Language Matters: Expressing Inclusivity Through Terminology

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The NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC) program was founded on the premise that recognizing talented technical girls would be powerful. That was in 2007, and the program has grown from 8 students in the first award ceremony to more than 4,000 in 2020. During the past 13 years, we added Aspirations Affiliates to build a network of dedicated local committees who helped us scale this program, and who shared in the joy of encouraging young women to succeed in their tech and computing studies. AiC Award recipients were gathered together into what we now call the AiC Community, and in 2015 we added additional pathways for those in post-secondary studies to join this community. 

Today, nearly 20,000 strong, the AiC Community is a diverse place, and it provides a unique network for helping members find others who share their technology interests. Still, we continue to hear that AiC Community members are the “only one in their class.” Because  gender inequities in the tech field persist, and those are where NCWIT focuses, often the “only one” refers to gender, but it can also refer to racial/ethnic identity, to disability status, or to a lack of prior experience in computing. Some students are the first in their family to take an interest in tech or come from schools with inadequate technology curriculum. The AiC Community helps mitigate the feelings of aloneness for many and routinely provides needed door-openings to opportunities. The AiC Community is always, we hope, a safe space for members to ask questions, seek and give advice, and feel welcomed no matter what their lived experience is.

A few years ago, NCWIT AiC program staff started to expand our gender language to signal our intentions of being more inclusive. Last year, we defined the eligibility for our programs to include both non-binary and genderqueer people, as well as anyone who self-identifies as a woman. We’ve added pronouns to our profile data, and for the past few years, we have addressed our community with the word “womxn.” To be honest, not all of our staff was well-versed in, nor completely comfortable with, non-binary constructs of gender, but we have examined our own lack of knowledge and worked to improve our awareness of how we understand gender. Our use of expanded gender-identifying language was introduced with the knowledge that for some, it would not go far enough, and for others in our community it might be perplexing. 

We recognize that the lived experiences of women, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals are NOT equivalent. This program exists to close the gender gap, specifically as it impacts individuals who have been historically marginalized in the computing and tech experience.

Creating An Inclusive Space

Recently, a series of AiC Instagram ads “Calling All Womxn” was criticized for being transphobic, and it was suggested that grouping non-binary and genderqueer individuals with women implied an equivalency between the experiences of those who identify as non-binary or genderqueer and the experiences of those who identify as women. NCWIT AiC staff reviewed the comments, discussed internally, and felt that we were falling short of our goal of using language to be more inclusive. NCWIT AiC decided with immediate effect to discontinue using the term womxn, instead using “women,” “individuals who self-identify as women,” or “women, genderqueer, and non-binary.” We recognize that the latter phrasing refers to three different identities of individuals, but they all have one thing in common: all are historically marginalized genders, and our program seeks to give space and encouragement to those who have been historically marginalized. The truth is, there is not one word or phrase that encompasses all identities, and there shouldn't be; all of us, and all of you, need to take up space.

The NCWIT AiC staff will continue to reflect on and update our language use; we also remain fully committed to addressing the common challenges that people of marginalized genders face in the tech industry. Our work and initiatives will still push to combat isolation, inequitable distribution of opportunities, and gender bias. These challenges may be experienced by all individuals in workforce settings, but unfortunately it is still true that women, genderqueer, and non-binary individuals in the tech industry are impacted significantly more.

Language is nuanced, and oftentimes it takes more words to say what we mean, so NCWIT AiC communications may get longer! It remains our goal to be inclusive in our words and actions. We hope that you will let us know when we fall short and also when we do something that feels right. If you have any questions or comments, we encourage you to contact NCWIT AiC at aichelp@ncwit.org.

~ NCWIT Aspirations in Computing

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