Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Three words (DEI) have sown confusion in corporate culture. With a deeper understanding of these terms we can reimagine power and possibilities for genuine equity and inclusivity. I wish to explore these items as follows:

What is DEI as distinct terms, and which set of concerns do they address?

Why is equity critical in sustaining this triad?

What are the challenges to ensuring equity?

DEI Defined

To begin, I will explore each term and focus since we often conflate these as interchangeable. I hope such clarity supports those in adult learning and development to consider any gaps in understanding.


The term diversity includes empirical, observable demographics, often amounting to statistics that highlight differences.

Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ. This includes not only race, gender, ethnicity, and multiculturalism, but also age, national origin, religion, ability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance.

The goal of diversity addresses visibility and representation: When I look at membership and leadership in an organization, do I see marginal groups represented beyond token status? Do I observe their impact and hear their voices?


The term equity is related to patterns, practices, and processes that deliver routine outcomes.

Equity focuses on just treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time identifying and eliminating barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups. Equity involves questioning advantages and barriers within the procedures and processes of institutions, as well as in their distribution of resources.

The goal of equity addresses systemic bias to confront root causes of outcome disparities within an organization (and larger society) and to reduce barriers to access for everyone.


The term inclusion involves the felt experience of members belonging to an organization.

It involves cultivating environments where any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive climate cultivates a shared understanding or commitment for appreciating differences in words and actions.

Note, while an inclusive group is by definition diverse, a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. A shared commitment will also recognize unconscious or implicit bias to encourage inclusivity.

The goal of inclusion addresses full participation to actualize diversity through equitable structures that foster full participation for all members.

Process and Outcomes:

Diversity is an outcome. A company’s website reveals its multicultural or gender palette while reports reveal the diverse population via demographic categories.

Inclusion is also an outcome. Surveys and interviews can reveal the internal “temperature” of a welcoming culture based on marginalized identities.

Equity is not an outcome. Equity refers to the structures and systems a company consistently engages to ensure that people with marginalized identities have access to opportunities to grow, contribute, and develop — regardless of their identity.

Here’s the larger point: the purpose of the entire DEI enterprise is to produce justice. Only equity addresses the “systems of barriers” that prevent justice. Therefore, equity requires critical examination so as to monitor every aspect of the business process.

Equity: a System of Justice that Questions Power

Equity has changed the diversity game, making it both much more complex and more honest in ways that lead to accountability and systemic change. In my research, equity acts as a system of justice to address power: 1) the power of individualism, 2) the power of systemic barriers to prevent access, and 3) the power of privilege that exploits unearned advantages.

Equality vs. Equity

To support this inquiry, it is essential first to distinguish between equality and equity, which can cause confusion.

Equality essentially is sameness. In fairness to its noble purpose, equality presumes that treating people the same offers the “same” opportunity or starting point for ensuring the same outcomes or endpoint.

Equity is about justness. It provides access to the same opportunity and measures it in terms of outcomes achieved.

Some oppose equity as not meritorious. They state that we can only offer everyone the same opportunity. And claim that equity guarantees everyone the same outcome, which is not fair. This is glib and simplistic.

For instance, one such belief is in meritocracy, which assumes that everyone has had the same access and opportunities.

Never mind the research showing that members of marginalized groups must work twice as hard to be heard, or to achieve average performance. Further, when marginalized colleagues complain about “oppressive” work conditions, they are labeled as difficult.

This ideal of meritocracy conveniently conflates equal opportunity with equitable outcomes. This notion is detailed in the just-published New Yorker piece Is Meritocracy Making Everyone Miserable? which explores two books with insights on the problem.

Education measures stats (diversity) which show parity between women and men and improvement in racial gaps. But, when examining the outcomes, “such data suggests that higher education is not doing much to close the income gap, and that it may be helping to reproduce a class system that has grown dangerously fractured.”

Equity is concerned with outcomes insofar as they measure barriers to access opportunity. These barriers serve, and are defined by, the current power structure.

1- Power of Individualism

Equity addresses systemic changes, root causes operating at the level of ideologies and systems, not individual acts.

The very nature of belonging to a dominant group makes it difficult to see anything beyond ourselves as individuals, never having to carry, navigate, or account for the psychic concerns of our “group” (noted by psychologist Monical Williams).

Only the blindness of rugged individualism allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

In her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo reveals pillars that prop up whiteness (and racism) without our realizing it. Ideologies such as individualism tend to rub up against coaching philosophies, espousing that one can write one’s own destiny and, through objectivity, can free oneself entirely from bias.

Consider that being perceived as an individual not associated with anything negative because of skin color is a privilege largely afforded to white people. Now consider that most school shooters, domestic terrorists, and rapists in the United States are white. Yet, do we reduce a white man on the street to a stereotype?

People of color often endure having their views attributed to their racial identities and are denied the luxury of impartiality.

Advantages and Barriers

As a white man, I have the luxury to focus on my achievement and question any barriers. I take up the space I need, escape any collective psychic baggage (other than personal issues), and consume resources without a second thought.

As soon as I reveal I am also gay, I must now navigate norms I took for granted as a white man. Simply holding my partner’s hand at work can be monumental (imagine a kiss).

I must also manage how my gay identity intersects with another’s religion, politics, generation, or worse yet, ignorance about AIDS. I must consider deeply how people will view me as an “other” representing a group, and manage the psychic baggage of my group, which can impact my goals.

Still, I have the choice to say something and navigate as a gay white man. Racial and ethnic identities do not have that choice. Until intentionally examined, they are first addressed as part of a group and are usually only seen as individuals if they disavow their group.

