Our language guide provides a summary of where special thought should be given to inclusive language.
Why is this important?
Much attention is being paid to the impact and influence that the choice of language has in research. The aim of any publication or paper is to put across the research findings as clearly and with as much impact as possible. However, it is important to ensure that the language used does not inadvertently exclude those it is trying to reach or imply a meaning that was unintended. In addition, researchers submitting to journal publications are increasingly being asked to confirm that they have given specific thought to the use of inclusive language in their work.
How to use this guide
This document seeks to provide the CREDS community with a summary of the key areas where special thought should be given to inclusive language. It does not aim to give a definitive list of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ words but rather to highlight the options and, in some cases, the debate as it currently stands. In some sections you will find tips and indications of best practice, in other sections a summary of the cultural background against which the choice of language is being made.
The Equality Act 2010 is a key piece of legislation in the UK which sets out the basis for unlawful discrimination and is the background against which the idea of inclusivity is often framed. It lists nine ‘protected characteristics’. In employment and the provision of services it is unlawful to discriminate against someone directly or indirectly because of one or more these characteristics. They are:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage & civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
The way in which this act works is complex and it is important to note that freedom from discrimination (e.g. being treated less favourably) is not the same as a requirement to create inclusivity. The characteristics described in the act do not give rise to an unqualified right to be centred in policy, the provision of services or language.
The overarching goal for researchers should always be to use language with precision. In any academic writing, best practice will always be to define your terms and set out what is and what is not assumed to be included within your chosen definitions. Try as far as possible to be guided by the data and the need to convey your findings with clarity.
Interrogate the data
As you drill down into your data, critically examine what you are trying to convey. Racial or sex-based descriptions can sometimes be inadvertently used as stand-ins for particular economic characteristics or social characteristics. For example, if you are looking at willingness to switch to low carbon transport you may discover a trend that women are more reluctant to do so, when in fact it could be that those with childcare responsibilities are more reluctant to do so. Your research methodology will have considered causation and independent variables, so make sure that the language you use to summarise findings does not undermine this.
- Styles to consider: Avoid collective terms such as ‘the disabled’, ‘the unemployed’ or ‘the vulnerable’.
Informal language and idioms
In most academic writing, the material covered will be technical and the voice reasonably formal. Issues of inclusivity are more likely to arise in informal writing or writing which is aimed at the general public. This is the area where the writer is more likely to use idioms and expressions. Particular care should be given to this type of writing. Try to avoid phrases which may be culturally specific, for example, using a cricket or baseball metaphor may not work well with all audiences. Phrases such as ‘drunk the Kool Aid’ or, ‘that’s gone pear-shaped’ may be difficult to understand and are very country specific even for native English speakers. Common phrases such as ‘the blind leading the blind’ or, an idea which ‘falls on deaf ears’ can be jarring and ableist.
- Tip to consider: If you are writing content pieces which are colloquial or informal, sense check them and think hard about the diversity of the audience you are trying to reach.
The following sections cover the main areas where extra thought should be given to the language chosen.
An important area of consideration in energy research is how best to describe participants in the energy system. The terms listed below are doubtless familiar and will continue to develop and change as we seek to describe the energy transition and the challenges it will create. Below is a summary of some of the existing options. It is important to note that none can be regarded as inherently ‘more inclusive’ and you should choose and use that which best suits your work.
The term consumer still seems to be the dominant framing to describe participants in the energy system and comes historically from the energy industry. It has two distinct senses but is often used interchangeably and without definition:
- consumer as a user: ‘one who consumes’ energy
- consumer to mean a participant with some economic value or potential agency.
When the term is used as a descriptor of collections of people, often in reference to things like public consultation ‘we spoke to consumers’, it can create a sense that it is representative and infer that the respondents have a collective interest or duty.
When the term is used to refer to individuals, it can imply consumers as individuals with their own self-regarding interests.
The term consumer often carries with it a sense of an economic operator; the implication that people are economically empowered agents. This may not always accurately reflect the reality. Furthermore, it can prove reductive in its approach, in that it measures participants’ worth or legitimacy in the energy system based on their economic power.
The term prosumer is used as a description for people who are more active on the grid – invested in, and pro-actively sharing ownership of energy production. There is some concern that people who are identified as prosumers must not be held up as being the ‘ideal’ participant in the energy system. To become a prosumer requires home security, financial means and otherwise being able to participate in the energy market.
- Conceptualizing energy democracyOpens in a new tab | Kacper Szulecki | Journal of Environmental Politics, 09 October, 2018.
