Language: talking about inequality and leadership


Message from the Editor:

I was particularly sorry to miss Mole’s recent #BELMASchat on language because I strongly identify as a linguist and have a keen interest in Rosenberg’s notion of non-violent communication. Fortunately for us all, she has subsequently written this blog which captures the essence of that chat … and so much more! Mole raises some very pertinent and perhaps uncomfortable questions about the power of language and how texts can hide, forget and silence certain groups. I love how Mole has used the questions from the chat to structure her blog and the inclusion of participants’ quotes really adds their voices in that conversation. Thanks, Mole, for hosting the chat and for sharing this blog with us!

If you’d like to check out Mole’s #BELMASchat, please follow this link. You can follow Mole on Twitter here. And please post any comments on this blog on Twitter using the hashtag #BELMASblog. 

 - Suzanne


Author: Mole Chapman

Language can be understood as a leadership activity, as a choice of words. A different phrase can suggest a different idea. Conversations can help create new visions in the ideas shared in stories we tell (Senge, 2006). A conversation topic can help express a vision. Conversations about our world can change it; in a shared dream for a better future we create a better world for our neighbours in time (Robertson, 2014).

My PhD focussed on language and how texts can highlight or erase the interests of a group. The analysis of language was like working with ‘herds of sentences, out on the open range’ (Agar, 1994, p 16). The interests of the disabled population are often absent in texts, even in those about disability. I looked for the presence of disabled people’s interests in wider debates such welfare, sustainability and human rights. Their voice is often misrepresented in storytelling.

Why is the language we use to define equality, inequality and inclusive practice so important to leadership conversations?

Conversations not only state what we focus on but can also silence other matters. By talking about one thing we can avoid speaking about others. How can we qualify our intent as inclusive if we have no words for the harm imposed on groups harmed by injustice, oppression or hate? Without words for inequality, how do we articulate privilege, the freedom from negative experience, micro-aggressions or hate crime?

“I think it's important that leaders' use of language is thoughtful & sensitive, as poorly chosen language can present barriers and reveal unconscious bias which then makes honest & open communication difficult.” (Jill)

The difference between saying a ‘minority’ or a ‘marginalised’ group is important because power is not always about size. How do we make sure we recruit individuals from marginalised groups? Marginalised makes it clearer that people are being pushed out. Marginalised distinguishes those groups in receipt of sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, classism. It can allow you to articulate oppression without anyone having to disclose their identity.

So, what can guide us? Which text, which authors? Which groups do writers choose to belong to? The choice is theirs to identify or state the character of their activism. Some are clear about identity, others less so. I’m interested in how they define their activism, because it is their ‘resistance to’ or ‘disruption of’ a named oppression that interests me. We need authors willing to write about group interest, and we need to accept their experience - particularly when it feels uncomfortable – as alternative or divergent to our own. Only taking what we agree with is a denial of the experience people are willing to share. Contradiction helps shine a light on an alternative story. It’s not that I think experience is unique, more that I have come to understand that there are many experiences I may not, or have yet, to share.

Why is a shared definition of equality important?

We chatted about addressing bias, myths and common assumptions. I feel it’s harmful to argue which group has it worse. It is far more important, I think, to say that the impact of oppressive ideas is cumulative. For example, I am mindful not to say ‘everyone’, using ‘many’ or ‘some of us’ instead. I’m still on that journey, aiming to address all groups disadvantaged by society more equitably.

I find using terminology that contradicts bias in assumptions in conversations useful. In putting words in opposition to stereotypes, my belief might change. We may need to seek out those authors willing to write about challenging culture. We need to accept their experience, insights and wisdom, particularly when it we feel it is at odds to our own. Only taking what we agree with is a denial of the many truths we may need to hear, but don't want to read.

"How do we get to a working definition? I often wonder whether this process is ill understood and leaves room for unhelpful emotions?" (Megan)

How does language impact on belonging?