Often members of marginal groups must buy into the dominant system to be granted access as individuals apart from their group.

2- Power of Systems and Systemic Bias

Unlike incremental change that improves current systems, systemic change questions the very ideologies and worldviews that preserve the current power structures and barriers to justice.

We begin by understanding that whiteness is not individual to us; it’s a dominant ideology that’s invisible to us. That is how ideologies work.

Any dominant group’s ideology is invisible to them as a group. We become oblivious to the systems that inform us or that we perpetuate. Appreciating group identities forces us to see systems and ideologies of “whiteness” and to dismantle our “colorblindness” of other groups.

Once we can view these systems, we can effect systematic changes (of methods and practices) and systemic change (of assumptions and views) that inform those systems.

Consider how power is central to systems of race and racism.

Borne of an impulsive need and self-interest for power and control, we create the structures and policies to satisfy that need, and then we construct the ideas to justify it.

Ibram X. Kendi in his book Stamped from the Beginning (and in this piece) unpacks this cyclical dynamic, declaring that “we cannot be ‘not racist’ only racist or anti-racist.” The implications are stark. The very nature of neutrality preserves the system of racism.

“The term ‘not racist’ not only has no meaning, but it also connotes that there is this sort of in-between safe space sideline that a person can be on, when there is no neutrality,” he explains. “We’re either all being racist or anti-racist.” This is why he wrote his recent book, How to Be an Antiracist. He couldn’t define “not racism” and wanted to answer those who asked: “How do I be anti-racist?”

Tackling this power dynamic demands a systemic examination of our impulses via implicit bias, our institutions via structural bias, and our thinking and impact via rational bias.

And unlike diversity or inclusion, equity focuses us on dismantling this power dynamic and cultivate justice.

Access Equals Power

In time, we realize how an ideology of whiteness has shaped our norms for meritocracy, success, progress, and growth.

For example, consider a company where promotions can be considered after two consecutive years. What if a woman because of childbirth actually accumulated two years, not consecutively, but within a four-year period? Would she not be considered for a promotion?

In this case, both genders may be treated equally—after all, the woman chose to have a child. But the current structures—worse yet, the views held by those promoting those structures—force an inequity. Women having to make a choice a man will never have to make.

In this case, opportunity seems equal based on merits, but the outcomes will not be equitable. Further examination would suggest a structural change. Simply shift the policy from two consecutive to accumulated years or grant some type of parental leave policy without penalizing childbirth.

Equity recognizes that advantages and barriers exist, and that, as a result, we don’t all start from the same place. Ideally, equity is a dynamic process, acknowledging unequal starting places and continuing to correct and address any imbalances.

Either way, equity demands more than just hiring more women for diversity; it demands systemic change.

3- Power of Privilege

Thirty years ago, when academic Peggy McIntosh published White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she invited readers to reflect on everyone’s “combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life” by the circumstances of our birth.

It is difficult for dominant groups to see that which is invisible. Not having to navigate or account for the psychic concerns of a group identity, it’s difficult to consider that people start at different places.

As Kendi put it, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. You already believe equality of opportunity exists, so instead you’re going to reframe equal opportunity as an assault against you and your livelihood.”

The idea of “advantages and barriers” can often feel intangible, so here are some real examples. A study of a hiring process found that candidates with “white-sounding names” (Greg and Emily) were 50% more likely to receive a call back than candidates with “African-American-sounding names” (Lakisha and Jamal).

The term whitening resumes is now a practice for people of color to combat this issue.

Another study asked faculty scientists to evaluate candidates’ competencies for career mentoring and to suggest starting salaries. Female candidates with resumes/criteria identical to male candidates were deemed less competent and less worthy of being hired, were offered less career mentoring, and were offered a lower starting salary.

For dominant groups, equity is all about power, and power is a zero-sum game. More women in the C-suite means fewer men; more black and brown people means fewer white people, and so on.

D+E+I = Possibility of Justice

Issues of diversity today are competing at a new level of awareness and understanding of justice, which involves systemic change. This includes questioning outdated thinking and assumptions that inform our systems, manifesting in unfair barriers.

Consider that as human development professionals, much of what we deal with is the human side of systemic change. We support others in unlearning assumptions and biases about power that open new possibilities for justice.

To move inclusion beyond placards with polite platitudes, equity, as in creating justice through equitable structures, must be core to diversity and to reimagining power:

Shift our view of power as a limited, zero-sum game with little value in sharing power.

Shift our view of discomfort, recognizing that all growth requires the discomfort of learning and unlearning without fearing loss of self-control.

Shift from personalizing change and feeling threatened when anyone challenges leadership (as a personal reflection) to appreciating that change is universal and inevitable and that questioning leadership can be healthy and productive.

Shift from a paternalized view of power that assumes those in power have the organization’s best interests at heart and that assumes those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, or inexperienced.

Perhaps, most importantly, shift our view of power as an external force for controlling circumstances or dominating others to a cultivated openness for exercising human faculties to the fullest ability — to appreciate and respond in flow with others, to listen to music, receive poetry and love, and express compassion. That is power.

Appreciating equity invites power-sharing.

  • It invites multiple perspectives that naturally strengthen us to navigate varied experiences.
  • We become accustomed to multiple perspectives, which strengthens our “resistance” training that leads to innovation.
  • We become agile and able to withstand market forces.

With equity, we cultivate a foundation for diversity, develop an open mindset, and invite genuine participation that fosters an environment for justice and inclusivity.

Reading Time: 14.5 min. Digest Time: 23 min


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. 

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.