The term households is important but can mask that there is usually a dominant actor within a household and this can gloss over inequalities and bias based on age / sex / agency. Noting the issue of household energy politics is one option to overcome this. Being more specific about which actors in the household did what, if known, is another.
- Controllable, frightening, or fun? Exploring the gendered dynamics of smart home technology preferences in the United Kingdom | Dylan D. Furszyfer del Rio, Benjamin K. Sovacool and Mari Martiskainen | Energy Research and Social Science, 2021
The term citizen is often used in the context of community energy – such as small scale and local projects – it tends to be interpreted as seeing people as less passive. The term citizen-consumer is also used. However, there can be a tendency to view ‘citizen’ as a stakeholder or co-owner ‘motivated by non-market values’.
- Engaging households towards the Future Grid: an engagement strategy for the energy sector, pdfOpens in a new tab (65 pages, 8.6 MB) | Yolande Strengers, Larissa Nicholls, Andrew Glover, Paula Arcari and Rex Martin | RMIT Centre for Urban Research and Monash University, July 12-19
- Community versus local energy in a context of climate emergencyOpens in a new tab | Patrick Devine-Wright | Nature Energy, 02 September 2019
It is also the case that ‘citizen’ is already defined in law and widely understood to be linked with nationality and the right to vote. It may be inappropriate to describe a group of people who are not legal citizens in this technical sense as being energy citizens e.g. where fuel poverty stems from lack of economic access caused by refugee or immigration status.
The term actors can incorporate a wider range of roles, but may seem impersonal for certain styles of writing and assumes agency, which does not fit with all theories of change.
Residents as a term might include homeowners and those who do not own their homes, as well as multiple other differences and so care should be taken not to over-generalise. However, used in its natural sense to describe people who live in a particular area, the word is useful.
Respondents, participants, interviewees
When describing people in research, the best starting point is to describe them as they describe themselves and to specifically ask them how they wish to be described. Think carefully before referring to any set of people as ‘the community’, for example “members of the LGBT community” or the “South Asian community”. The implication here is all persons with a particular characteristic have a common view or experience. If your data refers to a smaller and probably geographically discreet group then community is likely to have more validity e.g. “the Bangladeshi community in East Ham, London”.
These terms specifically describe people who have taken part in a research intervention. As such, it might be possible to talk about them accurately although some sorts of data do not include many demographic details; in particular, the protected characteristics are most often excluded. In some cases, however, it is necessary to talk about people more broadly, in which case the terms above may be useful.
In describing disability, it is generally good practice to put the person first and then the disability after. So, ‘residents with sight loss’ or ‘passengers with physical disabilities’. There are some groups who do not necessarily feel this way and for them, their disability is a personal and cultural identity and sometimes even political signifier. Accordingly, you may see people preferring to call themselves ‘Autistic’ rather than ‘has autism’ or ‘Deaf’ rather than a ‘person who is deaf’. Using capitalisation is a way that some individuals ‘reclaim’ an adjective used about them, as an identity signifier used by them.
- Autistic person, or person with autism?Opens in a new tab | Sue Fletcher-Watson | University of Edinburgh DART blog, 15 August 2016
- What is D/deaf?Opens in a new tab | Glasgow Caledonian University Student support
The term ‘neuro diverse’ is also in use which can be used to cover people with a wide range of non-neurotypical conditions including ADHD, dyslexia and dyscalculia. Some writing, particularly in a medical context will still use the term ‘autism spectrum disorder’ but general descriptions of populations should refrain from using the term ‘disorder’. Other common phrases such as ‘on the spectrum’ or the term ‘Asperger’s’ are also now to be avoided unless specifically adopted by an individual.
Be sure to avoid the language of dependency or pity. People with disabilities are not ‘suffering with’ a disability, people are ‘wheel chair assisted’ or are ‘wheel chair users’, they are not ‘confined to a wheelchair’.
The word disabled is a very wide descriptor and covers physical and mental disabilities, as well as visible and hidden disabilities. It is a term which describes people with very different needs and interests and therefore may not be a useful way in which to talk about data. Difficulty will arise however, because many data sets will aggregate in this way. There can be some commonality of experience, so for example asking research participants if they receive PIP (Personal Independence Payments) can be a way of identifying a group which the government recognises as having a disability which requires extra financial support, a unifying factor across multiple disabilities. However, research which defines and narrows characteristics will be likely to yield more meaningful insights.