Over the last 20 years I’ve said it’s not so much about right or wrong words. Finding out why some words harm or some have been reclaimed is more important. In the professional context I use research knowledge and working wisdom, rather than personal preference, to guide my choice of language. When there are too few words, or the terms are vague, like ‘vulnerable’ for example, lack of definition leads to confusion, and those labelled this way may be seen as weak and needy.

"So, we should reject the language of ‘vulnerability’ and talk instead about support for independent living and opportunity to use our talents to contribute to our communities."  (Liz from Disability UK) 

It is certainly not up to those marginalised to teach educators about equality. We need to do our homework as teachers. I will feel safer in a space where people have an articulation of ableism in their conversations. Discrimination then stops being my problem, it becomes ours.

"I like the idea of asking learners when you begin teaching them: 'What would you like me to know about you that will help me support you to be your best" (Jill)

How do we voice accountability to all storytellers?

Wherever we divide people into groups there’s a tendency that one group will be perceived as better than the other (Chapman, 2019).  In text, the interests of marginalised groups are quite often misrepresented. This neglect of attention given to recognised groups appears in many areas of literature, including those relating to accountability, human rights, and legitimacy (Woodhams & Danieli, 2000; Saffer, 2017).

Accountability can only be achieved if the interests of the entire population are explicitly stated. Dialogue is required. Accountability, then, means including all storytellers more intentionally, not simply allowing those already privileged to tell their stories – or make up tales. An ability-to-account is to know that story and needs to become a public responsibility.

"We use language all the time, unthinkingly, that anchors us to the status quo, so we assume change isn’t possible. Meanwhile it seems the ‘linguistic wars’ continue amongst academics. " (Lou)

Why is choice of language important to power?

There’s a huge difference between asking who has trouble or difficulties learning, and asking the whole group what helps them succeed. Turning accessibility into a group activity puts equity into shared practice.

“Language & power are so closely interwoven! Crucial to ask whose story counts & how we can ensure we aren't listening to some voices & devaluing or ignoring others." (Jill)

It might be wiser to think of schools as boundary-free spaces where learning is a community activity, rather than places of schooling.

"Is it damaging to think about leaders more than we think about communities and organisations? If we have to have accountability structures would they be better being owned by the whole community through dialogue?" (@Complexchange1)

Viewed thus, it is not learners who need to be more fluent about their experience or identity, it is the duty of us all to articulate the isms - the discrimination and inequality groups face - in their work. It is not up to learners to fight or educate for safer spaces: the onus is on the profession to provide an articulation of allied strength through language and culture.

“The thing about language is, sometimes it just feels so hard to try and change it. The go-backery is a massive pull and you just sound pedantic. But we have to be persistent as individuals with the language we use.” (Lou)

I choose to use the words leadership activity instead of leader in my conversations about leadership to get away from the stereotype of one person in a position of power. Changing our articulation of possible alternatives to address injustice in the status quo is both important and really hard.

Mole is an Equality and Diversity practitioner, author and programme facilitator. She has built her knowledge from years of experience in the equality field applied to human rights, housing, social justice, education and learning & development.


Agar, M. (1994). Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York: Harper Collins.

Chapman, M. (2019). On belonging: Blobs, Cakes and Trolls.

Gallhofer, S., & Haslam, J. (2006). The accounting–globalisation interrelation: An overview with some reflections on the neglected dimension of emancipatory potentiality. Critical Perspectives on Accounting , 17(7), 903-934.

Li, Y., & McKernan, J. (2016). Human rights, Accounting, and the dialectic of equality. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, 29(4), 568-593.

Pease, B. (2013). Undoing Privilege, unearned advantage in a divided world. London, New York: Zed Books.

Robertson, M. (2014). Sustainability Principles and Practice [Kindle Edition ]. Abingdon: Routledge.

Saffer, J. (2017). Responses of People with Physical Health Conditions to Changes in Disability Benefits: A Grounded Theory Study. thesis. University of Hertfordshire .

Senge, P. (2006). The Fifth Discipline, The art & practice of the learning organisation. London: Random House.

Woodhams, C., & Danieli, A. (2000).  "Disability and diversity – a difference too far?", . Personnel Review, 402-417.

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