What is Diversity Equity and Inclusion in the workplace?

Ruby Dark

Mar 21, 2024

Diversity, equity and inclusion are big topics. When we shrink them down into acronyms (such as DEI, D&I, EDI), we lose sight of what each term means. This guide explores the definitions of each term.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (typically referred to as DEI or EDI) are the foundations of every fair workplace. Embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in your business will mean that people face fair treatment and receive equal opportunities, no matter their background.

Before we start improving DEI, we need to understand what the concept means. So let’s break it down.

What is equity?

Equity is all about systems. It’s the foundation that upholds inclusion and diversity. Some DEI strategies focus on changing individual behaviour through one-off training sessions or focusing on corporate governance. But the research shows that this isn’t effective.

Rather than focusing on the actions of individuals, equity means building processes of fairness. Without these systems in place, people can too easily slip through the cracks. Your organisation needs fair and transparent processes that anchor everything you do.

Let’s take pay as an example. If you rely on manager discretion to allocate raises and bonuses, employees may not know what goes into these decisions. And managers might favour certain employees because of closeness, or because they “fit the mould”. If you have objective and transparent pay structures to guide manager decisions instead, then every employee faces fair treatment.

Once you have procedures and policies that limit bias, you can welcome diversity and encourage inclusion. These structures guarantee that everyone gets access to the same opportunities, no matter their background. Equity is all about closing gaps and giving people the tools they need to succeed.

What is diversity?

Diversity is all about the mix of people. Typically, people think of diversity as what you see — gender, ethnicity or age. But true diversity encompasses invisible characteristics too, such as religion, sexuality, disability, parental status and neurodiversity.

Diversity isn’t only about physical characteristics, diversity in thought (or cognitive diversity) is also important. Everybody brings their unique expertise, experience and knowledge to the table. When your team is diverse, you have more cognitive diversity.

Diverse teams can lean on each other’s expertise. On the other hand, when your team has low diversity, you’re more likely to have blind spots. If people come from a similar background, they’re likely to approach things in a similar way. But if your team comes from all walks of life, then they’ll consider problems from multiple perspectives.

There’s plenty of research to show that diverse teams can reach more creative solutions. Diversity is the key to innovation.

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is all about behaviours. While diversity is all about the mix of people, inclusion ensures that their diversity is welcomed and valued.

In inclusive organisations, people feel part of the team and treat others with respect. It’s not just about feeling part of the whole, but about feeling empowered to let your distinctive colours shine. That means people don’t feel like they have to hide aspects of their personality, sexuality, ethnicity or anything else. They are welcomed and accepted for who they are.

You can think of diversity, equity and inclusion as three complimentary pillars holding each other up. If one falls, the others fall too. Without systems for equity, people can be shut out of opportunities if they don’t fit the mould. Without an inclusive environment, diverse teams can spiral into conflict. And without diversity, teams get trapped in a bubble full of blind spots.

With systems for equity that support diversity and inclusion, everyone in your organisation benefits.

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Backing it up

Creary, S. J., Rothbard, N., & Scruggs, J. (2021). Improving workplace culture through evidence-based diversity, equity and inclusion practices. The Wharton School

Hewlett, S. A., Marshall, M., & Sherbin, L. (2013). How diversity can drive innovation. Harvard business review91(12), 30-30.

Levine, S. R. (2020). Diversity confirmed to boost innovation and financial results. Forbes Magazine.