What Does Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Mean in the Workplace?

Catalina Colman, director of HR and inclusion at Built In, explains the meaning and importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Product Marketing Manager
October 21, 2021
Updated: September 22, 2022
Product Marketing Manager
October 21, 2021
Updated: September 22, 2022

The tech industry stands apart from other industries with its promise to build a brand new future. However, as forward-thinking as the industry can be, it also suffers from stagnation in some areas, especially in regards to the demographics of its biggest players. 

Though it has made strides in the last decade, the tech industry remains extremely homogenous — a 2019 survey revealed that people of color made up only five percent of employees at Silicon Valley tech firms, and women hold around just 28 percent of tech industry roles. If tech companies want to build an industry that truly looks toward new horizons, they need to make DEI a central part of their values.

“We as employers need to make sure we’re including these individuals and that we’re giving them equity,” said Catalina Colman, Director of HR and Inclusion at Built In. “We need to make sure that, not only do they have a job, but they have the same ability to get promoted, to contribute and have the same impact — in the world and in the workplace — as their peers.”

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What Is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)?

DEI stands for diversity, equity and inclusion. Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting. Equity is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual. Inclusion is the practice of ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is vital to creating and maintaining a successful workplace; one founded on the principle that all people can thrive personally and professionally. Before you begin to reevaluate your efforts and implement new practices, it’s important that you fully understand each component, both individually and how they work together. 

Here you’ll learn what diversity, equity and inclusion are and how each plays a role in creating a better workplace. Using insight from Colman, who has over 13 years of HR experience, it provides a foundational introduction to DEI today.

Sunny Betz contributed reporting to this story.


What Is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)?

Defining Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

  • Diversity: The presence of differences within a given setting. In the workplace, that can mean differences in race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic class.
  • Equity: The act of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.
  • Inclusion: The practice of ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. This means that every employee feels comfortable and supported by the organization when it comes to being their authentic selves.

If the tech industry wants to truly be a place where innovation and ingenuity thrives, diversity, equity and inclusion has to take center stage. Employers must actively work to create meaningful change in spite of the history of injustice that has marginalized underrepresented groups within the workplace. 

DEI is an ethos that recognizes the value of diverse voices and centers inclusivity and employee wellbeing as central facets of success. To bring those values to life, companies must implement programs and initiatives that actively make their offices more diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces. 

Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting. In the workplace, that can mean differences in race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and socioeconomic class. It can also refer to differences in physical ability, veteran status, whether or not you have kids — all of those are components of diversity.

Equity is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual. “Equity is why we go to work,” explains Colman. “We want to get compensated fairly for our work, we want to be challenged, to learn and to contribute. People often choose an employer based on those things, which boil down to equity.” 

Finally, inclusion is the practice of ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace. This means that every employee feels comfortable and supported by the organization when it comes to being their authentic selves.

“Every employee should feel valued at work, by their peers and their employer,” said Colman. “It’s not about just opening the invitation to everyone — it’s about making sure that every individual knows and feels they are welcome at your organization.”

 

WHY DIVERSITY MATTERS

When we think of diversity in the workplace, we often think of physical, visible differences. However, it’s important to be mindful of diversity of thought.

“From a business standpoint, different perspectives directly influence a product — how it’s made, who it serves, how it functions and so on,” said Colman. “More perspectives make for a better product.” People from different backgrounds with varying life experiences will be able to provide new perspectives that help refine and enhance processes. 

“There’s a level of innovation that diversity contributes to,” said Colman. “People bring a unique framework to the job that enables them to approach problems differently and propose unique solutions. The more diverse voices there are in your organization, the better your outcomes will be, purely from a business standpoint.”

However, Colman urges employers to look beyond the business case. “I believe that if we give people the equitable opportunity to not only be employed, but to have employment with purpose and passion, our society can and will do great things. It’s a measurable good for everyone.

 

WHY EQUITY MATTERS

In order to ensure equal circumstances for all individuals across the organization, equity requires that employers recognize barriers and advantages. This is the crucial difference between “equity” and “equality.”

“Equity takes into account the fact that not everybody is starting at the same level,” explains Colman. “Take home ownership, for example. A bank can make the statement that the loan application process is equal and that they will not discriminate based on race, gender or ethnicity. That doesn’t take into account student loans, familial debt, socioeconomic status, what have you. These are prohibitive factors that hold some individuals back from receiving a loan.”

These limitations are what define barriers and give rise to advantages, ultimately leading to an inequitable process. Colman offers a second example of job application rates between men and women — women tend to apply to roles where they meet 100 percent of the criteria, whereas men will apply if they meet just 60 percent. 

“That’s a manifestation of your application process being inequitable,” said Colman. “The solution would be to ask yourself: How can I standardize my job descriptions so everyone has an equal chance to apply? How can I encourage someone who is qualified to submit their application even if they can’t check every box? It’s about leveling the playing field so the barriers to entry are the same for every single individual.”

For example, rather than listing years of experience as a requirement, identify specific areas of experience or scope. Doing so opens the talent pool up to qualified applicants who may be earlier in their career. Instead of “5-7 years of project management experience,” ask for “Experience managing projects autonomously, from ideation to implementation.”

Inequity permeates every aspect of your business, requiring vigilance and swift action. “HR practitioners have to do the work to understand how it is we can go above and beyond to make an equitable organization for everyone,” said Colman. “You’re not going to be able to build diversity if you’re not taking the steps to be more equitable.”

 

WHY INCLUSION MATTERS

While the workplace does require professionalism and etiquette (i.e. no profane language), an inclusive culture should not bar individuals from being themselves. “Employees should not worry about code switching or shielding part of their identity,” said Colman. “They should be able to walk through the door without feeling like something about them has to change.” 

Inclusion is what maintains diversity. Without it, employees will simply leave the organization. “If a candidate walks into a workplace and they’re the only woman or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) employee, they’re going to question the employer’s authenticity and values,” said Colman.

“People want to belong, plain and simple,” she said. “And marginalized individuals want to know that they’re not going to be the token person to represent a demographic. They shouldn’t have to worry about that in the workplace; they should be focused on how they’re going to have an impact within the company.”

 

HR’s Responsibility

For employers and people management professionals alike, the biggest challenge is knowing where to start. “There’s no quick-fix,” said Colman. “A lot of people immediately jump to figure out how they can make their company more diverse, but you can’t underestimate the importance of inclusion and equity. Without those two pieces, you’re not going to achieve true diversity.” 

Understanding how each element of DEI builds upon the others is important to creating a work environment that is equitable and inclusive of all individuals. Just like DEI is a multifaceted process, Colman encourages employers to lean on each other.

“It’s not going to be a single HR person that addresses the issue of DEI for a company,” she said. “Lean on your professional community. You’re not going to be able to have all the answers because you don’t have all the perspectives.”

The focus on DEI has prompted a huge shift for HR. “I think the mindset has always been to avoid talking about these things,” said Colman. “We typically put them in the handbook and address them in training maybe once a year. We didn’t want to make people uncomfortable. I think right now, the call to action is about understanding how to navigate that discomfort and how to use that to elevate your workforce. It’s about doing the important work that is long overdue and becoming inclusive and equitable.”

On-Demand Webinar: The State of DEI in Tech 2022

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