As mentioned above, try to avoid idioms which use disability as a shorthand for failure or incompetence, e.g. ‘crippled by lack of investment’, ‘blind to the possibility’.
Being able to accurately describe research participants to reflect their racialised experiences is important. How race is described in research is influential, and language used can perpetuate marginalisation.
- Writers’ Fund for Black History Month 2020Opens in a new tab | ODI | 26 October 2020
- Measuring race, ethnicity and ancestry in research: time for new toolsOpens in a new tab | Yasmin Ahmadzadeh | EDIT lab blog, King’s College London, 27 January 2021
Different terms have relevance to different countries and it is important to be aware that some of the terms in common use, for example in the United States, do not directly relate to the UK.
This term is an acronym which stands for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic. It was, until recently, in wide use in the UK and data collected by government agencies will often be arranged in this way. The term has increasingly come under criticism for its broad-brush approach to the experiences of very disparate groups of people. It is always preferable to describe different ethnic groups separately and with more accuracy if possible. Try to describe groups as they would describe themselves.
Difficulty can arise if the data sets have such small subdivisions that anonymity may be compromised. It will also be the case that historic data sets which have been collected using BAME will still need to be referred to. If you need to aggregate several racial or ethnic groups, acknowledge the issues, and explain the reason for doing so.
People of Colour (POC)
This is an American term which is occurring with greater frequency in the UK. It still has the problem of being generic and, furthermore, places ‘whiteness’ as normative.
Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC)
A North American term used to include First Nation people. It would be meaningless in a UK context and should not be used unless working with data from countries with indigenous first nation populations.
It is usually better to be specific about ethnic background and heritage. Terms such as ‘mixed race’ are often replaced with ‘dual heritage’ or ‘multi-heritage – please describe’, or you can specify, e.g. ‘Indian and white British’, or ‘Black Caribbean and White’. The UK Census has a list of the categories used at the last census in 2021. While not perfect, it offers an up-to-date starting point.
- List of ethnic groupsOpens in a new tab | GOV.UK 2021
In describing groups more generally, it is still acceptable to use the term ‘ethnic minorities’ in the UK. You will also see terms which seek to describe the experience of the group themselves rather than a common or inherent characteristic of the group , e.g. ‘marginalised communities ‘or ‘racialised groups’.
It is recommended to use the term ‘White’ rather than Caucasian which has its origins in the racist anthropological categorisations of the 1700s.
Capitalising the B in Black
A recent phenomenon in publishing has been the adoption of a house style which capitalises the B in black when referring to people.
- Why we’re capitalizing BlackOpens in a new tab | New York Times
This is a response to the Black Lives Matter movement and seeks to acknowledge ‘Black’ as a political class with a specific historical struggle attached. This is not a universally agreed approach and for some it represents an American overreach which does not reflect the lives of black British people.
- The narcissism of America’s race politics – UnHerdOpens in a new tab | Tomiwa Owolade | UnHerd, 20 May 2022
- Why I don’t believe the word ‘black’ should always have a capital ‘b’Opens in a new tab | Minna Salami | The Guardian, 03 June 2021
Once again, the only approach here would be to choose your style but be prepared to amend or defend it.
Other racialised groups
It is important to recognise that other racialised or ethnic groups also suffer discrimination and care should be taken when referring to them. This includes members of the Jewish faith (and different adherents within that religious tradition), gypsy Roma people, and members of the Irish traveller community. As above, take time to discover how groups of people chose to describe themselves in the wider discourse.
Sex and gender
The language around sex and gender has become a matter of increasing political and cultural controversy. Various groups have been challenging, redefining or excising words with inclusivity cited as the objective. As always, best practice is to choose language with deliberate intent. What follows is a summary of the debate in this area at the current time (though this area is changing particularly rapidly). This guide should be viewed as setting out the broad nature of the discussion in this area in order to help you to choose language with intent. In selecting or omitting certain phrases or words it is useful to understand the context in which your choice may be viewed.
This acronym refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual etc. It is a broad sweeping term which describes both sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tip to consider This term should be used with care, as the interests of all of these groups do not necessarily align.
The gender identity movement has gained influence in recent years. Its roots are to be found in gender theory and these ideas have been amplified and popularised by social media and campaigning groups. As with all broad coalitions of ideas, there is not universal agreement about terminology or principles but there are some points to note.
Below is a summary of some of the key cultural ideas of gender theory and the language used by those who align to gender theory.
