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  • Alexandra Barrera

Breaking Apart DEI: What Do These Terms Actually Mean?

DEI, which stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, refers to strategic initiatives that promote greater welfare in the workplace. But with so much emphasis on companies “ramping up diversity strategy” and promoting inclusion, it’s easy to lose the actual meaning behind these words.


After all, prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is a much more specific, targeted strategy than companies realize.


Breaking down each piece of DE&I will allow you to build that strategy from a solid foundation.


Let’s start with diversity.



What is Diversity?

Diversity is the presence of a wide range of identities and differences in a given setting. Differences might include racial and ethnic background, sexual orientation, physical ability, socioeconomic class, nationality, and religious or political affiliations.


However, this definitionthe presence of “difference”can be tricky. What is “diverse” for one organization may very well not be considered diverse for another organization, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Understanding diversity begins with acknowledging whose perspectives at your organization have been dominant, or the majority, and whose perspectives might be missing.


Diversity also isn't only about a group's composition. Remember that diversity has to do with organizations, not individual people. How the people in a given group interact with one another is what makes an organization diverse and welcoming. Often, diversity strategies fail because leaders forget about the second part. How do the individuals in your organization relate to the greater whole?


Furthermore, a diverse workplace celebrates differences. A major pitfall of hiring practices that focus on “increasing diversity” is assuming that the issue of diversity will be solved by simply hiring folks outside of a seemingly dominant group. This strategy doesn't make your workplace more equitable or inclusive for employees.


To celebrate differences, rather than simply acknowledging them, take a step back and critically think about how and why diverse perspectives can strengthen your organization. Honoring and celebrating differences can then become part of your company’s DNA.


Ways to think about diversity at your company might be:

  • Based on the internal makeup of our organization, whose perspectives are most often centered? Whose perspectives are missing?

  • What would our organization look like if we were to promote and celebrate greater differences across our employees?



What is Equity?

While diversity has to do with promoting differences within your organization, equity refers to policies, access, and opportunities for advancement. Equity cannot be separated from larger collective systems, including structural racism, privilege, and systemic bias.


Diversity vs. Equity

Imagine this scenario: An organization is made up of 99% women employees. In this case, a male new hire might be considered “diverse“ because they aren’t represented in the organization’s majority.


However, while a male new hire might be considered diverse to your organization, the number of women who hold high-ranking leadership positions is still far behind those held by men. If you take this one step further, women of color are even more likely to face discrimination, pay gaps, and lack of opportunities for advancement.


Equity doesn’t only consider your organization; equity takes into account the greater collective and society at large. If you’re trying to promote equity at your company, it’s critical to consider the other factors at play.


Equality vs. Equity

There’s a famous graphic often used to demonstrate the difference between equality and equity, which shows that equality operates under the assumption that everyone is starting from the same place. Having an equity (rather than equality) lens allows you to see that not everyone has been granted the same resources or opportunities.


This does not mean that certain people are less capable than others; the reality is that structural racism, discrimination, bias, and privilege have created an imbalance in opportunities and advancement.


Promoting equity means creating processes that level the playing field so that opportunities are present for all.


Here are questions to consider:

  • Are there any current imbalances at play in our organization? If we had to make a list of blind spots, what would they be?

  • How does our organization set up procedures for hiring and internal advancement? Are these procedures fair and impartial?

  • Do these processes take differences in historical access to resources and opportunities into account?



What is Inclusion?

Inclusion means that people feel socially accepted, valued, and respected. While diversity is the presence of many backgrounds and differences, inclusion is an effort to make people feel like they are welcome regardless of those differences. Therefore, inclusion has to do with how people feel, not simply how your organization looks on paper.


For example, as part of your diversity strategy, you might focus on hiring more people from underrepresented backgrounds. But when those people are onboarded into your company, are there opportunities for those employees to speak up, make decisions, and feel like they belong?


Implementing a genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy requires considering how these three elements work together.


Here are some questions you might consider:

  • How does the experience of working at your organization differ for people of various identities?

  • What efforts does your leadership team make to ensure every employee feels welcome?

  • What barriers or blind spots have you not considered when it comes to creating an inclusive culture for employees?



Promoting DE&I in the workplace takes a lot of effort and understanding. However, by taking the time to envision how each piece of your DE&I strategy fits into the greater whole, your initiatives are likely to be more sustainable in the long run.


When your organization is ready to jump into DE&I work, don’t forget to check out our blog post on critical steps to take first.


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