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Guidance for inclusive professional language

By Research and Education Networks Information Sharing and Analysis Center

January 18, 2022

  • Inclusive Language in IT logo
    Charles Conner-Rondot

The language used by a professional community has a great impact on its participation and perception. Unfortunately, some of the technical jargon and professional shorthand used in information technology — such as “master/slave,” “whitelist/blacklist,” “rule of thumb” — carries with it a problematic cultural history of subjugation and inequality.

To combat this, the Research and Education Networks Information Sharing and Analysis Center compiled and created “Using Inclusive Language in IT,” a document listing alternative, inclusive professional jargon.

REN-ISAC is an IU-hosted community of professionals with a common goal: strengthen the information security structure of higher education across the globe. Diversity of thoughts, ideas and experiences makes a community stronger, and creating a common language devoid of bias is necessary for all voices to feel accepted, valued and heard.

The document provides concrete guidance for avoiding common ableist, ageist, gendered and racially loaded language. For example, the terms “whitelist” and “blacklist” have been used to signal which entities are allowed or blocked (respectively) from an institution’s network. The racial connotations are that white is safe and black is dangerous. Using the terms “allowlist” and “denylist” enables security professionals to discuss a necessary element of their job without perpetuating racial stereotypes.

“Using Inclusive Language in IT” encourages the center’s member institutions and the professional community at large to create a more inclusive community by avoiding ableist metaphors for technological issues — “the system is crippled” — or encouraging the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

The center released the guidance document to its membership and select partners last month, and the positive response has been overwhelming.

The majority of the feedback shows a community ready for a more inclusive language but lacking a reference resource to make those changes.

“Historically, IT terminology has not been friendly to non-majority groups,” said Mike Patterson, information security operations manager at the University of Waterloo. “Terms that belittle historically underprivileged groups or individuals by race, mental conditions, gender and many more have been in common usage.

“Even for individuals who wish to change their use of language, it’s not always clear what replacement terms might be more acceptable. Documentation such as this can help to create a more inclusive, welcoming community.”

While the center has worked to create a full listing of language alternatives, language is not static.

“We readily admit that creating a new, more inclusive professional vocabulary takes time and collaboration,” said Jennifer Pacenza, information services analyst with the center. “We invite all in the IT, research and higher education communities to participate in improving this living document, helping us make it a go-to resource for inclusive language.”

For comments or questions about the inclusive language document, email  membership@ren-isac.net.