These days, there is a growing emphasis on DEI in schools and organizations around the world, and for good reason. Diversity, equity, and inclusion – which, together, form the term DEI – are each important components of an organization’s or institution’s strategic efforts to promote diverse stakeholders’ viewpoints throughout its structure. Research has shown that such efforts pay off, quite literally: DEI initiatives improve financial outcomes, organizational and team performance, innovation, and other measures of progress. And on a more human level, ensuring that DEI has a place in your organization or at your school means that you’re tuned in. You’re listening. You’re aware that inequality and injustice exist. And you’re responding with actionable change.
You may have heard people use the words diversity, equity, and inclusion before. You may have even heard people use these three words interchangeably, as though they all mean the same thing – but they don’t. You may be familiar with these terms, or they may be entirely new to you.
What you should know is this: DEI is a term used to describe policies and programs that promote representation and participation of different groups of individuals, including people of different ages, genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, abilities and disabilities, religions, and cultures. This includes people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, skills, and expertise.
Let’s break down each term – D (diversity), E (equity), and I (inclusion) – and learn more about each one.
What is diversity?
Diversity is the multitude of characteristics that make up each person, including all of the characteristics that make him or her different from another person or group. Diversity cannot and does not exist in a homogenous society.
Gender and/or gender identity
Ability or disability
Political viewpoints or status
Diversity does not only refer to all aspects of human distinctions, social identities, and social group differences; diversity also recognizes the presence of differences. In other words, diversity acknowledges that we, as humans, are different from one another and that we are able to recognize that.
Equity and inclusion work hand-in-hand with diversity to encourage us to accept and even embrace our differences, own them, and find common ground with one another.
What is equity?
Equity is ensuring the fair treatment, access, equality of opportunity, and advancement for everyone – while also attempting to identify and remove barriers that have prevented marginalized groups from fully participating in the past. Equity is about promoting justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.
And, in case you were wondering: equity is not the same thing as equality. In fact, equity is quite different. Equality implies treating everyone as if their experiences are exactly the same, whereas being equitable means acknowledging and addressing the historical and current structural inequalities that advantage some and disadvantage others. Equal treatment results in equity only if everyone starts with equal access to opportunity.
Tackling equity issues usually requires a thorough understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society. Outcome disparities exist when some, typically the most powerful, groups attain predictably greater degrees of success in life than other, often underrepresented, groups. By focusing on DEI initiatives, organizations and institutions can tackle problems like outcome disparities and other equity issues. The goal is to advance positive outcomes, such as inclusion, for all people.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion is when people with identity differences are represented and feel valued and welcomed within their organization, school, workplace, or other setting. Inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution, and/or your program are truly inviting to all.
Inclusion builds a culture where everyone feels welcome by actively inviting every person or every group to contribute and participate. This inclusive and welcoming environment supports and embraces differences and offers respect to everyone, in both words and actions.
Why are diversity, equity, and inclusion important?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important because they help to build a fair society that allows all people equal opportunity. DEI is an ethos that recognizes the value of diverse voices and considers inclusivity to be a central measure of success. DEI is grounded in the belief that everyone inherently has something of value to contribute, and as such, society has a responsibility to address barriers and historical factors that have caused unfair outcomes for underrepresented groups.
When implemented correctly, DEI can create meaningful change in spite of the history of injustice that has marginalized specific groups within our communities, schools, workplaces, and places of worship. DEI initiatives can bring people together and make organizations stronger. And DEI keeps a check on the degree to which diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within a group.
How can I support DEI initiatives?
There are many ways you can support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Here are a few:
Have meaningful conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The lack of meaningful conversations contributes to the unproductive relationships that can sometimes develop when people with differences coexist and interact. To create true change, people at every organizational level within an institution need to be able to have effective conversations.
Foster direct conversations about DEI to break down silos and communication barriers. Teach leaders of all levels and roles how to listen for understanding and to guide their teams. In the end, better culture starts with better conversations. By improving the quality of your daily chatter, you’ll develop a culture of increased awareness, openness, respect for differences, and real understanding – which will fuel better collaboration and more innovation.
Make connections around differences.
Often due to unconscious bias or systems of power, people who are different from us may initially cause feelings of unfamiliarity, which we can unconsciously translate into unease or dislike or fear. Actively work to engage yourself in the process of connecting with others who are different from you. You may find that not only is the person more similar to you than you first assumed, but that you also can enjoy and appreciate his or her different perspective. You may even learn something new about yourself or the world around you.
Audit your beliefs, norms, systems, and/or practices.
Doing a DEI audit of your beliefs, norms, systems, and/or practices causes intense self-reflection and can be a lever for immense change. Evaluate the practices and policies that create the structures for how your organization or institution is run – and look for ways that bias creeps in. For instance, people who are dissimilar to their manager or to the organization’s dominant leader may not have equitable access to the leaders who can steer them toward valuable experiences and support them through inevitable challenges. As a result, they may not be realizing their potential.
Organizations and institutions can counter this bias by implementing a coaching culture and by developing the coaching skills of their employees. By creating a network of DEI champions, groups will enable the development, contributions, and growth of all members.
What is most important to realize about DEI work is that it is ongoing. It never stops. It requires consistent attention and reflection, as well as commitment and dedication. However, it is all well worth the effort as we seek to build a better future. If we, collectively, continue to do this difficult work, we will be making our world a more harmonious and equitable place for generations to come.
3rd Millennium’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion online training course is a great way to start meaningful conversations. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion covers topics such as bias, identity, power, and privilege. The course encourages self-reflection and evaluation so that each of us can become more aware of personal biases and how these issues impact relationships.