Equity, Inclusion, Diversity: Interchangeable?

January 8, 2020

In the world of equity, inclusion, and diversity work, it’s tempting to use these words interchangeably or as shortcuts in communication. Sometimes, that’s fine. For example, when I’m speaking with an investment banker for the first time, I often explain that I do diversity and inclusion training. I avoid using the word ‘equity’ until later in the conversation because I know that financial professionals often associate ‘equity’ solely with ‘wealth’.

When you’re doing the deep work, though, it’s important to choose words carefully. Here, we’ll outline some basic definitions that we use at Step Up, many of which (and more) are based on University of Houston’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion glossary).


Diversity is identity-based (psychological, physical, and social) differences that occur among any and all individuals; including but not limited to race, color, ethnicity, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, veteran status, education, marital status, language, age, gender, gender expression, gender identity, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, genetic information and learning styles. A diverse group, community, or organization is one in which a variety of social and cultural characteristics exist.

‘Diverse’ is not a shortcut or code for Black or Brown people, or any other marginalized group. A neighborhood is not diverse if it is a predominantly Black neighborhood. Diversity does not drive inclusion or equity. It’s about numerical representation of multiple identities.


Inclusion is the act of creating involvement, environments and empowerment in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive and welcoming climate with equal access to opportunities and resources embrace differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people.


Belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place, and as the basic fundamental drive to form and maintain lasting, positive, and significant relationships with others (learn more). When we feel that we belong, we can thrive. An absence of belonging leads to disconnection and disengagement, among other negative mental and physical health impacts.


Equity is the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all stakeholders (employees, customers, board members, etc), while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities to all groups.

In short, equity is ensuring that everyone has what they need to thrive with consideration to historical and ongoing societal barriers. Equity focuses on outcomes more than specific opportunities or resources. Equality, on the other hand, is evenly distributed access to resources and opportunity necessary for a safe and healthy life; uniform distribution of access that may or may not result in equitable outcomes.

I recently connected with Captain Willie Brown, a firefighter and CEO of Internal Intelligence Group, who often shares this helpful example: think about the last time you were at a performance or a sporting event and there was a break. You walk down the hall, past the bathrooms. What do you notice? There is a line out the door of the women’s bathroom, but no line for the men’s bathroom.

When stadiums and concert venues were built, they used an equality approach: one women’s bathroom for every men’s bathroom. But in reality, women (and anyone waiting for them) would benefit from additional bathrooms.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but the idea holds: an equality approach (1:1 bathroom ratio) doesn’t actually solve the problem, but an equity approach (disproportionate number of bathrooms for women) can. A diversity approach would only go as far as ensuring that both men and women attend the event, without any consideration for the needs of either group. This example highlights the wisdom of healthy communities/organizations putting resources where our needs are.

As your organization develops plans for equity, inclusion, and diversity, be clear about the approach you’re using. A plan to increase diversity is not the same as a plan to ensure new people thrive in your organization.