The words we use can empower or oppress, empathize or offend, reflect bias or challenge it.
However, if we spend too long agonizing over every letter in every acronym, there’ll be no time left for action. We want to make it easy for everyone to talk freely about diversity and inclusion without feeling intimidated. So, we’ve created this diversity dictionary as a reference point for the definitions and best practice recommendations for some common terminology.
While the guidance we provide and follow is formed from extensive research and conversations with DEI experts, we acknowledge that it may not align with your views and opinions. Language is always evolving and changing, so we’ll do our best to adapt and add any new terminology as it comes along. We welcome your feedback and also ask everyone to remember that while words matter, it’s vital we don’t get distracted from what’s important — taking action.
- Avoid idioms. An idiom is a word, phrase or expression that isn’t meant to be taken literally. English examples include “missed the boat” when referring to a missed opportunity, or “biting the bullet” when starting something you’ve been avoiding. Every language has its own idioms, but some have offensive or negative histories like “nitty gritty”.
- Don’t suggest victimhood. When speaking about disability, avoid phrases like “suffers from,” “afflicted,” “challenged,” “victim of,” or “confined to a wheelchair”. And only refer to an individual’s ability, age, cultural background, gender etc. if it’s relevant.
- There is no such thing as ‘normal’. Use of the word ‘normal’ as a comparison group implies those outside this description are ‘abnormal’. Terms like ‘non-white’ position white people as the norm and implies superiority, while everyone else is a deviation. Avoid these and other similar terms.
- Use gender-neutral language. Beyond just pronouns and gendered role titles like ‘chairman’, research has found that certain words have been coded in our society to appeal more to men or women. When men and women see the words that appeal to them, they more readily identify or engage with the material, while words coded to the opposite gender can alienate. This is particularly relevant when writing job ads but should be considered in all circumstances.
- Self-identification. Strive to use language that reflects how the people talk about themselves. If you’re not sure what terminology someone prefers, just ask them. When using language about a particular person or group of people, it is best practice to defer to people with the lived experience.
AAPI vs API vs APA
- AAPI stands for Asian American Pacific Islander
- API stands for Asian Pacific Islander
- APA stands for Asian Pacific American
The terms originate from a movement in the late 1960s to unify disparate Asian American groups and reject the antiquated and geographically subjective term “Oriental”. By the 1980s, the U.S. Census expanded the definition grouping Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders into one category.
However, Pacific Islander community leaders say it’s time to disaggregate Pacific Islanders from Asian Americans. Pacific Islander or Pasifika people are those originating or living in Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Pasifika communities face significant health and socio-economic disparities compared to other groups, including American Asians.
Therefore, the use of AAPI, API, or APA should be thoughtfully considered if the context is inclusive of Pasifika people as well.
Ally vs Mentor vs Sponsor
An ally is not a member of an underrepresented group but is someone willing to actively support them in the workplace. An ally tries to learn as much as possible about the challenges and prejudices faced by those from these underrepresented groups and doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations with others to advocate on their behalf.
A mentor is any trusted colleague, manager, or connection who guides and encourages someone to reach their full potential. They can identify challenges, model positive behaviors, act as a sounding board, a voice of reason, a counsellor, and a trusted resource of advice and information.
A sponsor is a much more specific and transactional relationship. It describes an influential person, usually in a senior position, who uses their social capital on the behalf of someone they see potential in. They use their own reputation and influence to get that person considered for specific roles and career pathways.
While ally is a term specifically associated with underrepresented groups, mentor and sponsor need not be related.
Read more about male allies in the workplace.
BIPOC vs BME vs BAME
- BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Color
- BME stands for Black and Minority Ethnic
- BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic
Generalizing People of Color, or amalgamating them into a single acronym, implies their experiences are similar enough to not require distinction. It may seem politically correct but can make people feel like their identities have been erased.
If you’re discussing issues pertaining to a group of Black people, and Indigenous people, and other People of Color, where it isn’t possible for you to be more specific, you might use BIPOC. But if you know their ethnicity (and it’s relevant to the context) use the most specific language possible.
Blak vs Black
The term Blak (as opposed to Black) goes back to 1994 and Aboriginal artist Destiny Deacon, who urged art curators Hetti Perkins and Claire Williamson to use Blak instead of Black for an exhibition. After growing up hearing her people frequently referred in conjunction with a certain-not-so-nice word beginning with ‘c’ she said she wanted to “take the ‘c’ out of Black”. Since then the term has evolved and grown to signify urban, contemporary Indigeneity, and carries with it connotations of actively engaged, critical-political conscience.
