Diversity. Inclusion. Equity.

These words and the issues they point to loom large in the business and development world. It’s hard to go a week without reading an article about a company promoting its dedication to diversity, while another is called out for tolerating oppressive comments and workplace practices, or an organization that is trying to improve the above concepts through various interventions in the non-profit sector.

Being able to pull apart these definitions is vital. When we can’t hold diversity, equity, and inclusion as separate concepts  and understand how they interact, we can’t set clear goals and strategies around them.


Diversity is the presence of difference within a given setting. You can have, for example, a diversity of species within an ecosystem, a diversity of clothing brands in your closet, or a diversity of opinion or experiences.

None of this, however, is what I mean when I talk about “diversity” in business. In that diversity context, I’m referring to a diversity of identities, like race and gender (the current hot topics), and, in some cases ethnicity, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation. HR folks may think of these identities as protected classes  —  identities that have received (and still receive) systematic discriminatory treatment, and create advantages and barriers to opportunity and resources.

Diversity is an outcome: “Oh man, this company is really diverse!”


Inclusion is about people with different identities feeling and/or being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting (e.g., your team, workplace, or industry). Referring to the wise words of longtime DEI educator Verna Myers: “Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

You can have a diverse team of talented people, but that doesn’t mean that everyone (particularly those with marginalized identities  —  mainly women and people of color) feels welcome or are valued, is given opportunities to grow, or gets career support from a mentor or a manager in a higher professional position.

Inclusion is not a natural consequence of diversity. You can spend $265 million (same as Google did) getting a diverse community of people in the door and never change the environment they walk into.

Inclusion is also an outcome: “We do frequent internal temperature checks, and as far as we know we have an inclusive and welcoming place for women and people of color here.”


Equity is an approach that ensures everyone accesses to the same opportunities. Equity recognizes that advantages and barriers exist, and that, as a result, we all don’t all start from the same place. Equity is a process that begins by acknowledging that unequal starting place and makes a commitment to correct and address the imbalance.

The idea of “advantages and barriers” can often feel intangible, so here are a few real examples. A study of a hiring process found that candidates with “white-sounding names” (Greg and Emily) were 50% more likely to receive a call back than candidates with “African-American-sounding names” (Lakisha and Jamal). Another study asked faculty scientists to evaluate candidates’ competencies, whether they would mentor the candidate, and what they’d suggest as a starting salary. The study found that female candidates with resumes and criteria identical to male candidates were deemed less competent, less worthy of being hired, offered less career mentoring, and offered a lower starting salary. Woof.

Equity is not an outcome. Equity refers to the process a company consistently engages in to ensure that people with marginalized identities have the opportunity to grow, contribute, and develop  —  regardless of their identity.

Post originally appeared on General Assembly


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