What Is the Difference Between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

How To Make DEI a Priority at Work

A manager using a wheelchair gives a presentation to colleagues at work.
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The racial and social justice movements that took shape worldwide in 2020 compelled companies across industries to place renewed emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). For example, hundreds of CEOs signed pledges to take “collective action” on workplace DEI matters, while several top-tier brands each poured in millions of dollars to advance their own DEI efforts.

Still, while DEI serves as a powerful term that has had a major impact on the workplace, it’s important to understand that each of its components stands on its own. Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, each element of DEI carries its own significant meaning. Below, we’ll dig deeper into each individual term and why DEI matters as a whole.

Key Takeaways

  • Diversity is about differences, equity is about providing equal access, and inclusion is about fostering a sense of value and empowerment in employees.
  • A substantial number of employees and job seekers consider a company’s diversity to be very important when applying.
  • Companies that have a diverse workforce tend to financially outperform those that don’t.
  • To prioritize DEI in the workplace, organizations should ensure fair hiring and promotion practices, implement ongoing training, form a diversity committee, and solicit consistent employee feedback.

Defining Diversity

Diversity refers to anything that sets one individual apart from another. It is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language,. (dis)ability, age, or political perspective.

Defining Equity

Equity is providing support based on specific needs, and is manifested in fair access, equal opportunity, resources, and an ability to thrive in an environment of respect and dignity.

Equity is often mistaken for equality, as exemplified in this analogy: Three kids are standing at a fence and they are all different heights. One kid can clearly see over the fence, another kid can barely see over, and the third kid can't see anything because they are short. That’s not equity.

In a phone interview with The Balance, Bernard Banks, associate dean for leadership development and inclusion, and a clinical professor of management at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said that in this case, equity is “giving each kid something to stand on based on their height so that they all could see the same thing.” He added, “The same thing could be said for an organization; are you giving people what is necessary to help put them in the best possible position?”

Defining Inclusion

There are typically three elements of inclusion, particularly in a work environment: belonging, respect, and support. Belonging is one’s perception of acceptance, respect is the extent to which someone feels they are being treated with civility, and support is the level at which one is provided the means to achieve their full potential. If any of these elements is missing, the workplace is not truly inclusive.

Inclusion is the act of building and maintaining a strong sense of belonging by actively inviting and valuing authentic contributions and fully empowering the participation of people.

 “It’s not enough just to be in the room,” said Banks. “Diversity is saying you are in the room and belonging is asking yourself, ‘Should I be in the room?’ But inclusion is saying, ‘I am not only in the room, I am at the table and my voice is valued.’ ”

Why Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Matter

The importance of DEI has not only been amplified within the C-suite, but among the workforce at large. In a recent CNBC/SurveyMonkey workforce survey, 78% of employees said it is important to them to work at an organization that prioritizes diversity and inclusion, with more than half of respondents adding that it is “very important.” Meanwhile, a 2020 Glassdoor survey found that nearly one-third of employees and job seekers would not apply for a job at a company where there is a lack of diversity among its workforce.

There is one likely reason for the lack of diversity, according to Banks, which is that too many organizations treat it as an afterthought instead of integrating it from the outset. “Diversity does not become a true priority until it's an integral part of the organization's strategy,” he said.

Making DEI a Priority in the Workplace

Studies have shown that companies with a diverse workforce can achieve more financial success than those without one. For instance, in its 2020 “Diversity wins” report, global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the bottom by 36% in profitability.

When companies embrace and emphasize DEI, employees not only feel a sense of belonging and empowerment, but can share diverse ideas to solve problems more efficiently and quickly.

“Bringing diverse perspectives to bear and integrating them into your problem-solving process can really yield better outcomes than when you have a group of people who all possess the same perspectives and backgrounds, trying to address that complex challenge,” said Banks.

To prioritize DEI in the workplace, organizations should:

  • Form a diversity committee to help develop standards and policies and ensure accountability
  • Implement ongoing training on issues such as unconscious bias for both employees and managers
  • Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair, and that you’re writing job descriptions without bias
  • Establish actionable, measurable goals in areas such as hiring and management performance
  • Solicit consistent feedback through surveys and one-on-one and team meetings