Reputation Management
Back To Trending

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion: Different Words, Different Meanings

Few things are more fundamental to our human experience than the language we use for expression and learning. And as businesses, school systems and organizations seek to embrace the work of diversity, equity and inclusion, language is — once again — fundamental. Even those three words deserve a deeper dive.

Often, these terms are grouped as a collective. They’re even stuck together in the little three-letter acronym DEI that’s fast become a buzzword for leaders who risk seeing DEI as a checklist item, instead of advancing meaningful change. Each of the three words has a different and distinct meaning. Defining DEI provides the insight and understanding to create meaningful DEI goals for positive and lasting change in your organization.

What Do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mean?

Author Meg Bolger, in the General Assembly Blog, challenges readers to consider what the three words — diversity, equity and inclusion — actually mean. How would you define each, without using the root word? If you’re curious about defining DEI, a Google search tells us (rather unhelpfully) that diversity is “the state of being diverse; variety.”

Bolger’s definition of diversity, “the presence of difference within a given setting,” leaves us asking whether diversity is a high enough bar for any company value statement. After all, there are differences between every individual. The term diverse simply describes that individuals in a group are different from one another. Certainly, we can do better.

Words matter. A naive hiring manager might say, “I have a diverse candidate.” But a person is not diverse. Organizations can be diverse, but diverse does not describe singular individuals.

If your organization seeks a diversity of backgrounds, ideas and thoughts, it’s also critical to consider expectations, onboarding and company culture. How might you elevate, represent and leverage the richness of different lived experiences and points of view on your team? Do you encourage diversity of speech, appearance, action and thinking? Or do you expect people to learn to “fit in.”

U.S. Bank’s Chief DEI Officer Greg Cunningham notes, “So many organizations hire for diversity but manage to assimilation, and that is a fundamental problem.” 

In his book The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, Scott Page offers practical evidence. His research into innovative teams found, diversity can produce bonuses. “I mean one plus a different one making three. These bonuses do not arise by magic. They come about when people with diverse cognitive repertoires work inclusively on complex tasks….creating inclusive, diverse teams and workforces is the sensible and innovative thing to do.” And when done well, diversity will produce better team performance. But it doesn’t happen by accident. It requires thoughtful hiring practices and a creation of a culture that “enables meaningful, organic interactions between people with different life experiences, educational backgrounds, and identities”—the definition of diversity and inclusion.

Inclusion Is a Better Goal

An inclusive team embraces diversity to create a belonging and add value. Bolger points out that “inclusion is not a natural consequence of diversity.” Getting people of different backgrounds and perspectives through the door is the first step. Creating a welcoming environment where your customers and employees feel seen, heard and valued is the effort of inclusion.

Bolger contrasts the distinction between diversity efforts and inclusion efforts in the questions that are often asked by leaders and managers. Diversity work tends to revolve around the number of Black, Indigenous and people of color in the recruiting pipeline or learning more about why people of differing identities aren’t applying for jobs.

diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance verna myers

A focus on inclusion will prioritize the experience for employees who are minoritized — race, culture, gender, disability or sexual orientation — within the organization. This requires leaders to get curious about how employees experience the workplace, how they perceive their own opportunities for advancement and senior leadership roles, and what barriers are preventing a sense of welcome and belonging.

Leaders have a tremendous opportunity to recruit and hire a diverse talent pool — and a moral obligation to create a culture that welcomes every employee to bring their “whole-self” to their team, workplace or industry. Welcoming means inviting opinions that are different from yours, encouraging participation in meetings and seeking out contributions of different ideas and thoughts. Put simply, a welcoming leader asks employees about their experience, finds out what support they need and actively explores how to advance their ideas and contributions.

While defining our CEL values , we walked it a little farther to “seeking to live and experience difference, without judgment.” Given the divisive nature of our society today, our team was intentional to include without judgment in our approach. We seek to work with diverse clients and industries and remain intentional about openness to learning about and embracing difference, cultures, and experience.

Equity is The [Essential] Long Game

If diversity is a description of a group and inclusion describes a group that is valued and engaged at work, equity is a systems-level approach that organizations use to give every employee access to opportunities. Bolger writes, “Equity is giving people the support they need to succeed.”

A true equity goal is rooted in strengths-based leadership that acknowledges every employee has a different set of advantages and barriers outside of their control that affect their career and advancement opportunities. For example, Bolger writes that studies have found that job candidates with “white sounding names,” such as Greg and Emily, were 50% more likely to receive a call back than candidates with “African-American-sounding names,” such as Lakisha and Jamal. In another example, women with resumes and criteria that matched male candidates were deemed less competent, less deserving of a job, offered less career mentoring and offered a lower starting salary.

The most important first step in equity work comes with getting curious about such advantages that exist for some people — and become barriers for others. From there, leaders can begin to examine how systems and processes affect individuals and target areas for improvement.

When organizations and their leaders begin to unpack bias and get curious about employee experience, the gains benefit all. And when a diverse team of talented employees is engaged, their skills and perspectives can be leveraged most completely to serve your customers, clients and community. And as Page reminds us, diversity bonuses matter in a knowledge economy. As challenges become more complex, the more diverse perspectives are required to find innovative solutions. Diversity, inclusion and equity matter.

Published on: September 1, 2021