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  • Writer's pictureTiffany G. Townsend, PhD.

What do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) mean? Why Are DEI Important to Organizations?

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

When you hear the phrase "diversity, equity, and inclusion," what comes to mind? Hopefully, you think of affirmative practices that work to dismantle systems of inequity. Still, that's not a universal understanding of the terms. Unfortunately, many people and programs still confuse equity with equality, view diversity as a euphemism for “reverse discrimination,” and frequently misunderstand inclusive practices as exclusionary. In truth, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are none of those things. So, let’s clear up some of the confusion.

Based on the conceptualization offered by Daryl G. Smith in the 2009 Diversity's Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work, diversity is the representation of different social identities in a community. We embrace Smith’s definition here due to the importance of relative power and privilege in that definition. In other words, diversity is not just about difference, but giving voice and access to members of groups who have been marginalized based on their social identities, i.e., race, ethnicity, culture, gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, spirituality, disability, age, national origin, immigration status and language. It is not about replacing anyone at the table of opportunity. Instead, it’s about making room so that many more can have a seat at that table. Equity focuses on the achievement of equivalent success outcomes by members of all social identity groups, and finally, an environment that embraces inclusion acknowledges, welcomes, and accepts different approaches, styles, perspectives, and experiences.

Using this conceptualization, it becomes easier to see why DEI are foundational pillars to a healthy organizational culture and ultimately to an enduring society. Without equitable opportunities in education and employment, we build a skewed system. If we're serious about building a better future, we need to create welcoming and inclusive work and learning spaces where everyone has equal opportunity to achieve their optimal academic and/or professional potential, regardless of their background or demographic characteristics. When diverse perspectives are represented in the community, the environment is enriched. Diversity of views and perspectives stimulates increased creativity and productivity. Studies have shown that having a variety of lived experiences at the decision-making table helps to ensure more innovative solutions (Hunt, Layton, and Prince 2015).


Therefore, addressing DEI is not just about making marginalized or minoritized groups feel comfortable, although that is certainly important.

It is also about strengthening communities and organizations by leveraging diversity to advance creativity and innovation. Those organizations that are able to effectively engage and support all of their employees, while celebrating the diversity of perspective and expertise they bring will be most competitive in this growing global market. To accomplish this, every member of the organization must feel free to bring their full selves into the work space. After all, in group/out group experiences are human and not unique to members of marginalized communities. Anyone’s well-being and subsequent performance can suffer if they are made to feel unwanted or unwelcomed. So, in many ways, members of marginalized groups serve as our miner’s canary. Because they have been historically disenfranchised, members of marginalized communities tend to be the ones first affected and most severely impacted by problems in any community or organization, but if we keep diversity in mind when crafting solutions to their concerns, everyone can benefit.

So how do organizations move forward in creating a more diverse and inclusive future? Their leadership must demonstrate a commitment and a willingness to change how things are done, recognizing that each person contributes value to the organization, and does so in different ways based on their background, experiences, and perspectives. Those who do not understand or respect this often fail to see the greater value generated by diversity of thought and experience. They may actually contribute directly to an organization's demise if they don't take steps to bring marginalized or minoritized communities into the fold—and into positions of leadership where their insights can be put to good use.

As a final note, we encourage organizations to make DEI a priority. Whether it's creating a more welcoming environment for marginalized communities, or doing the work to craft more equitable hiring practices, one thing is clear, DEI isn't just nice to have—it's essential to having a thriving organization.

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