On June 30, 2021 Women in Standards Executive Officer Karin Athanas sat down with Kathryn Miller, Publishing Services Librarian with the Information Services Office, NIST, to discuss Ms. Miller’s work within NIST to develop their recent guidance on using inclusive language, the lessons learned, and the road ahead for NIST on this effort.
Kathryn Miller was lead author of “Guidance for NIST Staff on Using Inclusive Language in Documentary Standards” and shares her insights on the process of developing the document.
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Today I’m joined by Kathryn Miller, Publishing Services Librarian with the NIST Information Services Office to discuss “Guidance for NIST Staff on Using Inclusive Language in Documentary Standards” a recent publication by the National Institution of Standards and Technology of which Kathryn was a lead author.
Kathryn, very nice to meet and thank you for joining me today. Tell me a bit about yourself and your work at NIST.
Nice to meet you, too. Thank you for inviting me. I’m a publishing services librarian at NIST, where I manage the production, dissemination, bibliographic control, and impact assessment activities related to the publishing of the NIST Technical Series Publications. These publications include the SP 800s and other cybersecurity guidelines, which have a wide-ranging impact.
As highlighted in my introduction, NIST recently concluded a project on inclusive writing, can you provide background on the project and how it came about?
Sure, it started in June 2020 when we received some emails from the public about biased and exclusionary language in our publications. For example, words like master/slave and blacklist/whitelist are frequently used in technical documents. While the employees responsible for the specific publications using those words discussed how they were going to address the comments, I decided this would be a good opportunity for the Library to provide guidance on how to use inclusive language in all the NIST Technical Series Publications. I researched what other organizations were doing, reviewed various style guides, and got a lot of input from my NIST colleagues. At first, I released the guidance internally as an update to our author instructions. Around the same time, my colleagues Lisa Carnahan and David Alderman asked me to join the Standards Inclusivity Effort Team, which was a team put together by NIST leadership tasked with writing guidelines for NIST staff on using inclusive language when participating in standards development activities.
Gender inclusion, inclusive language, equity, diversity, these are all very important topics being discussed by international and US standards bodies, here at Women in Standards, and among groups such as the UN. How does NIST’s work in this area fit into the larger landscape and what is that unique role that you see NIST playing?
That’s a really good point, NIST is definitely not the first (nor hopefully the last) to address these topics. With regards to inclusive language, for example, in our guidance we point to other organizations such as Google and Microsoft who have already removed biased language from their systems. Since NIST publications and researchers have such a wide reach and impact on industry, government, and academia in various fields of science and technology, we felt it was important to contribute to this effort. The guidelines that our team published will hopefully help NIST staff advocate for the consistent use of inclusive language in documentary standards being developed by standards organizations, and in documents supporting physical standards. This advocacy will hopefully result in widespread creation or adoption of inclusive language policies and guidelines.
Kathryn, NIST’s guidance for NIST Staff on Using Inclusive Language in Documentary Standards was published in late April. Can you tell us more about the paper? As an example, what are the overarching issues or themes that you feel will parallel with other groups?
So as I mentioned earlier, the Standards Inclusivity Effort Team was tasked with publishing guidelines for NIST staff on using inclusive language in standards development activities. From when we convened in July 2020 to right before the guidelines were published, we had a lot of conversations about inclusivity. We researched inclusive language concepts; learned of similar activities within NIST and externally; and sought feedback from our NIST colleagues on many iterations and drafts of our guidelines. Ultimately, we decided to base a lot of the guidance on three sources: the author instructions for NIST Technical Series Publications that I wrote on behalf of the Library; the American Psychological Association Style Guide; and the Chicago Manual of Style. These sources provide what most people want when it comes to inclusive language: examples of words or expressions to avoid. Instead of creating a definitive list of use/don’t use words, the synthesis of these multiple sources will hopefully give NIST staff tools to make their own decisions on how inclusive language fits into their professional fields.
Which recommendation in the paper do you feel took the longest or perhaps the most robust discussions to reach consensus on? Or perhaps from the alternate perspective, which were the easiest to identify?
I’ll start with the easiest: the benefits of inclusive language. The benefits are well documented both in published literature and anecdotally. Thinking about how language impacts others will create a welcoming space for everyone. It’s the act of changing your language to create this space that is difficult. And that brings us to the most difficult conversation about inclusive language: what words am I not allowed to say anymore? Obviously if we’re going to write guidelines about inclusive language, we need to be specific. Our team had to become amateur linguists as we debated alternatives for words that had been identified as harmful. But, as you may know, words in science and technology documentation sometimes have different connotations than in the general vernacular. I think a breakthrough moment was when we realized that our recommendations didn’t need to be finite, that since language is always evolving, we needed to make sure our staff and readers know that what we publish only reflects current understanding and may be updated in the future.
I understand that the paper was developed for NIST Staff and their use of inclusive language, but it’s been suggested that the paper would be equally useful for others in the standardization community. Was this something that NIST discussed and if yes, which groups may have been identified as potentially benefitting from incorporating the recommendations into their work?
Yes that is certainly the case! Our team did discuss that this may be a useful resource for other standards development organizations. Obviously, if an SDO has specific guidance on inclusive language, NIST staff are responsible for knowing and following that guidance. But, if a particular SDO doesn’t have a policy or guidelines, we are hoping NIST staff will use what we wrote to advocate for inclusive language. Specifically, IETF has advised their participants to use our guidance in all contributions. So in lieu of writing their own guidance, they’ve decided to adopt ours. That is very exciting, and something that I know the rest of my colleagues would encourage.
How can those groups gain a copy of the document and is there any additional education or perhaps a reference library they can use if they’d like to continue their research and work in this area?
The guidance is freely available online at https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.IR.8366. The guidance has an extensive bibliography that includes a wide range of resources if you want to continue research and work on inclusive language. But, I’ve found that best resource is starting conversations with your colleagues.
If other organizations would like to pursue similar initiatives, what guidance can you offer? Were there any lessons learned through this experience that you’d highlight?
The most helpful guidance I can offer is to listen. In this instance, there is no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen, to use a centuries old phrase that might alienate some people (see, it’s even hard to talk inclusively!)
Look, I know opening up comments on recommendations or guidelines related to DEI is daunting, but in this case, it was absolutely necessary. I recognize that we all feel ownership over the language we use, it is woven into our personalities and experiences, so any debate over language can feel personal. But, here is my perspective, I am a white female, and am going to approach any work with my own inherent biases, even if that bias is simply a lack of lived experience due to my background and privileges. We can’t have a conversation about language without considering as many perspectives and experiences as possible.
Looking to the future, does NIST have additional projects on this topic that they hope to work on?
Specifically with regards to inclusive language in standards activities, we will continue to review the conversations about this topic and may update recommendations as needed. In the DEI field, there are many projects at NIST, including our steering group for equity in career advancement. Recently, studies sponsored by this steering group were published as NIST Technical Series Publications, including reports by Mary Theofanos and Justyna Zwolak, whom I believed you spoke to recently as well.
If others would like to work with NIST on this issue or engage further, what recommendations do you have as to how they can connect with you or with NIST?
I would really like to continue researching and having conversations about inclusive language in scientific and technical research outputs. If you want to talk to our standards coordination office about how to implement inclusive language guidelines in a standards organization, you can contact them directly. If you want to discuss words or phrases that should be phased out of scholarly research, or suggest better alternatives to those terms we have already identified, you can contact me directly. I’ve already received a few email comments about our examples of terms to avoid, and am actively having conversations with my team about those.
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