Check your writing for bias

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found here: If you're biased and you know it clap your hands.


Over the past few weeks I've focused on writing and bias - in separate pieces of work. Inevitably, they've collided.


One of the questions we pose to help uncover and remove bias is: how does what you produce reinforce perceptions of normal?


Writing is a powerful way of reinforcing those perceptions. Language can include or exclude, promote or diminish, celebrate or denigrate.

I've come up with four things that help you minimise bias in your documents, and are good writing practice. They cover they way you use nouns, adjectives, and the passive voice, and encourage you to debate your word choices.


Use precise and preferred nouns and pronouns

If I was asked to come up with examples of biased language, my first thoughts would be of derogatory or offensive language: terms that label others based on race, gender, beliefs, age, appearance, or ability. Labels are nouns or naming words. So your job as a writer to is to find out what nouns - and pronouns - the people you are writing about prefer and will not find offensive.


Here's an example: people of small stature were once routinely referred to as 'dwarves'. Mythological creatures called dwarves feature in folk and fantasy stories, and are attributed a specific range of characteristics.


People of small stature are not mythological, and are as diverse as any other group. Little People of New Zealand is an organisation that supports and informs people with dwarfism, of which there are over 200 types. The website makes it clear that Little Person is their preferred noun.


Another example: first names and preferred pronouns. We are given names and assigned gender at birth, but these may not be what we would choose for ourselves. When a person chooses a name and pronouns that align with their identity, any writing for or about that person should use those words.


Fleur Fitzsimons writes about the impact of misgendering and the use of the 'dead' name on her son. What can you do to ensure that you are using the preferred names and pronouns of your readers? Time taken to research this is time well-spent.


Choose adjectives carefully

Naming individuals and groups accurately will minimise bias in your writing. The next step is to review the adjectives you add to the nouns. Adjectives describe, so well-chosen nouns may not need further description.


Good business writing helps the reader: will adjectives help your readers? Or do they risk offending or alienating them?


For example: Do you need to write female doctors, junior teachers, able-bodied athletes? Will those extra details help your readers understand your document, and take the action you want them to take?


Sometimes you might really need the adjective. Experiment with the word order to achieve the desired tone. Consider the difference between 'homeless people' and 'people who are homeless'. The first defines people by the fact of being homeless, the second acknowledges that they are people first.


And here's the but: well-chosen adjectives can help the reader and make them feel included. Sarah Weiler uses the example of swapping the noun 'homosexuals' for 'lesbian women and gay men'. The adjectives lesbian and gay are better choices because they immediately acknowledge different expressions of sexuality.


Debate your word choices as you plan your document

Make decisions about nouns and adjectives as you plan your document. Discussion, debate, and even some conflict early on will save time - and possible heartache - later. Record your decisions and share them with anyone who reviews your document. This helps them check for consistency and simplifies proofreading.


Notice who you exclude when you use the passive voice

A plaque on a hillside
Who knew it as Te Tapu-nui? Image: Dinah Vincent

The day before I read this plaque, I'd been explaining how the passive voice affects the tone of business documents. The passive voice usually removes actors from the writing, so the reader's attention is drawn to what happened instead of who did it. And that can be exactly the effect you want to achieve. If whatever happened is important to the reader, they may not pause to wonder who was involved.


This plaque uses two passive constructions. The first removes people who had another name for the location; the second emphasises the people who use the current name.


The first passive 'was once known as' begs the question: who once knew this hill as Te Tapu-nui? Who decided it would be called something else? And why? Other signs on the walk name Ngāi Tahu as the iwi of the place, but they are excluded here.


The second use of the passive on the plaque is worded to emphasise who erected it. The implied sentence is 'This plaque was erected by the Queenstown District Historical Society'. And the implied message is that the Society is comfortable with the change of name. The active voice alternative would be 'The Queenstown District Historical Society erected this plaque', but that wouldn't get the name of the society neatly along the bottom of the plaque.


The passive voice has the potential to reinforce bias by making individuals and groups invisible. Review your documents thinking about who is present and powerful in the text, and who has been written out.


References

Nordquist, Richard. "Biased Language Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-biased-language-1689168.


Weiler, Sarah. "How to avoid biased language using APA guidelines." San José University Writing Centre.

https://www.sjsu.edu/writingcenter/docs/handouts/Biased%20Language.pdf


Bias blogs:

We've been hearing a lot about unconscious bias recently (rightfully so). And we want to make this real and practical for you. There have been over 180 cognitive biases identified. Read the following blogs to explore specific, individual biases, how they show up in our lives/workplaces, and what we can do about it.