What We’re Missing About Diversity: How Words Matter in Achieving Equity and Inclusion

DEI, Organizational Development, Reflection
cultural competency, curiosity, dei strategy development, Diversity Equity And Inclusion, organizational development

Diversity is an essential part of any successful organization, yet too often, we need to do better when creating and maintaining genuinely inclusive and equitable spaces. A critical factor in achieving this goal is how we use language to communicate about matters of diversity, inclusion, and equity.


Before we get too far into this post, let me state my pet peeve. Weaponizing language! Today’s nominee is the term “Diversity.” What does diversity actually mean? And does our word use cue us towards the outcomes we hope to achieve?


Language has continued to evolve over time, and these days it often feels like words and definitions are changing even more rapidly. So, while it is expected that we will understand words differently based on what is happening present day, this shift in meaning can become problematic if we fail to determine what is being said and what additional meaning can be derived from the unspoken context.


As I write this, I’m troubled by how we use language at times because it is often weaponized. When I think about the word diversity, I have noticed a shift to a place where we use the term daily to others even further.


Organizations are recruiting for diverse hires, creating diverse pipeline programs, reading more diverse materials…and yet, in the name of diversity; we are centering ourselves around dominant culture.


In many conversations, the term diversity is used to illustrate that you are a different racial group other than white, that you are a gender other than what typically comes to mind, or perhaps that you have a learning style other than the norm. It is a way to basically say there is a definitive line between us versus them, which poses challenges for many reasons. One is that we have lost sight of the origins of the word diversity and no longer understand it to include ALL of US!


According to the Oxford Learners Dictionary, diversity is defined as


“A range of many people or things that are very different from each other

SYNONYM variety

  • the biological diversity of the rainforests
  • a great/wide/rich diversity of opinion


If we are to continue using the word diversity in an othering manner, we must also recognize the power and unspoken truth behind that choice.


Speaking to those either/ or thinkers out there, I am not advocating for the removal of the word diversity. Instead, I propose thoughtfulness and curiosity in how we use language. This is a moment to recognize that we need to name things (i.e., diversity) and understand that naming without careful consideration may lead to unintended outcomes.


Why does this matter? Taking a look at the landscape of DEI, here are a few implications emerging from our current framing


Us vs. Them

When we continue to “other” historically marginalized groups through the use of the word diversity, we are positioning groups against each other. It creates an “us verse them” dynamic and lessens the chance for teams to see diversity as a collective goal shared by all.


The constant positioning of “others” can also impact team members’ ability to feel included and experience a sense of belonging in their workplaces.


But I’m Not Diverse!

The current framing also creates situations in which dominant culture may not see itself represented. Instead of focusing on how we create diversity together, many people see this as a moment where they are being pushed out.


This feeling of exclusion further fosters the blowback we see at many organizations where people ask, “Why do we have to work on this? Why does this matter? This is their problem; it does not concern me.” If diversity includes all people, then it stands to reason that diversity should be inclusive of all people, regardless of background.


Head Count Anyone?

In the rush to “diversify” the workplace an over-emphasis has been placed on the literal counting of people through the creation of quotas and other forms of forced diversity.


This approach ignores that true diversity and inclusion can only be achieved when we value diversity in all forms, including gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other identity markers.


One of Us

The othering of people, coupled with the checkbox mentality, has led to an increase in “diverse” hires but also allowed the belief that there is still one right way to do things to flourish.


Instead of valuing diversity in thinking, being, and acting, we ask people to conform to how we have always done things around here, limiting further the ability to capture all its team members’ insights, skills, and perspectives.


In short, “diversity” can become weaponized when used in the wrong context or without regard for unintended consequences. We must use language thoughtfully when discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion and strive to create understanding and shared goals among all team members.


The continued use of the term diversity in a way that implies othering is already leading to adverse outcomes such as exclusion, tokenization, and conformity. Diversity should include all people regardless of background or identity if it is genuinely going to make an impact on our organizations. Our goal should not just be increasing diversity numbers but creating understanding between different groups by valuing diversity in our unique ways of being.


What are your thoughts on using the term ‘diversity’ in an othering manner? How can we build understanding between different groups and value diversity inside and outside organizations?


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