In regards to using the term, Jack Litmore shared this:
“Can white people use these terms? All the mob I know have no issue with whitefullas using Black/Blak/Blackfulla/Blackfella, but I have heard strange tales of people employed in “human resources” taking issue with white staff using it. So, probably best to just try to avoid that HR mob altogether. No problem with white people using Blak in writing, but like Black it is more fraught in speech. Avoid swanning around liberally calling Aboriginal people Blacks. That won’t end well.”
D&I vs DEI vs DEIB
- D&I stands for Diversity and Inclusion.
- DEI stands for Diversity, Equity*, and Inclusion. (*see also Equality vs Equity)
- DEIB stands for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
To break it down even further. Diversity simply means variety – a variety of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, lived experiences and neurological make-up. Inclusion refers to the acceptance and value surrounding diversity – not just tolerating, but welcoming and celebrating differences. Equity refers to providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities.
DEI is now widely recognized over D&I, as equity plays an important role in instilling fairness as a practice. Including the B in DEIB is problematic in two ways: One is the distinction between inclusion and belonging is vague, adding little additional meaning to the current acronym. And secondly, the adding of B for Belonging opens the floodgates for more words (J for Justice for instance) and therefore criticism for not including other letters. The focus shouldn’t be on the letters but on the ability to prove action.
Employee Benefits vs Perks
Benefits and perks are not synonymous.
Benefits are non-wage compensation supplementing an employee’s salary. Benefits are far more reliable than perks, and help cover ‘need-to-haves’ like:
- Paid leave
- Health insurance
- Paid parental leave
- 401(k) plan
Perks are ‘nice-to-haves’ or ‘extra rewards’ on top of an employee’s salary and benefits. A perk typically consists of something that could help employees perform their job better, like:
- Paid gym memberships
- Free food and snacks
- Company car
Equality vs Equity
- Equality is providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all, regardless of race, gender etc.
- Equity is providing differing levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs or abilities. It refers to fair and equal processes and outcomes, not just equal opportunity.
Despite the similarity between the two words, the nuance of equableness conveyed by each word is quite different. Equity better understands the pursuit of fairness by acknowledging that not everyone starts from the same place. Some start with advantages while others continue to face barriers formed through imbalances of power.
Equity is the evolution of equality, and so by saying equity we are by default talking about equality too. We should use equity in almost all situations.
The gender spectrum understands that gender is not binary (female/male), but rather a spectrum of biological, mental, and emotional traits existing along a continuum.
When using the terms sex and gender, it’s important to note:
- Sex (female/male/intersex) describes biological traits.
- Gender (woman, man, transgender, nonbinary) reflects how a person lives within society.
- Cisgender describes a person whose gender identity aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Transgender describes a person whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth.
- Non-binary is an umbrella for various gender nonconforming identities most often used by those who do not strictly identify as ‘male’ or ‘female’.
Heterosexism or Heteronormativity describes biases in favor of heterosexuality. It includes the assumption cisgender and heterosexual relationships are the norm and therefore superior.
In discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion beware of situations that group women, transgender, and nonbinary people together. While it may not be the intention, the implication is transgender are ‘women lite’ and nonbinary people are ‘people we think are secretly women’ (See also Womxn vs Woman).
Intersectionality describes the interconnected and interdependent nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender. It acknowledges how a person’s social and political identities combine to create unique experiences of discrimination and oppression.
For example, a Black woman might face discrimination from a business not distinctly due to her race (because the business does not discriminate against Black men) nor distinctly due to her gender (because the business does not discriminate against white women), but due to a combination of the two factors.
Latino/a vs Hispanic vs Latinx
- Hispanic or Latino/s is a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin.
- Latinx is a gender-neutral term created to use in lieu of ‘Latina’ or ‘Latino’ when referring to a person or group of people of Latin American descent.
The difference and preferred usage of Latino/a or Hispanic depends on who you are addressing and individual preference of the person. Polls and studies conducted on the subject of Latino vs. Hispanic, conflict so substantially. For this reason, care should be taken to be sensitive in the workplace environment when referring to anyone who speaks Spanish by either term.
However, the term ‘Latinx’ has also grown in usage over the last few years. It’s use has also become controversial within the Latin American community. Within the Spanish language ‘Latinos’ is technically the correct reference for a mixed gendered group of Latin American people, and this led to the rejection of Latinx in 2018 by the Real Academia Española, the purist official source on the Spanish language.
Latin American or even more specific examples such as Mexican American might be preferable if a term needs be used at all.
LGBTQI+ vs LGBTTQQIAAP
- LGBTQI+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, plus (+) all other identities.