- Man & woman, boy & girl: Gender identity from conception to maturityOpens in a new tab | John Money and Anke Ehrhardt | Jason Aronson 1996 (1972)
- Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininityOpens in a new tab | Julia Serano | Seal Press, 2007
The distinction between sex and gender
Within gender theory a distinction is often drawn between the notion of gender as an internal feeling, or ‘gendered soul’, how that person expresses themselves outwardly, and their biological sex. For some, all these things are separate and can be different. Gender identities in this ideology are therefore numerous and constantly evolving.
- 81 Types of Genders & Gender Identities (A to Z List)Opens in a new tab | Chris Drew | Helpful Professor, 05 July 2022
The conflation or replacement of sex with gender
For some proponents of gender identity, the word sex and gender are interchangeable or gender identity is the preferred term. The material reality of biological sex is rejected. Or if not expressly rejected, it is viewed as irrelevant or subordinate to gender identity for the purposes of law, policy making and the operation of society.
Stonewall’s Head of Trans inclusion, Kirrin Medcalf, who gave evidence to the Employment tribunal on 10 May, 2022, stated under oath that “bodies are not inherently male or female. They are just bodies.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently arguing before the court in California that they “deny that there are anatomical, genital and physical characteristics that differentiate men from women” US District court (Fresno Division) Chandler et al v Californian Dept of Corrections.
Language associated with Gender Theory
Campaigning groups who promote gender theory encourage the use of the word ‘people’ instead of ‘men’ and ‘women’ or replace the word woman with terms such as ‘menstruators‘ or ‘birthing person’. This is seen as more inclusive of those who identify outside of, or wish to identify into, the category woman.
- GOP senator grills Biden HHS secretary on ‘birthing people,’ suggests using ‘Mom’ insteadOpens in a new tab | Valerie Richardson | The Washington Times, 11 June 2021
Some organisations have sought to add gender-neutral language alongside gendered language in order to be more inclusive although phrases such as ‘women and people’ may still create some linguistic problems and the government has recently signalled support for sex-based language to be retained in NHS messaging.
- Gender inclusive language in perinatal services: Mission statement and rationale, pdfOpens in a new tab (20 pages, 792 KB) | Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust | December 2020
- Effective communication about pregnancy, birth, lactation, breastfeeding and new-born care: The Importance of Sexed LanguageOpens in a new tab | Gribble, Bewley, et al | Frontiers in Global Women’s Health, February 2022
Cis – used within the gender movement to denote someone who has a gender identity which matches their biological sex. It is predicated on the belief that females are a sub-set of the class women, or males are a subset of the class men.
Sex assigned at birth – used by the gender movement to reinforce the idea that sex is not an objective fact but a social construct which has been assigned and which is therefore able to change.
- Sex, gender and sexuality – NHS digital service manualOpens in a new tab | NHS | September 2021
Man and Woman – using the term man and woman to refer to the gender identity of being a ‘man ‘or a ‘woman’ not as a sex class. So, for example, ‘woman’ would include any people who self-identify as a ‘woman’. Alternatively, some supporters of gender identity hold that it is even possible to identify into a given sex class with the word ‘female’ also being open to self-identification This is founded on a belief that it is possible to change sex.
- We need to rethink the category of womanOpens in a new tab | Jules Gleeson | The Guardian, 07 September 2021
- Emily Bridges is right about transgender cyclistsOpens in a new tab | Debbie Hayton | The Spectator, 08 June 2022
Queer – this is a word used to describe non-specific sexual orientations and/ or identities. It has its roots in queer theory. It is increasingly used by younger people who wish to see themselves as non-conformist.
- The history of sexualityOpens in a new tab | Michel Foucault | Vintage, 1976
- Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identityOpens in a new tab | Judith Butler | Routledge, 2006 (1990)
Using language which centres gender identity can be more inclusive to people who define themselves outside of hetro or homo normative society or to those who believe it is possible to change sex.
The need for thoughtful caution
It is important that the writer is aware that the adoption of language associated with gender and identity theory could be seen to signal the adoption of some of the broader principles and aims of gender ideology.
People who believe in the existence and importance of biological sex, or who advocate for the protection of sex-based spaces, sports or sexual orientation may be alienated.
- Don’t buy the Stonewall line on gender identity? Fine. You can’t be sacked for that nowOpens in a new tab | Sonia Sodha | The Guardian, 31 July 2022
Use of the word queer should also be approached with caution because whilst it has been ‘reclaimed’ by some people, it remains a word associated with discrimination and violence for many older gay and lesbian people.
