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</Looking at language as a barrier with Manchester Metropolitan University>

Published on 29 July 2020 by web editor

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Having postponed the planned, in-person event in March due to the Covid-19 lockdown, the Institute of Coding (IoC) team at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) went on to convert the event into a virtual forum, which was held on 24th June 2020. The event, which is part of a series of diversity related forums and workshops hosted by MMU, explored the importance of how language choices can inhibit engagement and sense of belonging in digital education and careers.

Anticipation for the sold-out event was high as it hosted 20 attendees, including our special guest speakers Bob Clift from The Tech Partnership and Jo Morfee, the co-founder of Innovate Her. Bob Clift offered his insights into the use of language used by universities and employers when recruiting. Referring to Language Matters, a report created to help improve understanding of language used in IT-related education and careers, Bob highlighted that language has a big impact on what prospective students think about degree courses.

We understand that it can be a challenge for some computer science graduates to find jobs, as there is a disconnect between the language used for job adverts and degree titles. The words ‘development’, ‘business’, ‘support’ and ‘management’ are the four most used words in job adverts, and yet are almost the least used words in degree titles. Bob ended his presentation with a summary of the different elements that students, employers and educators need to be aware of, including why a complete set of skills is not always required, the use of jargon and how to engage industry in innovative ways.

Jo Morfee then discussed the importance of gender-neutral language, how Innovate Her is getting young women ready for careers, and the industry ready to be more inclusive for the young women. The Manchester-based organisation runs educational programmes for young women aged 13 to 16 in schools, sending in industry mentors to provide participants with positive role models that show them tech careers they can aspire to.

Currently only 42% of schools in Manchester offer computer science as an option, and only 9% of students pursue study in that area. This is why Innovate Her teaches young women cutting edge skills that aren’t covered by the curriculum, such as gaming and cybersecurity. Since the pandemic, these programmes have been moved online. Innovate Her also works with tech companies on their diversity and inclusions strategies, with a significant focus on inclusive language as part of their toolkit.

Currently a Digital Route Panel Member for the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Jo talked about how organisations must be willing to admit that they have work to do and be committed to the journey of diversity and inclusion.

“You can’t look at the language you are using without looking at a wider framework.”

An example of the progress that the Institute of Apprenticeships has made is that they are embedding gender-neutral language into everything they do, including the design of apprenticeship standards. Touching on unconscious bias and how we all have it, forum participants had a group discussion about how language can exclude people. The group also discussed how language can impact decision making in education and employment.

The event was structured around exploring and discussing four questions regarding language.

1. What language excludes people? When the group explored this question, gender-specific terms were the most common answer, with a large discussion around the term ‘other’ on data capture forms. Some participants stated that the word ‘other’ creates a feeling of ‘othering’ of people who don’t identify with box descriptors; and the group concluded that gender data should only be collected if necessary, and then allow people to self-define. Other areas which were thought to exclude people included the language within computer science. Much of the language used in this discipline expresses aggression, dominance and power; for example: booting, crashing, hacking, killer app, cyber warfare and blue screen of death.

2. Where do people experience language that impacts their decision making and sense of belonging in digital education and careers? Job adverts, their specifications and technical jargon were the most popular answers, as listing ‘desirable’ or ‘essential’ skills may put people off from applying for roles or stop students from applying for university courses. On the other hand, wider corporate communications that provide context to employment and their organisation’s values can have a positive impact on retention, sense of belonging and recruitment.

3. What are examples of good practice words, terms and descriptions for people, groups and activities? Participants noted that language evolves and changes, therefore there is a need to frequently revise and refresh our lexicon. The group agreed that we shouldn’t be frozen into inaction for fear of getting it wrong; it’s easier to consult and ask people how they would like to be referred to. When discussing job descriptions, using active language such as ‘you will be’ rather than ‘the candidate will be’, describes an inclusive culture, which embraces diversity. It is also suggested in the Readability Guidelines that the recommended word count for an average sentence is 15 words, and 25 words for a maximum-length limit.

4. What tools and resources have you used to improve your use of language? A wide range of materials were shared during the event, and can be viewed on the MMU Wakelet page, such as The Readability Guidelines by Content Design London and the Language Matters report, along with the event transcript and the document used to collate participants contributions.


To find out more about IoC at Manchester Metropolitan University and their schedule of upcoming forums and events, email ioc@mmu.ac.uk.

Want to learn more about accessible technology? Check out our free and online Introduction to UX and Accessible Design course from our partners FutureLearn and University of the Arts London.

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