Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Defined


Last week in a coaching call for our signature program, the Inclusive Manager’s Toolkit, one of the participants asked me to define diversity, inclusion, and equity. Until then, I had been rattling along assuming that we were all on the same page. After sharing some definitions, several other participants thanked me for the definitions and asked me to write them up. I realized that maybe more of us could benefit from definitions of these commonly used terms. So, below are my definitions. You or your organization (or Wikipedia) may define them differently. I hope these are helpful, though, to get you thinking about how you define these terms, how you see them in action in your workplace, and how you can continue to invest in your ongoing learning.

Diversity is the variety of ways in which people are described at individual levels and as affiliated with socially identifiable groups. There is diversity across groups, and often even more diversity within socially identifiable groups. Common ways to think about diversity are related to race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, religion, national origin, gender identity, etc. Each of us, though, can relate to all (and more) of these identities within ourselves. This is called intersectionality. Intersectionality is a term originally coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, noted scholar and activist, to describe the intersection of identities associated with being Black and a woman. This concept was, and continues to be, incredibly important when thinking about issues like politics, healthcare, and salary disparities, to name a few.

Within organizations, though, the focus on diversity has been less nuanced. Diversity efforts in many organizations have focused most heavily on representation. Various identities (or categories or targets) are listed out, each separate from the other, and “counted.” These “counts” translate into easy and quantifiable measures of “success.” Sometimes managers are given specific numeric goals that they are responsible for achieving. Achievement translates into a bonus if met, or penalties when not achieved. Numeric achievements are also often used to promote the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion by applying for awards or other forms of market recognition.

Inclusion is behavioral. Inclusion is the variety of choices that can be at individual, group, and organization-wide levels that encourage engagement, enforce safety, set expectations, and create a sense of shared belonging. Inclusion is not relegated to the human resources department. All of us are responsible for it and contribute to it. It is my belief, though, that people with more formal leadership roles in organizations carry greater expectations for modeling, teaching, and holding others accountable for inclusive behaviors. Inclusive behaviors do not have to be “in addition to” your “real work.” Inclusion can and should be evident in the most typical of workplace practices—managing meetings, giving feedback, coaching employees, onboarding, performance reviews, working with external partners and collaborators, and communicating change.

Equity refers to the acknowledgment of systems that have prevented people and groups from full access, and in many cases actively excluded them.

Equity shows up in at least two ways. The one that many of us are more familiar with is what I call Deficit Based Equity.

Deficit-Based Equity
Deficit based equity is based on an assumption, conscious or not, that certain individuals and/or groups are deficiently equipped to engage at the same standard as others. The deficit is typically associated with historic marginalization, legal and social exclusion, and bias. Targeted scholarship funds, mentoring programs, and even legal programs like affirmative action, were designed based on the deficit-based model.

Most major US-based organizations have had well-intention deficit-based efforts for years. Sustainability of these efforts is driven by values-rich leaders, compliance regulations, or legal enforcement. And organizations that are deemed top of industry are those who can identify quantifiable success, typically in the form of statistics referencing the rising number of “exceptional” people who have been promoted, are in executive roles or assumed board seats. Unfortunately, the most common deficit-based practices are expensive to resource, hard to make the course for overtime, and measurement is difficult. Most importantly, they aren’t solving the problem and the root cause.

A more contemporary model of equity focuses less on short-term identifiable wins in the form of individuals who have defeated the odds in spite of the system, but instead on the system itself. Equity in 2020 is about interrogating the systems that have been built over hundreds of years, and all of which have been informed by individual and collective bias. As values and the expression of cultural values change, the systems must be unraveled, reviewed, vetted against current understanding and interpretation, and revised—if not overhauled completely. For example, within the US, values about gender roles have shifted tremendously over time. Just within the past 5 years, let alone 25 or 50 years, the roles of women in the workplace, in politics, in boardrooms, and in society, has been drastically rewritten. However, many of the practices that have dictated hiring, workspace design, performance and promotion practices, and even workplace language, is woefully out of date. Such a distance has developed between current expectations and systems of practice that an explosion of activism outlining demands for transformation and extreme accountability are now commonplace across many industries, and even countries.

Our Work: Call to Action
Our contemporary times, with intense emphasis on equity, are taking a toll on a lot of people. We’re living through, and trying to effectively navigate, waters that are unfamiliar and, for many of us, quite different than what has been our practice to date. Here’s my best guidance, don’t give up and don’t abdicate responsibility. We are going through a cultural transition that will make us better and stronger in the future. What we will be in the future will not be the same as what we’ve been in the past, but it will be a progression in the direction of more fully living our shared values. In the middle of this cultural shift is the time to really commit to learning. Pay attention to what is happening. Listen to the variety of perspectives expressed and needs being communicated. Note that many of us are describing the same set of values but defining or prioritizing them differently. Find ways to start building your own sense of confidence and competence communicating about complex issues with people who are outside of your typical circle and on topics that are beyond your comfort zone.

Remember, there are a whole lot of us going through this together. If you ever need support on your learning journey, we’ve got your back. Just reach out, we’re right here with you.



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