What’s the Difference Between Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity?

By

Diversity Equity Inclusion Distinction

The often-used terms diversity, equity, and inclusion have distinct meanings. Here’s why that matters, and how they work together.

Diversity. Inclusion. Equity. These words and the issues they point to loom large in tech. It’s hard to go a week without reading an article about a company touting its dedication to diversity, while another is called out for tolerating oppressive comments and workplace practices.

From 2014–2016, Google spent $265 million to increase its diversity numbers (to little avail), a number that has become even more well known after the company recently fired an employee who wrote a memo against diversity efforts. In a 2017 survey of tech employees, 72% reported that diversity and inclusion was important to their company. In another report, which surveyed over 700 startup founders, 45% of respondents reported that they talked about diversity and inclusion internally in the last year. The majority of participants in that survey believe that the tech industry’s employee makeup will be representative of the U.S. population in 2030, though that’s a far cry from where we are now.

With all this talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in tech, there is no better time to dig deep and establish shared, fundamental understandings of these terms and their meanings. In my work as a DEI facilitator working with tech companies and in many less formal conversations, I’ve found that there’s widespread confusion. People get tripped up not only on definitions, but on how to use these terms to create goals and action plans for themselves and their organizations. When we can’t get on the same page, we can’t take the next step. So let’s start at the beginning and create a shared understanding of DEI together.

Let’s begin with an exercise to examine our own understandings of these terms.

When I facilitate trainings exploring DEI subjects, I find it useful for my participants to start by sharing their own definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This may reveal to an individual that they don’t currently see a difference between them and may also reveal the significant differences in understanding between individuals on a team.

Try it yourself.

  1. Take out a piece of paper or open a blank document on your computer and jot down our three key words: diversity, inclusion, and equity. Now define them. Write buzzwords, bulleted definitions — whatever comes to mind.
  2. What do you notice? Are there clear differences between the terms? Overlap? Do you feel able to explain how they all relate?

The first time I did this exercise, I found it challenging. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are so often used interchangeably that the only difference seems to be which one is in fashion at any particular time. I’d spent so much time just thinking of them as “diversity = good” or “inclusion = good” that I didn’t know where to start on their definitions, let alone understand how they related to one another. Perhaps you found the questions similarly difficult.

Being able to pull apart these definitions is vital. When we can’t hold diversity, equity, and inclusion as separate concepts — and understand how they interact — we can’t set clear goals and strategies around them.

When I use this exercise in my unconscious bias training with tech companies, participants offer a wide variety of answers. Diversity is often perceived to be about perspective, representation, tough conversation, and supporting inclusion. Inclusion prompts answers about creating environments conducive to feedback, supporting diversity, and being open. Equity was described as fairness, sameness, and valuing diversity and inclusion. Redundancies and conflicting thoughts are everywhere and it’s hard at first to tell the definitions apart.

While this is completely normal, it’s also deeply problematic. If we aren’t clear on the words and ideas, how will we be clear on the solutions?

Let’s examine each term individually, and get on the same page about their meanings.

Diversity

Diversity is the presence of difference within a given setting. You can have, for example, a diversity of species within an ecosystem, a diversity of clothing brands in your closet, or a diversity of opinion or experiences.

None of this, however, is what I mean when I talk about “diversity” in tech. In that context, I’m referring to a diversity of identities, like race and gender (the current hot topics), and, in some cases ethnicity, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation. HR folks may think of these identities as protected classes — identities that have received (and still receive) systematic discriminatory treatment, and create advantages and barriers to opportunity and resources.

Let’s pause for a moment to talk about a phrase I see popping up all the time that I find troubling: “diverse candidate.” A team can be diverse and so can an organization — but a person? A person is not diverse, no matter how many norms or glass ceilings they shatter. No matter how outside of the norm I am, I am not a “diverse person.” Diversity is about a collective or a group and can only exist in relationship to others. A candidate is not diverse — they’re a unique, individual unit. They may bring diversity to your team or your hiring pool, but they in themselves are not diverse. They’re a woman; they’re a person of color; they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community; they have rad ombre hair.

Diversity is often used as a euphemism. People say, “We are working to diversify our upper management,” instead of, “We are working to ensure there are more women and people of color in our upper-management roles.” Stepping away from the euphemism requires us to get more specific and accurate in our goals, which can lead to more substantive and accurate conversations and strategies.

  1. Think for a moment about the diversity of your own team or organization. What is it like? Make some notes on that paper/document you’ve got going from the earlier exercise.
  2. Follow-up question: How would your feelings and reactions change if you were of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion than you are?
  3. To be a diverse organization simply means that you have the presence of differences of identity (e.g., gender and people of color) throughout your organization. However, an organization can be diverse without being inclusive. A company can be diverse without being equitable.

Inclusion

Inclusion is about folks with different identities feeling and/or being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting (e.g., your team, workplace, or industry). A past participant of mine shared with me the wise words of longtime DEI educator Verna Myers: “Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

You can have a diverse team of talent, but that doesn’t mean that everyone (particularly those with marginalized identities — women and people of color) feel welcome or are valued, given opportunities to grow, or developed by a mentor. The list goes on.