- LGBTTQQIAAP stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transexual, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Ally, Asexual, and Pansexual. Some variations also include ‘2S’ in reference to the Two-Spirit identity.
Queer is already an umbrella term encompassing a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities excluding heterosexuality. However, the inclusion of the ‘+’ sign in the shorter acronym is there to represent all the many different and evolving identities. While it’s important to be inclusive, understanding and patient when it comes to the diverse forms of identity that currently exist in our day-to-day life, the more letters you use, the more you open yourself up for scrutiny for excluding other letters.
This can lead to the even greater risk of distracting focus from what’s important: real action to foster and support these communities. Let the + do its job and be clear you are inclusive of all in your other words and actions.
Microaggressions are seemingly innocuous and well-intentioned comments that are indirect expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism. The recipient of these comments is often left feeling vaguely insulted, despite the words sounding complimentary or curious.
- ‘Your name is so hard to pronounce, do you have a nickname?’
- ‘You have a mental illness? But you seem so normal’
- ‘You should smile more’
Multiracial vs Mixed-race
Mixed-race describes the way people describe racial identity as ‘half-this’ or ‘quarter-that’ limiting identities to a total of one. This method of measuring ethnicity as fractions originated when the ‘interbreeding of different racial types’ was outlawed.
Multiracial offers another way to describe those who identify two or more races for themselves. The term has a far less negative history behind it, however it’s impossible to create universal truths for everybody as each experience is unique. The best answer is always to first question whether a term is necessary at all to the context and if it is, simply ask someone what they prefer.
Neurodiversity is the viewpoint that conditions like ADHD, Autism, and Dyslexia aren’t deficits, but simply normal variations of the human brain. Understanding this means neurodivergent people don’t need to be cured, instead only need support systems allowing them to thrive and succeed.
PFL vs IFL
- PFL stands for Person First Language (or People First) eg. Person with a disability
- IFL stands for Identity First language eg. Disabled person
When it comes to how we identify people living with various conditions or disabilities there is a strong consensus to use PFL. Rather than defining people primarily by their disability, Person First Language conveys respect by emphasizing people with disabilities are first and foremost just that—people.
However, there are people and communities (like autism and deafness) who prefer the use of IFL, believing this aspect of their identity is important to their sense of self and not an unfortunate disorder or disease to be cured of.
How a person chooses to self-identify is up to them, and they should not be corrected or admonished if they choose not to use language differing from the above.
Gender pronouns are the words an individual would like others to use when talking to or about them. These include common pronouns like ‘he, him, his’ and ‘she, her, hers’, while people who are transgender or gender nonconforming may choose to use ‘they, them, theirs’.
These declarations might not seem important to a person with a singular and visible gender identity, but not everybody has this privilege. It’s still your job to remember and respect someone’s gender pronouns. If you mistakenly use incorrect pronouns, of course apologize, but don’t dwell on the mistake. It’s unfair to make the person feel awkward and responsible for comforting you.
Read more about including pronouns in your email signature or LinkedIn Profile.
- STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
- STEMM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine
- STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, and Mathematics
- STEMT stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Trades
Originating as an interdisciplinary and applied approach to education, STEM is now a large niche that plays a major role in the working world.
While STEM is the most common acronym, the growing fields of biotechnology and biochemistry have highlighted the increased necessity of medicine to be included. However, the use of any one acronym over the other will always depend on the specifics of the context. While the added letters may signal the inclusion of a particular field, the interdependence of each means that the absence of additional fields in the acronym will rarely mean the exclusion of them.
Tokenism describes the superficial or symbolic effort to recruit or include a small number of people from underrepresented groups to just appear diverse and inclusive. The intent is important in the definition of tokenism. The efforts could only be to prevent criticism and give the appearance of fair treatment (tokenism) or there could be a genuine intention to improve diversity, but they have only just begun (not tokenism).
Unconscious biases are underlying attitudes and stereotypes about various social and identity groups stemming from the tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing. These biases affect how people understand and engage with other people or groups.
For example, affinity bias is the tendency of connecting better with others who share similar interests, experiences, and backgrounds. Confirmation bias is the partiality to interpret information and draw conclusions favoring our existing beliefs rather than on unbiased merit.
Shifting away from terms like ‘marginalized’ and ‘minority’, the term ‘underrepresented group’ better describes a subset of a population with a smaller percentage than the general population. For instance, whereas women make up roughly 50% of the global population, less than a third (29.3%) of those employed in STEM fields are women – making them an underrepresented group in this industry.
