Multifamily’s New Gender-Neutral Language

A progressive vocabulary makes everyone feel welcome. Here’s how apartment operators can signal an inclusive culture.

Apartment operators are adopting an inclusive vocabulary that extends beyond Pride Month to help everyone feel welcome all year round. Image via Canva

Pride month is nearly over, but communicating to apartment residents and employees with inclusive language is becoming a year-round commitment. For a growing number of owners/operators, making everyone feel welcome isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s also a must for the business of attracting and retaining happy residents.

In fact, many industry leaders believe that all communications—from the marketing language on the website to in-person interactions with the maintenance team—need to use gender-neutral language.

“Actions speak louder than words, but language is powerful when it comes to both reflecting and effecting cultural change,” said Betsy Feigin Befus, senior vice president, general counsel & strategic initiatives, National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC). “In January 2020, NMHC began referring to our top officer as NMHC’s Chair, rather than ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman.’ We did the same for our committee leaders, as well as our Chair’s Circle sponsors, NMHC’s top sponsorship level,” Feigin Befus told Multi-Housing News.

READ ALSO: 8 Ways to Celebrate Pride Month at Your Community

There has been buy-in regarding gender-neutral language at all levels from leasing agents right up to the C-Suite. “NAA is fully committed to fostering a more diverse and inclusive rental housing industry,” Bob Pinnegar, president & CEO, National Apartment Association, told MHN. “Using inclusive language demonstrates understanding and appreciation of everyone’s backgrounds and helps build stronger apartment communities where everyone feels respected, included and truly at home.”

Pronouns That Resonate

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “most people—including most transgender people—are either male or female. But some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman,’ or ‘male’ or ‘female.’ For example, some people have a gender that blends elements of being a man or a woman, or a gender that is different than either male or female. Some people don’t identify with any gender. Some people’s gender changes over time.”

For best results, the entire team from marketing copywriters to maintenance staff needs to be trained on an organization’s language initiatives. Image by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

Further, different non-binary people may use different pronouns. Many non-binary people use “they”, while others use “he” or “she” or other pronouns. “Gender-neutral language avoids unintentional references to gender norms and other gender-related biases, and better highlights the message itself,” Feigin Befus explained.

Gender-neutral language also recognizes that gender isn’t a binary that includes only women and men. “Changing everyday language may feel uncomfortable at first, and we all make mistakes, but the benefits of signaling an inclusive culture through language can be a big win for any organization,” she added.

READ ALSO: Fostering Diversity in NYC’s Multifamily Industry

Introducing gender-neutral language is an example of NMHC’s holistic approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). NMHC provides best practices and resources, and leverage strategic alliances to help its members create diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations where talent and the communities they build will thrive.

“Our goal is to consider DEI in everything we do, from government affairs and research, to communications and public affairs, to membership and events,” Feigin Befus noted. “DEI is about growing a richer, more productive multifamily sector for the benefit of the entire industry.”

Inclusive Words to Use Now

Gender-neutral terms have been an option for years—for example, the term “flight attendant” has completely replaced “stewardess”—but people don’t always think to use them. Here’s a list of gender-inclusive words that can help all apartment residents and multifamily employees feel more welcome and included:

  • parent (instead of mother, father)
  • pibling (“parent’s sibling” instead of aunt or uncle)
  • partner or significant other (instead of boyfriend/husband or girlfriend/wife)
  • friend (instead of dude or buddy)
  • folks (instead of you guys)
  • betrothed (instead of fiancée/fiancé)
  • grandchild (instead of granddaughter or grandson)
  • grandparent (not grandmother or grandfather)
  • spouse (not husband or wife)
  • child (instead of son or daughter)
  • business person (instead of businessman or businesswoman)
  • chairperson (not chairman or chairwoman)
  • crewperson (instead of crewman)
  • foreperson (not foreman)
  • layperson (instead of layman)
  • mail carrier or postal worker (not mailman)
  • crewed (not manned)
  • Mx (pronounced “mix” instead of Mr. or Mrs.)
  • police officer (not policeman)
  • server or table attendant (instead of waiter or waitress)
  • first-year student (not freshman)
  • young person, kid or teen (not girl or boy)
  • synthetic or machine-made (not man-made)
  • upper-level student (instead of upperclassmen)
  • adult (not woman or man)

Discourage Housing Discrimination Claims

Apartment communities that don’t adopt an inclusive vocabulary won’t face legal consequences. However, operators that train their teams to be conscious of language when talking to each other, to prospects and to residents do set the stage for success—and best communicate their organization’s mission regarding inclusion.

This has always been important, but the stakes are even higher now. “The Biden administration has really stepped up on protection for the LGBTQ community,” said Anne Sadovsky CAM CAPS NAAEI, professional speaker, Fair Housing expert and consultant specializing in the apartment industry.

READ ALSO: MBA’s CREF21: What’s Changing in Multifamily

In January 2021, President Biden issued an Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation stating “every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love. It is the policy of my Administration to prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, and to fully enforce Title VII and other laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Currently, the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. Individuals who feel they have not been treated accordingly will likely want to investigate their options. A person who identifies as LGBTQ who has experienced (or is about to experience) discrimination under any of these bases may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Housing providers that receive HUD funding or have HUD-insured loans are subject to the Rules.

Actions Speak Loudly Too

In the multifamily realm, one of the companies that recognize the beauty and richness of diversity is Bozzuto Management Co. “Our marketing efforts have long embraced this acceptance and we continually work to ensure that our resident communications feel inclusive for all our residents and their representations,” Stephanie Williams, president, told MHN.

Over the past several years, Bozzuto has created seven Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) where associates can join together in the workplace based on shared characteristics, interests or life experiences. These groups offer educational, philanthropic and personal development opportunities that cultivate an environment of trust and belonging. In addition, these groups are intended to help employees better understand the experiences that shape each person as an individual, as well as build trust and allyships that will make the company and community stronger, connected and effectual.

Gender-neutral language recognizes that gender isn’t a binary that includes only women and men. Image via Canva

“In March of this year, our Employee Resource Group LIFT, which provides support and empowerment for the LGBTQ+ community and allies at Bozzuto, worked to bring awareness to the International Transgender Day of Visibility with a guest speaker and virtual event to celebrate our trans and non-binary associates and peers,” Williams said.

Furthermore, Britt Walsh (they/them/theirs), the director of gender-affirming services at Whitman-Walker Health, spoke to Bozzuto associates about transgender/non-binary issues. Bozzuto is also adding pronouns as optional to email signatures.

“We will continue to take proactive steps as an organization,” Williams pointed out. “And it is important to recognize that this work doesn’t stop—it’s a continuing process to which we all contribute in order to move the world forward.”

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