Diversity & Inclusion

Words Matter: Driving Thoughtful Change Toward Inclusive Language in Technology

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Words shape our worldview, how we regard others, and how we make others feel.  Right now, in the midst of a health and societal crisis, we are at a pivot point where people are willing to not only talk about our hard-wired issues of systemic racism and bias but to take action. While common expressions like “sold down the river” and “blackmail” are clear and demeaning vestiges of our historical connection to enslavement, other common terms may not jump out as readily. But they too demand eradication.

Like everyday colloquialisms, the language used in technology can create and reinforce discriminatory stereotypes. Technologists often use the phrase “master/slave,” for example, to describe components of software and hardware in which one process or device controls another.  Untrusted websites that are used to steal private data are put on a “blacklist” and their access denied. A hacker who violates IT security for a malicious thrill or illegal personal gain is known as a “black hat”.

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and far too many others remind us that the fight against racism and bias is still necessary and urgent.  The much needed change to make our society more inclusive must also extend to our workplace behavior and language including our IT language.

Inclusion in Language

As part of Emb(race), our social justice movement to combat racial inequality, the IBM Academy of Technology launched an internal initiative to identify and replace IT terminology that promotes racial and cultural bias. Our goal is to promote the use of inclusive language in IT and provide opportunities for IBM employees to work together to achieve this goal.

In partnership with IBM Terminology and the Style and Diversity Councils, we conduct a thorough evaluation of each term submitted for review. This includes assessing whether all usages or specific uses of a given term promote bias and recommending unbiased replacement terms.

Rather than prescribing broad restrictions of a given term, our approach is to drive thoughtful, targeted change that fosters a culture of inclusion. For instance, instead of recommending replacement of all usages of the term “master,” we restricted usage of the term in biased contexts only, e.g., when paired with slave. We also validated that replacement terms translate without bias.  Open dialog, questions and suggestions regarding change strategies, dependencies, communications, is facilitated because this is much more than changing IT terms. This is about promoting inclusive behavior.

We understand that changing technology language does not automatically create racial equality in the US or fix social injustices throughout the world. But the effort to provide guidance around a new code of conduct in the creation, documentation and use of technology acknowledges how pervasive racism is in our daily lives and how technology professionals can directly identify, influence and offer solutions for change.

Change takes time and effort. Our initiative is an ongoing effort that will continue to expand and accelerate across the technology industry. We stand with and in support of the Black community both within and outside of IBM, and we strive to create a more inclusive technology landscape.

The responsible stewardship of technology is a hallmark of IBM’s culture and has been for more than a century. Inclusive language in the IT lexicon is one part of a much larger story around the battle against systemic racism and discrimination. But it’s a necessary one.

Dale Davis Jones is Vice President and Distinguished Engineer at IBM Global Technical Services.

Tim Humphrey

Tim Humphrey is Vice President, IBM Chief Data Office.

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