In my profession, I hear diversity and inclusion coupled together, and frequently interchanged with each other. They are not the same. Perhaps more egregious is leaving out equity, which is necessary to change systemic and institutionalized disparities within organizations.
Simply put, diversity is the presence and representation of difference related to identity in an organization or group. We usually think about diversity as a visual distinction, but many identities that are not visible add uniqueness to our perspectives and world experiences, including but not limited to: gender, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic class, age or generation, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness or accessibility, caregiver and/or family status, veteran status, national origin and/or citizenship status, neurodiversity, languages spoken, education level, religion, marital status, cultural affiliations, learning style, and any combination thereof.
Diversity is about representation and identity factors. Some of those identities may be inherent, and we can’t change them about ourselves or others. Other identities, like being a veteran, result from choices we make, and others, such as an adult-onset disability, are imposed upon us.
Equity is ensuring fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of historically underrepresented groups in the public sphere. Equity is about removing barriers to ensure underrepresented groups experience fair treatment.
A very common example of this comes in wheelchair ramps for people who don’t have full mobility so that they have equal access to public spaces, but perhaps less obvious is how names on resumes that are multicultural don’t receive as many callbacks for interviews as European-sounding names do. That’s a barrier which must be removed to ensure that people with multicultural names are being judged by their skills and not their ancestry.
Inclusion is the act of creating environments and cultures of belonging in which any individual or group with different identities can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. Inclusion is about interpersonal relationships.
You may have heard this saying before:
Employees don’t leave organizations so much as they leave managers.
That is a direct result of the quality of interpersonal relationships that people experience in the workplace.
The important point to remember is that equity and inclusion are processes. When those processes are executed with intention, diversity is the outcome.
If a company has not been intentional with its culture, then it tends to be a culture of assimilation. When the culture is one of assimilation, people coming to that workplace are expected to adjust themselves to fit the dominant culture — whatever that dominant culture is. And if you don’t fit in, that’s where exclusion occurs. An organization with an assimilationist culture upholds the lowest bar, legal compliance. Many organizations are content to stay here.
To shift that culture, however, the next stage an organization enters is tolerance. This is when a degree of symbolic diversity has emerged. These organizations tend to have diversity champions that push for more diversity; there are pockets of inclusion and pockets of exclusion. This is where the focus needs to be on team-building and building that inclusion muscle.
This stage is very chaotic and is where most organizations give up. It’s hard to bring about a shift in culture, especially because people fear what they will lose in the change and may not have the vision to anticipate what they will gain with an inclusive and equitable culture.
Once the shift toward inclusion starts happening, people begin to question whether policies, programs, even benefits, are equitable. Equity may be difficult to parse since our biases are ingrained and, despite unconscious bias training, people don’t change their behaviors or don’t recognize how their biases have shaped their behaviors. Employees are more engaged when they see the processes around evaluation, compensation, and promotion as fair and transparent because they’ve been made equitable for everyone.
Once the organization is moving toward a more inclusive environment that welcomes all perspectives and values difference and has dismantled the barriers to equity, these qualities ripple outward. At this stage, when an organization earns a reputation through its employees as being a great place to work because it is inclusive and equitable, it attracts diversity.
Diversity is a fact in our society. It is time for diversity to become a fact in our organizations, as well. Inclusion and equity, practiced with intention, lead to diversity.