Diversity vs Inclusion: Why it mattersby
Allaya Cooks-Campbell explores the meaning of diversity vs. inclusion, their main differences and benefits, and ways to create an inclusive environment at work.
Diversity and inclusion are, more often than not, used as accompanying terms or as part of the DEI concept – but they are distinct concepts and are not interchangeable. An environment can be diverse but not inclusive; and a workplace can be inclusive but not diverse – which can hugely impair the culture.
Diversity is defined by the characteristics, experiences and other distinctions that make one person different from another.
Most people understand diversity on a surface level, ie characteristics that are easy to see. Diversity does mean people of different races, ethnicities, gender identities and sexual orientations – but it’s more than that.
‘Diversity’ represents a broad range of experiences, including socioeconomic background, upbringing, religion, marital status, education, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, disability and life experience.
When companies have a largely homogeneous environment, they tend to only feel comfortable for employees that fit in. People tend to feel more rooted in their prejudices when they are in the cultural majority. That leaves people in the minority little choice but to assimilate with the dominant culture. This kind of pressure increases anxiety, groupthink, and has a detrimental impact on innovation and collaboration.
Inclusion makes a diverse workplace more innovative, profitable, and engaging.
It means creating an environment where people – regardless of surface or hidden level differences – feel welcome and valued. That means no individual is denied access to education, resources, opportunities, or any other treatment based on the qualities that make them unique, whether intentionally or inadvertently.
Building an inclusive environment requires thoughtfulness and intention. It’s more than hiring people that look different. It’s about rewriting implicit bias and challenging the idea that different means inferior.
Tokenism is the practice of including one member of a minority group in a majority.
For example, it could mean having one Black employee in a predominantly white group, or one woman on an all-male team. Not all instances of having one member of an underrepresented group present are examples of tokenism. But certain things may give it away. A female employee being asked to speak about being a woman in their field is a common example.
Tokenism doesn’t help diversity, is detrimental to inclusivity and has a profound negative impact on mental health. Individuals who feel tokenised often suffer from extreme pressure and anxiety at work. The visibility can provoke scrutiny and pressure to represent an entire group. It can cause or exacerbate impostor syndrome, negatively impact self-esteem, and reduce a sense of belonging.
Most organisations don’t seek to leave others out or make them feel unwelcome. As social justice issues become more prevalent, companies are under pressure to quickly ramp up diversity. However, building an inclusive environment can’t be done overnight. Counterfeiting diversity with shortcuts can actually harm company culture over time.
Even an unintentional snub or careless comment “signals that we are socially worthless and a bad fit for that very community that we depend on.” (Harvard Business Review)
Key advantages of D&I
2. Enhance company culture and image
3. Increase performance
4. Talent attraction and retention
Top five diversity and inclusion-building activities
Fear and silence enable covert racism and implicit bias. To build trust, it’s important to speak up.
As a leader, you can create space for courageous conversations on sensitive topics at work. Here are some ideas for activities you can do with your team:
1. Diversify your calendar
Take a look at your company calendar. Which holidays are you celebrating or taking note of? It may not be possible to offer a day off for every single holiday, but it’s important to at least acknowledge and reflect them on the calendar. Consider offering additional vacation days or unlimited PTO so that people can honour days that are personally meaningful to them.
2. Educate people about diversity
Prioritising diversity in the workplace has to go deeper than surface-level. In order for your leaders and team to embrace inclusion as a priority, you need to make it a consistent part of workplace conversation. Keep diversity front of mind with education and training. Offer a budget for employees to delve into different concepts that interest them in this area.
3. Review your content
If your company has been established for some time, you might have content that includes biased or outdated language. Get a team together and educate them on terms that may be offensive or exclusionary, like “differently-abled”. You can put this into action by reviewing your existing literature and content for anything that doesn’t represent the direction your company is moving in.
4. Create spaces that celebrate diversity
Connecting with other employees helps to build a culture of belonging at work. One way to foster connection is by creating employee resource groups, or ERGs. These peer-led groups provide safe spaces for team members to connect and share experiences.
Diversity extends beyond race, so be sure that both your physical and emotional spaces are inclusive. Consider making workplace bathrooms gender-neutral. Avoid arbitrary gender separation or terms like “craftsman” that are inherently binary. Take care not to use slang terms that might be offensive, like “lame” or “crazy.”
5. Encourage people to bring their whole self to work
Getting to know people is a powerful antidote to unconscious bias. Referring to someone by their race, gender, or other surface-level characteristics is generally offensive – not to mention fertile breeding ground for stereotypes.
Encourage people to showcase who they are. Ask them about their favourite foods, weekend plans or their favourite holiday. Get to know their pets, their coffee orders or their favourite songs. We all have things that make us unique but inclusion is about celebrating what brings us together. Prejudice thrives when we don’t look past our differences.
Key pointers to create an inclusive workspace
1. Extend your talent pool
At some point, your recruiting team will need to turn their attention to hiring and recruiting diverse talent. Look at talent from a variety of backgrounds, and emphasise your organisation's commitment to inclusive hiring. Avoid barriers to entry, like advanced degrees or expensive certifications, in the hiring process. Hire diverse candidates for both leadership and entry-level positions.
2. Hire an expert
Your diversity efforts won’t succeed without the support of your leadership team. For company culture to transform, growth has to be modelled, emphasised, and encouraged. That means having both allies and people from underrepresented backgrounds in the C-suite. Leaders who share their own experiences set the pace for their organisations in more ways than one.
Hiring a diversity and inclusion officer can help accelerate your DEIB strategy. It can help both the organisation and individuals understand what it means to create a welcoming and diverse culture.
3. Make inclusive language the norm
Consider reviewing the language your organisation uses – both internally and externally.
Many terms that were commonplace are now being recognised as insensitive in daily usage. Be intentional about using terms that reflect your commitment to inclusion.
This is especially important when it comes to gender, race, and disability. Use “people first” language and never refer to someone by race or disability status. If someone tells you what their pronouns are, use them as appropriate. Generally speaking, it is always acceptable to refer to someone by name or with the indeterminate pronoun “they.”
4. Readily-available resources
Learn about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging – both inside and outside of the workplace. Share the benefits of diversity with your team. Offer implicit bias training and talk about stereotypes at work.
Working with a coach can help you confront biases, challenge assumptions and continue conversations about deep diversity. Coaching can also facilitate conversations geared towards changing organisational behaviour.
Understanding the distinction of diversity vs. inclusion isn’t about picking one area to focus on over another. Instead, it helps organisations pinpoint where their DEI strategy might be failing. For a company to bridge the gap from diversity to belonging, it has to welcome, honour and value all kinds of differences. Being vulnerable and authentic as you do this work will encourage your employees to do the same.