Defining DEI: What Are Some Key Terms I Should Know? Part 1

By: Angie (Min Ah) Park

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has become one of the hottest topics of organizational strategy and leadership in recent years. 

According to the HBR article, “11 Trends that Will Shape Work in 2022 and Beyond,” the frequency with which CEOs talk about issues of equity, fairness, and inclusion on S&P 500 earnings calls has increased by 658% since 2018. Fortune magazine suggests that a growing number of investors are interested in backing companies with strong diversity, equity, and inclusion track records.

Why Are Leaders Talking About DEI?

There are several reasons why DEI has become a top-of-mind concern for organizations, particularly since 2020. The Black Lives Matter protests that shook the world following the murder of George Floyd by police officers served as a stark reminder for organizations to correct longstanding issues of bias, unfairness, and discrimination and to build a culture of allyship.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic highlighted and exacerbated many social inequalities from disproportionate access to safe and sustainable workplace environments to an unfair load of childcare responsibilities falling on women. The transition to work-from-home cultures has also jumbled the traditional borders between work and personal life and necessitated a different set of leadership approaches to keep employees safe, respected, and engaged.

At the same time, DEI is not only a phenomenon of the 21st century. Many researchers point out that Diversity Training and calls for “Corporate Social Responsibility” (including the need to hire equitably) began as early as the 1970s. Over time, the demands and knowledge about DEI has steadily evolved, growing exponentially over the last two decades. 

Today, the goals of DEI include promoting a diverse workforce, increasing fairness in organizations, and ensuring that all employees feel valued and supported.

As the floodgates of DEI conversations have opened online and among your colleagues, you might be wondering: How do we define DEI, and what are some key terms that I should know?

Over this 2-part series, we will explore the answers to these questions. This first part will start by taking the terms–Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion–one by one and differentiating what they each mean. We will also discuss why the three terms go hand in hand to generate the benefits of DEI. 

The second part will then introduce some key concepts that are essential to understanding the importance of DEI. This discussion will address terms like “intersectionality,” “allyship,” “privilege,” and “microaggressions” to build on our learning from this week. Stay tuned!


Let’s begin: What is the difference between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

This is a question that comes up a lot. It is also a great first step to analyzing how DEI works to generate its impact.


Diversity refers to our differences, which can include our age, gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, as well as physical and mental abilities. Organizational diversity is measurableyour organization is either diverse or it’s not. (Note here that the term “diverse” is used to describe groups of people rather than an individual. For example, an individual person is not “diverse” because they belong to an equity-seeking group.)

Diversity fosters growth within organizations by bringing new and different ideas to the table and increasing the awareness of growingly diverse clients and markets, especially in today’s age of globalization. 

Let’s pause for a moment for some self-reflection. I invite you to write down your thoughts on a piece of paper or a Word document.

Ask yourself: how diverse is your organization overall? What perspectives are missing and at what level(s) of the organization? (ex. Mid- or senior- management, executive level, or across departments) Why are they missing, and how can the organization grow its diversity at its respective levels?


Next, we have equity. This in general means treating everyone fairly by identifying and eliminating barriers that stand in the way of achieving fairness. 

For organizations, striving for equity means reevaluating organizational structures and policies to ensure that certain employees are not being treated unfairly for their traits of diversity as well as reallocating internal distributions of power and resources to motivate the growth and full participation of all employees.

Think of equity as the backbone of diversity. Diversity cannot survive or be beneficial without equitable measures to make sure that all employees feel supported and respected. Diversity is hardly sustainable in organizations where fair treatment is dependent on certain limited characteristics of individuals, and this can leave employees that don’t fit the mold feeling marginalized and excluded.

Additionally, it’s important to notice that equity is not the same as equality. While equality simply means treating all people equally, striving for equity entails paying attention to the factors that make certain employees particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable and therefore do not allow them access to the same resources, opportunities, and starting lines as others. These disadvantages can be based on their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, and so on.

Here are some self-reflection questions for thinking about equity: how do your organization’s current policies and processes ensure that all employees are treated fairly? (Ex. hiring processes, benefits, promotion decisions) What changes need to be made to ensure that growth opportunities and resources are distributed equitably across the organization? (i.e. across management levels or departments)


Finally, inclusion is the glue that holds together diversity and equity and allows diversity to flourish. 

Inclusion means that all employees feel seen, heard, respected, and considered regardless of, or perhaps because of, their unique dimensions of diversity. Inclusion goes hand in hand with belonging, which indicates that everyone feels like they are a full member of the organization and can therefore thrive and succeed in its culture.

Inclusion is less obviously measurable and requires consistent and intentional practices to build. At the same time, as McKinsey & Company’s research shows, inclusion is strongly linked with employee engagement and contributes positively to organizations’ performance and talent retention.

Think about the level of inclusion at your current organizationdo all members of your team or department feel included in discussions and/or decision-making? If the answer is no, what are the barriers to inclusion? What are some immediate and long-term solutions to eliminate such barriers? 

We’ll pause here this week. Congratulations on getting through the first steps to defining DEI! I encourage you to convert your answers to the self-reflection questions above into your very own Calls to Action.

In the next part, we will explore some more essential concepts to understand and participate in DEI conversations. In the meantime, if you are interested to learn more, discover The Humphrey Group’s comprehensive learning experiences on DEI.