CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

Using inclusive language to make the construction industry more diverse

If we want to attract a more diverse range of professionals to the construction industry we must reconsider the way we use language

Author: Dr Philippa Stratford

26 November 2019

Language has extraordinary power. As surveyors, we deal regularly with the interplay between technical, legal and financial language, and are expected to be fluent in all three.

Technical scopes written by specialist engineers need to be broken down into their component parts so surveyors can best advise on contract types and procurement routes. Estimating, cost reporting and value management all come under the surveyor job description.

Many of us work regularly with various detailed contract types: the NEC, for example, is written in plain English, and yet disputes still arise. It is, of course, important to note that disputes do not arise only because of the use of complex language – but ensuring clarity through language can help to prevent them.

Language has the power to be both inclusive and exclusive. As a mid-career mover and someone relatively new to the industry, I was laughed at on my first day at Transport for London (TfL) three years ago because I didnt know what a 'Spon's' was. It is, in fact, a suite of estimating books and guides used in the construction industry, published by Taylor & Francis Group.

Language as power

In my previous life as an academic and international development worker, I was used to seeing lecturers, development staff and solicitors manipulate their language to include or exclude members of an audience. Using overly complicated technical language, for example, can be difficult for non-native English speakers to understand and can give the speaker themselves a sense of status. As a lecturer, however, your role is to teach, not to rhetorically grandstand.

Similarly, the use of technical language, particularly acronyms, in the construction industry can empower the speaker and disarm the audience.

"The use of technical language in the construction industry empowers the speaker and disarms the audience"

I am not against a detailed and specific narrative by any means, and in many situations our roles require an explicitly detailed vocabulary. However, any use of language must be appropriate to the context and the intent and we should be aware of how we, as speakers, are able to use language as a form of power and control.

I have observed that this kind of reflection on language and inclusivity is lacking in the construction industry, but the power of language remains. This can be problematic when attracting new talent or encouraging groups, such as young people or women, to consider a job in construction. The terms commercial, contract management and procurement, for example, have a level of anonymity around them without context. It is this context that is important to portray.

At a recent science, technology, engineering and mathematics event in a London secondary school I asked students if they knew what a commercial manager was, to which one student replied, 'Someone who makes adverts?' They weren't wrong, but their context was different to mine.

Rather than rattle off a day in the life of a commercial manager as requested, I asked the students what they were interested in and tried to use their interests to demonstrate the role of a commercial manager. This meant I was able to better connect the anonymous language of commercial activities, procurement and contract management to things that mattered to them – their community, their families, their city.

Emphasising the scope of work we do, contextualising our work and consciously using inclusive language doesnt water down or take away from the professionalism of our industry. It opens it up to a more diverse audience who have different perspectives and talents – perspectives and talents our industry is crying out for.

Dr Philippa Stratford is an assistant commercial manager at TfL  philippastratford@tfl.gov.uk

Related competencies include: Communication and negotiation, Diversity inclusion and teamworking, Leading projects people and teams

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