Womxn is an alternative spelling of the words ‘woman’ or ‘women’ that avoids the perceived sexism and achieves independence from the patriarchal linguistic norms of the standard spelling – it takes the dependence of ‘man’ out of the identity of being a woman. It’s also an intersectional term used to signal the inclusion of those traditionally excluded from white feminist discourse, i.e. Black women, women of color, and transwomen.
It’s when the term is used about transwomen or nonbinary people without their consent that it becomes problematic. It’s important to recognize transwomen as women, and not a separate category. No special distinction should be made. Similarly, nonbinary people aren’t women (or men). So when you include nonbinary people under the womxn umbrella, you’re still placing someone within the gender binary, contradicting the identity itself.
As with any community, the best way to ensure representation and accuracy is to ask actual members of the community what terms they use. However, there is no need to rely on potentially divisive terms if your intentions and actions are clear.
Read more about how WORK180 makes their intentions and commitments clearer.
A zero-sum situation dictates the world is binary, and there can only be winners and losers. The sum of the gains equals the sum of the losses. When it comes to gender equity, zero-sum bias fuels the belief that men must sacrifice their resources or success for women to equally thrive.
Zero-sum thinking is invalidated by the data. Increased participation of women in labor markets has been proven to boost growth. In other words, giving women a slice of the cake doesn’t mean there is less to go around for men – it actually creates more cake for everyone!
- Ex-con / Ex-offender: These terms categorize and stigmatize people affected by the criminal justice system. These labels ignore the social, economic, and political drivers of mass incarceration and deprive people of their complex identities. They also make reentry into society increasingly difficult due to stigmas and prejudices associated with these labels. Try using People-first language instead like Person with prior justice system involvement; Person previously incarcerated; Person with justice history. These might seem like more convoluted terms but individuals with justice system involvement are not defined by their conviction history, and deserve humanized language that acknowledges their capacity to change and grow.
- Girl/Girls: For anyone over 18 years old, say woman or women.
- Grandfathering/grandfather clause: Historically a term used to exempt some people from a change because of existing conditions before the change (e.g. exempting long-time customers from price increases). The term “grandfather clause” originated in the American South in the 1890s as a way to defy the 15th Amendment and prevent Black Americans from voting. A good alternative might be “legacy”.
- Guys: When referring to mixed-gender groups. Gender-neutral alternatives: people, folks, teammates.
- Gypped: Racial slur for being defrauded, swindled or cheated originating from an abbreviation of ‘gypsy,’ a word commonly used to describe the Romani people.
- Females: Using the word ‘female’ when referring to women can be used/perceived as a derogatory term to reduce people to their reproductive abilities. Also, some women are not biologically female. Avoid using the word ‘female’ when referring to women. We know the grammar police may not be happy when we say ‘women engineers’ or ‘women leaders’ but break the rules to do what’s right.
- Handicap: Some disability advocates believe this term correlates a disabled individual and a beggar with a ‘cap’ in their hand. Better alternative: Disabled, Disability.
- Identifies as or woman-identifying. This makes gender seem like a choice. It’s not. Simply say they are a woman.
- Ladies/gals: These terms can feel patronizing. Use “women” instead, or “folks” or “people” for mixed-gender groups.
- Lame: Originally used in reference to people with reduced mobility, now often a synonym for “uncool.” Both uses are ablest.
- Man: As a synonym for work – as in “man-hours,” “man the front desk”. This is unnecessarily gendered language. Use work instead.
- Master/slave: Problematic term used to refer to one machine with the original copy of data and the others that automatically update themselves to match. Replacements include primary/replica, primary/standby.
- Meritocracy: Flawed belief that hard work and talent are all that’s needed to achieve success. Challenges like implicit bias, structural inequality and varying degrees of privilege or disadvantage mean meritocracy isn’t currently a reality.
- Mom test/girlfriend test: A sexist and ageist term for putting a product in front of unfamiliar visitors to learn more how they would use it. The assumption being if such a person can use a program, anyone can. Alternatives: user testing
- Nitty Gritty: The French colonists called the African slaves and creoles ‘la population nigritique’. So, to get down to the ‘nitty gritty’ as the English speakers pronounced it, was to mix with the people downtown. The standard dictionaries are coy about this derivation.
- Preferred: In terms of ‘preferred pronouns’. Someone’s pronouns are not optional.
We know oftentimes it’s not about the words we say, but how they make people feel. We encourage everyone to write on the side of progress, to write the world you want to live in.
To ensure you’re reading and sharing the most relevant facts about diversity in the workplace, this list is updated regularly. To recommend a new term, or revised definition please reach out to us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.