Inclusion is not a natural consequence of diversity. You can spend $265 million getting a diverse collection of people in the door and never change the environment they walk into.

Efforts to increase diversity involve questions like:

  • How can we get more “diverse” people into our pipeline?
  • How can we incentivize recruiting “diverse candidates”?
  • Why aren’t people of differing identities applying for our jobs??

A focus on inclusion asks different questions:

  • What is the experience for individuals who are the minority within the organization?
  • What barriers stand in the way of people with marginalized identities feeling a sense of welcome and belonging?
  • What don’t we realize we are doing that is negatively impacting our new, more diverse, teams?

How would you respond if someone asked you the following? “We know that tech can be a challenging place for people with marginalized identities. What is your company doing to change that? What efforts is your company making to ensure that women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and people of color (for example) feel included in the workplace?”

Equity

Equity is an approach that ensures everyone access to the same opportunities. Equity recognizes that advantages and barriers exist, and that, as a result, we all don’t all start from the same place. Equity is a process that begins by acknowledging that unequal starting place and continues to correct and address the imbalance.

The idea of “advantages and barriers” can often feel intangible, so here are a few real examples. A study of a hiring process found that candidates with “white-sounding names” (Greg and Emily) were 50% more likely to receive a call back than candidates with “African-American-sounding names” (Lakisha and Jamal). Another study asked faculty scientists to evaluate candidates’ competencies, whether they would mentor the candidate, and what they’d suggest as a starting salary. The study found that female candidates with resumes/criteria identical to male candidates were deemed less competent, less worthy of being hired, offered less career mentoring, and offered a lower starting salary. Woof.

If we look at these studies, an “advantage” may be having a white-sounding name or being read as male within an inequitable hiring process. Having an African-American-sounding name or being perceived as female would in turn confirm a “barrier” to the individual within an inequitable process. Equitable processes seek to identify these imbalances and then create processes where the disparate outcomes wouldn’t exist.

And these examples are just from the beginning of the hiring process. Think about the processes in your organization, from firing, promotions, team creation, and task assignment, to the smaller things like how you celebrate successes, run meetings, or make introductions. These can be intentionally created to be equitable, resulting in justice for all candidates, often in turn supporting diversity efforts. Or they may be inequitable, which can create unintended — and often unwanted — outcomes.

  • Diversity is an outcome: “Oh man, this company is really diverse!”
  • Inclusion is also an outcome: “We do frequent internal temperature checks, and as far as we know we have an inclusive and welcoming place for women and people of color here.”
  • Equity is not an outcome. Equity refers to the process a company consistently engages in to ensure that people with marginalized identities have the opportunity to grow, contribute, and develop — regardless of their identity.
  1. Think about a process (or processes) within your organization in which you are a key player, like hiring, promoting, or evaluating employees.
  2. Try to identify every touch point within that process where individual decision-making comes into play — every point where you’d want to be as intentional and conscious of your biases as possible.
  3. Can you identify your biases? Have you learned or sought out information you need to make that process more equitable?

Where do we go from here?

While we’ve carefully pulled diversity, equity, and inclusion apart, there is still much confusion and conflation of these words in our everyday conversations. By helping others and working through your own understanding of the differences, you can help bring further clarity to your conversations. This is especially important within the context of our organizations.

Continue to explore the interconnectedness and relationships between the three terms.

  1. How does equity support diversity and inclusion?
  2. For whom are you creating more inclusive environments?
  3. What (systematic) barriers exist that may limit or impede any diversity efforts you’re taking?

Keeping these terms separated and clarified helps me stay clear about the scope of my work and the goals of trainings I facilitate, like unconscious bias trainings. That training is, for me, about ensuring the tricks our brains play on us don’t interrupt the diversity efforts and equitable practices we are working to integrate. It’s about realizing that diversity efforts, without equitable practices and intentional inclusion, will always fall short.

For us as individuals that are part of larger companies and organizations, I hope separating these terms and becoming clearer about the language will help us engage in deeper and more meaningful conversations. That it will allow us to ask hard questions like:

  1. Why do we value diversity? Why is it part of our values?
  2. For whom are we creating more inclusive environments? How we will ensure that inclusion is real, that we walk our talk?
  3. What (systematic) barriers exist that may limit or impede any diversity efforts you’re taking? How can we approach this work using equity as our guiding principle, what changes would that require?

Perhaps most of all, I hope it moves us toward not only more DEI conversations, but more DEI initiatives and actions. That these conversations can bring us into deeper engagement with one another, with DEI, and with the values we want to see moving forward in our industry.

***

General Assembly strives to make the future of tech as vibrant as the world it inhabits through a global commitment to diversity and inclusion. We also help companies of all sizes foster diverse, inclusive, and equitable cultures with innovative hiring and onboarding solutions.

Leave a Reply