work. Language should not contribute to discrimination. The use of terms such as 'ancient', 'old fogey', 'dead wood', 'out of the Ark', 'geriatric', 'too old to change', 'over the hill', 'out of date', creates an atmosphere in which it is possible to bully people into taking unwanted premature retirement. If we spoke of 'long-serving' colleagues, rather than the 'middle aged' or 'old guard', some of the intimidation might be avoided.

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