This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse, January 5, 2024 [view original link].
The recent article in the Washington Post, along with commentary on the recent elimination of DEI at higher educational institutions make it clear that too many people are unclear about what diversity, equity, and inclusion is, what it does, and what it can and can’t accomplish.
Having been a practitioner (and, dare I say, pioneer) in this field for about 20 years, I feel a need to speak up before more harm is done to the field.
First, the field in corporations/organizations predated the work in higher education and is not the same as the role it has played in higher educational institutions.
Let’s start with definitions because there is a lot of confusion and manipulation about what these terms mean, adding in the concept and application of Belonging (DEI&B).
Diversity refers to the different characteristics in a group of people...Equity is the absence of systemic, group, and individual barriers or obstacles that hinder opportunities or disrupt well-being...Inclusion is the recognition and celebration of differences by bringing together unique individual backgrounds to meet business objectives collectively and effectively...Belonging is the element of a corporate or organizational culture where there is a sense of acceptance, psychological safety, inclusion, and identity for everyone.
Diversity refers to the different characteristics in a group of people. These characteristics are everything that makes us unique, such as our cognitive skills and personality traits, along with the things that shape our identity. Recently, there has been a misconception that diversity is about race or only focused on marginalized populations. This is not true, and while after George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, there was a greater focus on racial inequality, diversity efforts were never intended to value one gender, race, or any group over another, but to recognize that diverse perspectives (as defined above) bring great value to decision making, promote innovation, help connect companies to their customers and are a differentiator for companies/organizations that embrace it.
Equity is the absence of systemic, group, and individual barriers or obstacles that hinder opportunities or disrupt well-being. Equity is achieved through taking deliberate actions to eliminate policies, practices, attitudes, and cultural messages that create and reinforce unfair outcomes. Again, this is about the removal of barriers that we know are keeping everyone from working to their full potential – it is not about putting new barriers in place. For example, if two people do the same job at the same level, they should be paid the same amount. This is not the promotion of reparations; it is equity, not equality.
Inclusion is the recognition and celebration of differences by bringing together unique individual backgrounds to meet business objectives collectively and effectively. Inclusion ensures everyone feels valued and, importantly, adds value. Inclusion is explicit about not promoting the creation of a new “outsider” group, nor the idea that everyone must be enlightened or agree. It does require respect for different points of view. In the DEI world, we used to say, “Bring your whole self to work.” We have changed that to say, “Bring your highest and best self to work” because everyone is free to hold beliefs that may not be as inclusive as we’d like, as long as at work they are respectful of everyone and behave in a way that demonstrates value for all regardless of who they are, their background or other differences. We don’t want to eliminate those who don’t think like us – that is the opposite of what inclusion is and its value. We do want to have guardrails on behaviors that create an environment where everyone is safe to respectfully express opinions without attacking others or being attacked for who they are.
Belonging is the element of a corporate or organizational culture where there is a sense of acceptance, psychological safety, inclusion, and identity for everyone. The scope of our work is about creating a culture of respect and inclusion - it is not one where it is accepted to be inappropriate, rude, and, at times, bullying those who don’t hold the same beliefs. This contradicts the basic tenets of DE&I and undermines the value of our work. Calling out someone for “cultural appropriation” which is something done every day in the melting pot of our societies and could be seen as a tribute, or expecting those from another time in their history to have acted per today’s norms does not advance DEI, it is an excuse to express anger and diminishes the real work that still has to be done. It gives DEI not only a bad name but is the excuse some prominent people like Elon Musk and the governors of Texas and Florida use to promote their agendas of exclusion, hatred, bullying, and disrespect for one another.
It is higher education’s role to educate, expose students to multiple points of view, and learn how to debate from a Socratic perspective - not punish those who don’t ascribe to the same values. It is up to all of us who work in DEIB, are allies to this work, and have seen the financial and social benefits of DEIB not to allow our work to be corrupted. Social injustice is real, and many who work in DEIB got into this field because of our personal history and wanting to right those wrongs, but advocacy is about being a catalyst for change, not for us but for systemic change, and that means working within systems, not destroying them.