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Opinion: Why just talking about diversity won’t help Utah move forward

Understanding the meanings of diversity, inclusion, belonging, equality and equity would help the state become more welcoming to all.

A black teen’s hand and a white teen’s hand for a church steeple to symbolize racial unity.
A black teen’s hand and a white teen’s hand form a church steeple to match an actual steeple in the background. Utahns need to understand the separate meanings of the words diversity, inclusion, belonging, equality and equity in order to make the state more welcoming. (Photo by Anita Patterson.)
Anita Patterson

Because of my work as an advocate for women and leadership, I’ve been in conversations for years where the words “diversity,” “inclusion,” “belonging,” “equality” and “equity” are used — and often interchangeably.

In fact, last month I was in a meeting where someone said, “It is ridiculous how many words we have to use when we talk about diversity, and they all mean the same thing!” I get how it can be confusing, but each word means something very different. And understanding the differences can help us navigate these important conversations in our homes, workplaces, communities, and beyond.

Here are some explanations that may be helpful:

  • Diversity is often defined as including or involving people from a range of various backgrounds, and can include different genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, social classes, physical ability, religions, political beliefs, marital status, and more.

Diversity can include all the ways in which people differ from one another, and many sources expand the definition to encompass interests, opinions, and preferences more generally. The hope is that we can learn to respect, appreciate and value the differences in each other.

  • Inclusion is related to diversity but focuses on efforts and practices that teams or organizations implement to help people — who have different backgrounds — feel equally treated, accepted and welcomed. If you think about it, there can be a convening of a diverse group of people where many do not feel included. So, again, diversity is including or involving people from various backgrounds, and inclusion is when a company or organization creates practices that help people feel accepted and able to engage and contribute in positive ways.

Verna Myers, VP of inclusion strategy at Netflix, has said that “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

  • Belonging refers to a feeling that you are connected and can relate to others around you. Some experts argue that a workplace can have diversity and inclusion, but people may still not feel or believe they belong. For example, a woman or a Black man can be included in an invitation to golf, but they may not feel they belong if the other 11 people invited are all white and male.

In short, one article summarized these three terms in this way: diversity is about representation, inclusion is about actions, and belonging is a feeling.

The words equality and equity are also often used interchangeably, but there is a striking difference between them. Just so you know, I use equity much more than equality these days.

  • Equality most often refers to treating everyone the same, but there is an underlying assumption that every person is starting from the same place, which is rarely the case. For example, we may think that everyone in Utah has the same access to attending college, so we may offer the same support in high school to each student. Yet, some students need more help and assistance than others, because of various socio, economic and institutional factors.
  • Equity refers more to fairness and justice and is often used when referring to systems. According to one Forbes article, “equity is what happens when all members of a diverse population of employees have equal opportunities and support to succeed and grow.” However, equity focuses more on giving individuals what they need and making sure everyone has access or opportunities, particularly those who have been historically underserved. It acknowledges that, because of practices and policies that have been normalized, we can thoughtfully work to close the opportunity gap for those who may need more assistance than others.

Overall, I believe that if we lead with equity, and incorporate diversity, inclusion, and belonging efforts in our workplaces and communities, Utah can become even more welcoming and inclusive to all its residents. Conversations about diversity are important, but action is needed if we want to help transform Utah into a state where outsiders look and say, “This is the place.”

Professor Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.