How to Talk about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Words matter.

William James noted that when we lack a term for something, it’s difficult to engage with it. A label allows us to understand and interact with what it’s labeling.

For example, without a clear term or set of terms to define our Western culture, we often forget that we have one. Anthropologist Joe Heinrich created the acronym WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — to highlight our differences from the rest of the world.

Simply by acknowledging and defining a term, we can deepen collective understanding.

That’s why we need terms like diversity, equity, and inclusion. Otherwise, we take phenomena for granted, or fail to grasp what’s happening around us.

Defining Terms

Conversation and group conversation are both practices we can get better at.

In the case of diversity, equity, and inclusion, our first step is knowing our terms that make sure we’re talking about the same concepts.

But having the terms isn’t enough; we must develop shared meanings to achieve mutual understanding.

Diversity

At its most basic, diversity simply means variety.

In nature, biodiversity refers to the variability of organisms within an ecosystem. This general concept applies to work, too.

At work, diversity means the presence of difference within our contained environments.

We define this difference in several ways. For example, we may seek cognitive diversity (diversity of ideas), educational diversity, or demographic diversity. When we refer to diversity in corporate conversation today we often imply the latter, specifically in relation to the protected classes.

The protected classes are groups protected by law against discrimination. These groups include men and women based on sex, any group which shares a common race, religion, color, or national origin, people over 40, and people with physical or mental handicaps.

One point Meg Bolger makes in her work on the difference between diversity, inclusion, and equity is that diversity can only exist in relation to others. Specifically, an individual cannot be “diverse,” but a pool of candidates can be.

This is important because we often refer to “diverse individuals” as women and people of color, but technically, diversity in an all-female work environment would be low, not high. After all, high diversity simply means high variety.

Diversity is an outcome rather than a process. You can introduce more variety into a setting, and diversity will increase.

Inclusion

At its core, inclusion allows individuals with different identities to feel they belong within the group, usually because they are valued, relied upon, welcomed, and empowered. This may be on a team, in the general workplace, or in the industry.

Notably, individuals may experience high levels of inclusion on a team, but not in an industry and vice versa. This comes down to whether they are welcomed and feel they belong.

Like diversity, inclusion is an outcome. When employees report feeling accepted and included in the group, the group can be labeled inclusive.

There are certainly processes that must be put in place to achieve inclusion, but inclusion comes down to an actual experience of the workplace.

As Verna Myers highlights:

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Equity

I think of power as what happens when two people come together. There is nothing inherently wrong with power. In many ways its responsible for much of the positive change and progress in the world. But regardless of whether it’s used for good or bad, it’s a fact of human interaction.

Equity recognizes that when people come together in groups, power is unequally distributed. Some individuals have advantages while others have disadvantages.

In other words, we don’t all start from the same place.

Culturally, this is something we understand and discuss relative to socioeconomic status, demography, and marginalized groups. However, our focus on self-reliance and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps often competes with this understanding.

Equity, as a process, is the very intentional approach companies take to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities and that those starting from disadvantage are given the chance to grow, contribute, and develop.

Identity Contingencies

Coined by famed social psychologist Claude Steele, identity contingencies are the environmental cues that signal stereotypes attached to a given social identity.

Identity contingencies boil down to behavioral expectations set because you are deemed a “kind” of person. They form naturally, even in situations of minimal shared identity, due to the human impulse to categorize, as well as find both affinity and difference within social settings.

Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat is born from the concept of identity contingencies.

I often refer to it as the “what people could think” problem. Essentially, depending on the stereotypes assigned to major groups based on their social identities, members of those groups can feel threatened based on their associations with an unfavorable characteristic.

Women in math doctoral programs, for example, may feel threatened by the stereotype threat that “women are bad at math.”

The pressure of that stereotype causes these women to underperform because of the stress of failing to embody it and the mental energy spent thinking about what others may think as opposed to simply thinking about the work.

Stereotype threat has also been shown to have negative physiological impacts, like increased heart rate, blood pressure, and other physical symptoms of anxiety.

Critical Mass

Critical mass simply means the point at which there are enough representatives from an underrepresented group that they no longer feel uncomfortable because of their underrepresented social identity.

Once the answer to the question, “are there enough identity-mates around that we won’t be marginalized on the basis of that identity,” is “yes,” then critical mass is achieved.

Critical mass is one of the primary motivators behind diversity within workplace settings.

Transforming Words into Actions

“Our actions often determine our thoughts. Indeed, one of the most consistent and remarkable findings in the behavioral science literature over the past century is that people’s behavior is often more predictive of their attitudes than their attitudes are of their behavior.” — Lee Ross and Thomas Gilovich, The Wisest One in the Room

There is another term circulating in corporate culture circles: diversity fatigue.

As the conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion comes more and more to the foreground, companies and their employees become increasingly overwhelmed from participating in programs that often take a very long time and don’t show signs of working at the outset.

The secret to combatting diversity fatigue is simple. Start smaller.

Aggressive hiring programs, mandatory sensitivity trainings, and overwrought programming detract from successful outcomes.

At the end of the day, fostering a sense of belonging among individuals of all different cognitive styles, backgrounds, demographics, and more starts with trust.

Trust isn’t built through long-winded speeches on empowerment, a sudden 10-week program, or and an injection of two hundred more people of color. In fact, it’s hard to do those things well without trust. While all can be inherently valuable, they skip the most critical step.

Namely, trust comes through small, repeatable actions.

That’s why, as Alexandra Kalev, Drank Dobbin, Joan C. Williams, and David. A Thomas put it:

“Some of the most effective [diversity and inclusion] solutions aren’t even designed with diversity in mind.”

Once we align on what our terms mean, we must immediately transform them into actions.

What does that look like?

• If your company issues internal communications around the idea that “we empower women,” then make a rule in meetings that no one interrupts and everyone gets a turn to speak. Enforce the rule respectfully by praising those who follow it publicly and privately taking those who don’t aside to offer feedback.

• If one of your company values is “transparency,” make sure every employee is receiving the same stakeholder updates about the health of the company as opposed to just those who are part of certain social circles. Standardizing quarterly or even monthly updates everyone receives levels the playing field.

• If you say you want your environment to be “fun for everyone,” make sure the events you plan don’t favor certain groups over others. For example, baseball games and brewery tours may be fun for overrepresented groups but alienating to underrepresented ones. A communal dinner may be a better bet.

These are not huge changes, but they are the kind that add up, make people feel like they can trust their companies and their peers, and lay the foundation for more sustained dialogue and change around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Parting Words

Words are powerful. They are the containers that make difficult concepts communicable and shareable, the means by which we can understand one another.

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, words allow us to make progress towards better outcomes for everyone. We just have to recognize their limits.

We should be talking about our terms, making sure we know what they mean, and using them uniformly to enhance connection and mutual understanding. But once we do, it’s time to look at the easiest way to make words come to life in our actions regularly.

As Meister Eckhardt said, “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”