In DEI Resources On

Diversity Equity Inclusion Distinction

By Meg Bolger
For General Assembly Blog

Diversity. Inclusion. Equity. DEI. These words and the issues they point to loom large in tech. It’s hard to go a week without reading an article about a company touting its dedication to diversity while another is called out for tolerating oppressive comments and workplace practices.

From 2014–2016, Google spent $265 million to increase its diversity numbers (to little avail), which has become even more well known after the company recently fired an employee who wrote a memo against diversity efforts. In a 2017 survey of tech employees, 72% reported that diversity and inclusion were important to their company. In another report, which surveyed over 700 startup founders, 45% of respondents reported that they talked about diversity and inclusion internally in the last year. The majority of participants in that survey believe that the tech industry’s employee makeup will be representative of the U.S. population in 2030, though that’s a far cry from where we are now.

With all this talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in tech, there is no better time to dig deep and establish shared, fundamental understandings of these terms and their meanings. In my work as a DEI facilitator working with tech companies and in many less formal conversations, I’ve found that there’s widespread confusion. People get tripped up not only on definitions regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also on using these terms to create goals and action plans for themselves and their organizational culture. When we can’t get on the same page, we can’t take the next step. So let’s take initiative and start at the beginning to create a shared understanding of DEI together.

Let’s begin with an exercise to examine our own understandings of these terms.

When I facilitate training exploring DEI subjects, I find it useful for my participants to start by sharing their own definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This may reveal to an individual that they don’t currently see a difference between them and may also reveal the significant differences in understanding between individuals on a team. Understanding these differences is essential to establishing mutual respect among everyone in your community and creating an inclusive environment for all your staff members.

Try it yourself.

  1. Take out a piece of paper or open a blank document on your computer and jot down our three keywords: diversity, inclusion, and equity. Now define them. Write buzzwords, bulleted definitions,  or whatever comes to mind.
  2. What do you notice? Are there clear differences between the terms? Is there overlap? Do you feel able to explain how they all relate?

The first time I did this exercise, I found it challenging. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are used interchangeably, so the only difference seems to be which one is in fashion at any particular time. I’d spent so much time just thinking of them as “diversity = good” or “inclusion = good” that I didn’t know where to start on their definitions, let alone understand how they related to one another. Perhaps you found the questions similarly difficult.

Being able to pull apart these definitions is vital for an inclusive community. 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.

When I use this exercise in my unconscious bias training with tech companies, participants offer a wide variety of answers. Diversity is often perceived to be about perspective, representation, tough conversation, and supporting inclusion. Inclusion prompts answers about creating environments conducive to feedback, supporting diversity, and being open. Equity was described as fairness, sameness, and valuing diversity and inclusion. Redundancies and conflicting thoughts are everywhere and it’s hard at first to tell the definitions apart.

While this is completely normal, it’s also deeply problematic. If we aren’t clear on the words and ideas, how will we be clear on the solutions?

Let’s examine each term individually and get on the same page about the different meanings.


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 tech. In that context, I’m referring to a diversity of identities, like race and gender identity (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 often used as a euphemism. People say, “We are working to diversify our upper management,” instead of, “We are working to ensure there are more women and people of color in our upper-management roles.” Stepping away from the euphemism requires us to get more specific and accurate in our goals, which can lead to more substantive and accurate conversations and strategies.

  1. Think for a moment about the diversity of your own team or workers in your organization. How do you feel? Make some notes on that paper or document from the earlier exercise.
  2. Follow-up question: How would your feelings and reactions change if you were of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion than you are?
  3. To be a diverse organization simply means that you have the presence of differences of identity (e.g., gender and people of color) throughout your organization. However, an organization can be diverse without being inclusive. A company can be a diverse workforce without being equitable.


Inclusion is about folks with different identities feeling and/or being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting (e.g., your team, workplace, or industry). A past participant of mine shared with me 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 talent, but that doesn’t mean that everyone (particularly those with marginalized identities  —  women and people of color) feels welcome or valued, is given opportunities to grow, or gets career support from a mentor, etc.

