Inclusive language around socioeconomic status and age

One of the American Chemical Society’s oldest philanthropic programs was established in 1968: Project SEED. The program matches ACS volunteers with high school students for a paid summer research experience in academic, government, industry, or national laboratories. Eligible students come from households with incomes that are up to 200% of the US federal poverty guidelines; additional consideration is given for personal financial circumstances. Hundreds of students across the US participate in the program each summer, and many rising seniors apply for college scholarships through Project SEED. While managing these programs, I became attuned to the student experience, specifically the language used to describe socioeconomic status or age when advertising or describing the program.

It stung when I heard or saw words like “impoverished,” “poor,” or “struggling” used to describe Project SEED students. While I’m sure the communicators meant well, the use of those and similar words can reduce students solely to their current financial state, when there are so many additional identities that could be shared first.

Leading with someone’s strengths and aspirations instead of their deficits is called asset framing, a strategy developed and popularized by social entrepreneur Trabian Shorters. The intent isn’t to ignore or downplay problems as real as financial insecurity but to use a person’s positive characteristics—rather than their challenges—as a way of introducing them.

Asset framing is one of several recommendations included in the “Socioeconomic status” section of the ACS Inclusivity Style Guide. Additional topics covered in this section include racially coded terms, occupation, and housing status.

The typical academic lab that a Project SEED student joins for the summer has a broad range of age groups represented, including high school students, undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and the professor leading the lab. Working respectfully and collaboratively across the varying age groups is key to a successful research experience.

That respect can often start with the words we use to describe age. Words can perpetuate stereotypes or heighten divisions instead of similarities between people. For example, the generational terms “millennial” and “baby boomer” may overemphasize differences between generations. A study by IBM found no meaningful difference between generations in a number of work-related areas, including career expectations and goals and factors that would contribute to workers leaving their roles.

Generational terms are one of the topics included in the ACS Inclusivity Style Guide’s section on age. Other topics include ageist language, clarity and accuracy about dementia, and language for benefits associated with age.

Inclusive communication can expand your reach by making more people in your audience feel seen and respected. To be fair, no group of people is a monolith. For every person that might find offense in being called “disadvantaged” or “elderly,” there may be someone else that is unaffected by those descriptions or that uses those terms proudly to describe themselves. A recommendation that comes up repeatedly throughout the Inclusivity Style Guide is to ask a person how they want to be described and respect that language. If you can’t ask an individual, look for guidelines by organizations that represent groups of people. When writing about or speaking to a general audience, consider how a slight adjustment in word choice and attitude could potentially create a more inclusive culture—wouldn’t that be worth the effort?

Some of the more evergreen recommendations for age and socioeconomic status are summarized in tip sheets that can be found in this issue of C&EN and in the “Related resources” section of the ACS Inclusivity Style Guide website at www.acs.org/inclusivityguide. While the Inclusivity Style Guide evolves to keep up with changes in language and so is best accessed online, we encourage readers to print the tip sheets. This is part five of a six-part series in C&EN on the tip sheets. We hope you check out all six parts of this series on the ACS Inclusivity Style Guide and share your thoughts and feedback by emailing [email protected].


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