There is also research that suggests that using gender neutral language in some contexts can obscure meaning and be harmful to the groups who need to be reached by the messaging.
Furthermore, within energy research, it could be challenging to argue against climate denialism whilst adopting the language associated with biology denialism.
- Sex deniers are the new flat earthersOpens in a new tab | Nathan Williams | The Critic Magazine, 27 April 2021
Some people regard the gender identity movement as homophobic, others reject the elevation of gender identity due to an objection to its faith-based construction (a gender identity as an internal essence known only to the individual, like a soul). Others object to its reliance on gender stereotypes.
- A new religionOpens in a new tab | Colette Colfer | Broadsheet, 26 April 2022
- 10 reasons why Biology Denial is homophobia 2.0, not gay rights 2.0Opens in a new tab | Dennis Noel Kavanagh | Kavanagh’s Substack, May 2022
- The detransitioners: They were transgender, until they weren’tOpens in a new tab | Katie Herzog | The Stranger, 28 June 2017
- Material girls – why reality matters for feminismOpens in a new tab | Kathleen Stock | Fleet, 2021 ISBN: 9780349726595
Many individuals are choosing to include their pronouns on their email signatures. This ensures that others will use the pronouns with which they are most comfortable. Others are doing so in order to signal support for the gender identity movement. Respect should be accorded to those who choose to adopt this practice and to those who do not.
In written communication, it is often possible when talking about groups of people to use non-gendered plural pronouns (they, them, their). On an individual level, it is courteous to use the pronouns which an individual uses about themselves unless to do so would seriously obscure a core meaning of the text.
In the design of research questionnaires, you will need to consider the manner in which you ask participants about their sex or gender. If you are asking about gender you should consider providing a free text box to allow participants to record their own self – identified gender. If you are collecting data on sex, you will need to make clear what falls within and without the Male and Female categories for the purposes of your research. Be aware that any category which allows people to self-identify into it, can no longer be considered a quantitative measure. This may increasingly need to be considered when comparing different or historic data sets.
A mindful approach
The debate around sex and gender is very contentious. As always, best practice is to choose the language which conveys your data in the most accurate way possible and tells the story you are trying to highlight. Take the time to define the terms you use. Be mindful of the surrounding context and do not accept at face value the assertion that the matter in this area is either simple or settled.
Much of the data gathered on energy demand relates to the distribution of resources amongst different groups. Analysis of excess consumption, or the impact of climate change, will necessarily be describing different socio-economic groups. In terms of language, it is worth checking that there isn’t an underlying tone which implies that the high wealth or high-status group is inherently immoral and the lower income group inherently virtuous. Ascribing characteristics based solely on the membership of a particular group can be a demonstration of bias.
Following the data is always justified but if you describe characteristics such as, ‘the majority of uptake is with white, middle class, males’, or ‘the group most likely to be at risk are black young men under aged 20’, then ensure that you go on to expand on why those characteristics are being noted. Do not leave it unsaid if you are intimating that ‘white middle class men’ have more disposable income, time, or agency, or that ‘black young men’ are socially excluded, or less wealthy. Do not leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps with commonly held assumptions attached to those descriptions.
Inclusive language has an important part to play in creating accessible and diverse research and science. Writing which unwittingly alienates or obscures will prevent the research from reaching its full potential impact. Choosing specific language with clear intention, which serves your data, will always be the best starting point.
- Use language with conscious intent.
- Be accurate. Use terms used by people about themselves where possible.
- Be clear, for example, by avoiding unusual terminology.
- Define the terms you use and provide your reasoning.
- Be prepared to acknowledge legitimate differences of approach and/or conclusions.
- Avoid language that might antagonise a reasonable person. It is not necessary to place the threshold at the most easily offended. Academia requires the airing of a wide range of opinions.
- Recognise that aggregation can be problematic, but that almost all data is aggregated in some way. Give a full account of how you have treated the data sets .
- Be aware that the language of activism can be excluding and ‘othering’. Making points of strongly held conviction with passion may be appropriate, but consider that calls to action or descriptions of groups couched in overtly political or campaigning language can be alienating often to the very group you may be trying to influence.
- Finally, do not worry too much about ‘getting it wrong’. In most of these areas there is no simple answer about what is acceptable and what is not, and in any event, it is a constantly shifting landscape. Your work is your own and should reflect your data and your voice. Be aware of the wider cultural context of some of the words you may use and be prepared to amend or defend.
If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed.” Thomas Hardy
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