What is the D&I meaning? Inclusion is not a natural consequence of diversity. For example, you can spend $265 million getting a diverse community of people in the door and never change the environment they walk into.

Efforts to increase diversity involve questions like:

  • How can we get more “diverse” people into our pipeline?
  • How can we incentivize recruiting “diverse candidates?”
  • Why aren’t people of differing identities applying for our jobs?

A focus on inclusivity asks different questions:

  • What is the experience for individuals who are the minority within the organization?
  • What barriers stand in the way of people with marginalized identities feeling a sense of welcome and belonging?
  • What don’t we realize we are doing that is negatively impacting our new, more diverse teams?

How would you respond if someone asked you the following questions? “We know that tech can be a challenging place for people with marginalized identities. What is your company doing to change to an inclusive culture? What efforts is your company making to ensure that women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and people of color (for example) feel included in the workplace?”


Equity is an approach that ensures everyone has access to the same opportunities. Equity recognizes that advantages and barriers exist and that, as a result, we all don’t start from the same place; we all come from diverse backgrounds. 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 the 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.

If we look at these studies, an “advantage” may be having a white-sounding name or being read as male within an inequitable hiring process. Having an African-American-sounding name or being perceived as female would, in turn, confirm a “barrier” to the individual within an inequitable process. Equitable processes seek to identify these imbalances and then create processes where the disparate outcomes wouldn’t exist.

And these examples are just from the beginning of the hiring process. Think about the processes in your organization — from firing, promotions, team creation, and task assignment — to the smaller things like how you celebrate successes, run meetings, or make introductions. These can be intentionally created to be equitable, resulting in justice for all candidates, often in turn supporting diversity efforts. Or, they may be inequitable, which can create unintended ,  and often unwanted   outcomes.

  • Diversity is an outcome: “Oh man, this company is really diverse!”
  • 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 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.
  1. Think about a process (or processes) within your organization in which you are a key player, like hiring, promoting, or evaluating employees.
  2. Try to identify every touchpoint within that process where individual decision-making comes into play.
  3. Can you identify your biases? Have you learned or sought out the information you need to make processes more equitable? How will you use what you’ve learned to create equal opportunity in your workplace?


While we’ve carefully pulled diversity, equity, and inclusion apart, there is still much confusion and conflation of these words in our everyday conversations. By helping others and working through your own understanding of the differences, you can help bring further clarity to your conversations. This is especially important within the context of our organizations.

Continue to explore the interconnectedness and relationships between the three terms.

  1. How does equity support diversity and inclusion?
  2. For whom are you creating a more inclusive environment?
  3. What systematic barriers exist that may limit or impede any diversity efforts you’re taking?

Keeping these terms separate and clear helps me focus on the scope of my work and the goals of trainings I facilitate, like unconscious bias trainings. For me, that training is about ensuring the tricks our brains play on us don’t interrupt the diversity efforts and equitable practices we are working to integrate. It’s about realizing that diversity efforts, without equitable practices and intentional inclusion, will always fall short.

For us individuals that are part of larger companies and organizations, I hope separating these terms and becoming clearer about language will help us engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations that encourage a fresh perspective. It helps us ask hard questions like:

  1. Why do we value diversity? Why is it part of our values?
  2. For whom are we creating more inclusive environments? How will we ensure that inclusion is real, that we walk our talk?
  3. What (systematic) barriers exist that may limit or impede any diversity efforts you’re taking? How can we approach this work using equity as our guiding principle? What changes would that require?

Most of all, I hope move us toward not only more DEI conversations but more DEI initiatives and actions. These conversations can bring us into deeper engagement with one another, with DEI, and with the values we want to see moving our industry forward.


General Assembly strives to make the future of tech as vibrant as the world it inhabits through a global commitment to diversity and inclusion. We also help companies of all sizes foster diverse, inclusive, and equitable cultures with innovative hiring and onboarding solutions.

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