Demystify DEI with Basic Definitions of Key Concepts

One of the biggest challenges with integrating DEI practices throughout the organization is  getting everyone aligned with diversity, equity and inclusion terminology. Often, these words mean something different to everyone. Below are simple definitions of key DEI concepts to help demystify these words and gain greater alignment around DEI terminology across the organization.


Diversity refers to the mix of differences that may make a difference in interactions with others. All of us are unique and made up of many different dimensions of diversity that impact how we experience the world and act in it. 

We often focus on visible difference that make us all unique. While these primary dimensions of diversity are certainly important, it’s equally as important to broaden your definition of diversity to be inclusive of all dimensions of diversity inherent in all of us – from where you grew up, how you grew up, personality traits, leadership style orientations, strengths, educational background and so forth.

When we limit our definition of diversity to only visible dimensions of diversity, we overlook much of what makes any individual unique. No one should be solely defined by the dimensions of diversity that you can only see. You’ll miss out on a whole lot if you do that. Similarly, when we narrow our definition of diversity to just what we can see, we overlook, minimize or simply forget to tap into diverse perspectives, life experiences and ideas that exist among everyone around us.

Finally, by having a broad definition of diversity, everyone can see how fostering an inclusive culture in which differences are valued and everyone feels accepted benefits them because every human can think of a moment when you felt you didn’t belong or didn’t feel valued or respected because something about you that was different compared to people around you. 

Inclusion and Belonging

If diversity is the mix, inclusion is getting the mix to work well together. Inclusion occurs when people are working together effectively and their differences feel valued and respected. An organization can be diverse without being inclusive because inclusion is not a natural consequence of a diverse team.  

Inclusion is about putting values into action that strive to overcome exclusion based on differences and promote participation that is inclusive of all dimensions of diversity. Inclusion stems from embracing the belief that all people have value and the right to belong. 

Belonging is the emotional outcome of inclusion and ultimately, what all people want in their workplace. A culture of belonging is one in which people feel:

  • Comfort – Individuals feel valued, respected, safe and supported being their authentic selves at work.
  • Connection – A shared sense of common purpose and meaning. Feeling connected to colleagues.
  • Contribution – Diverse ideas and perspectives are welcomed and inform decision-making.
  • Commitment – Leadership commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion through words and actions.

Equity and Equality

We want equality at work in the sense of everyone feeling equally valued, supported respected and empowered. We want opportunities and promotions to be equally available for anyone qualified. We want company rules to be applied equally across the board. But to achieve this level of equality, we must recognize that every employee has different needs based on different life experiences, circumstances, strengths, backgrounds, abilities, or preferences. If a company treats everyone the same without realizing that certain individuals or teams need specific support or resources, there will be inequality.

Equity address discrepancies and unique needs of individuals and teams to ensure all employees have what they need to succeed. Equity requires the ability to be adaptable and the willingness to work with employees to ensure everyone’s success. 

Equity is the pathway to true equality.

Dominant Culture

The practices and beliefs that form the blueprint for behavior and success. The dominant culture sends messages to team members about what is important, valued and rewarded. These messages can be shared explicitly or implicitly. Identifying the dominant culture can be difficult. Often the dominant culture is so prevalent, it’s like air. The longer you are in it, the less aware you are of its existence. If you’re someone who identifies closely with the dominant culture, it is even harder to see what might need to change.

Being aware of dominant cultural characteristics and being intentional about creating cultural norms that are clearly expressed and reinforced in a variety of ways an important step toward building a culture of belonging.

Reflection Questions

Solidify a shared understand of what DEI means as well as why it matters among your team by reflecting on and discussing the following questions:

  • Which dimensions of diversity (primary and hidden) are most common within our organization? Which dimensions of diversity exist in our organization, but are not common
  • What are 3-5 characteristics that describe the dominant culture among our organization? E.g. outgoing, detail-oriented, risk-taking, hard-working, competitive, result-oriented, etc
  • Are there individuals, roles or sub-teams who might consistently feel like outsiders in our organization? Describe.
  • Where could we do a better job of bridging across differences, building belonging or applying a DEI mindset within our organization?
  • What are ways our organization could become more equitable? Are there policies, practices or programs that should be considered to help individuals succeed based on their unique circumstances or needs? 

Let's Connect

Beth Ridley is a former corporate executive turned organizational transformation consultant, speaker and author. Beth combines 25 years of global leadership and management consulting experience with expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to partner with leaders to transform workplace cultures to better achieve their vision and goals. Beth’s work is featured in national publications and she frequently delivers keynotes and workshops at events around the world. Beth lives with her husband and three children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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