Diversity, equality and inclusion: Five common misconceptions and mistakes

Author: Georgie Williams

What do we really understand about diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI)? Interest in DEI has boomed in recent years - both in the wider political spheres of the Western world and in a more focused way in the workplace. Georgie Williams explores five common misconceptions we hold, and mistakes we make, around DEI. They go on to explain how to implement effective change.

The intense focus on DEI has facilitated open conversations around sensitive subjects - but often with little discussion about how to enact DEI-conscious policies and practices. With identity politics regarding representation, discrimination and the development of inclusive language taking centre stage in the meeting rooms of organisations across the UK and beyond, it is easy to fixate on awareness and neglect actionable change that implements the values an organisation wishes to uphold. However, DEI does not have to be an intimidating subject, and making it more accessible and easier to implement, starts with addressing common misconceptions surrounding what diversity, equality and inclusion looks like in action.

Mistake 1: allowing the celebration of difference to eclipse the implementation of change

Imagine a scenario in which an organisation is celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride month. The logo is changed to a rainbow, the office is decorated with flags and employees are arranging to march in the upcoming Pride parade. However, the organisation's parental leave policy is not the same for adoptive parents compared to biological parents. The employee healthcare plan does not cover gender specialists or access to reassignment/affirmation surgeries and, despite reminders, employees continually use the wrong pronouns for transgender colleagues.

Diversity, equality and inclusion are not standalone concepts - they are principles which must remain interlinked for demonstrable change to occur within an organisation. Celebrating difference is important but this celebration can appear superficial if employees' basic needs are not met and assured through progressive workplace policies, regardless of their identity. The benefits of a diverse workforce are undeniable and well documented but using that diversity to bolster the reputation of an organisation without implementing inclusive, conscientious workplace policies will sky-rocket employee attrition rates. Policies can pertain to access to leave, pay, language used within the workplace, mandatory training and a host of other facets of workplace culture. However, these policies should be either flexible to accommodate different needs or tailored to groups who require different forms of support- an equitable approach, as opposed to an equality-based framework.

Misconception 2: equality versus equity - what is the difference?

Let us return to the example of employees needing to learn to use appropriate pronouns for transgender colleagues. Sometimes these needs are incorrectly considered "additional", as if this community requires more time and effort to be correctly treated than others. This is an example of "deficit thinking". Richard Valencia, professor of educational psychology and author of Dismantling contemporary deficit thinking, described this theory as one that "blames the victim" for their perceived "deficits". In actuality, it is often that an individual has been denied the same opportunities and support provided to others because these things are tailored towards a particular social group. In this example, a belief that transgender individuals need special treatment instead of being comfortable with being treated like "everyone else" would be an example of deficit thinking.

"This is an example of 'deficit thinking'. Richard Valencia described this theory as one that 'blames the victim' for their perceived 'deficits'. In actuality, it is often that an individual has been denied the same opportunities and support provided to others because these things are tailored towards a particular social group."

This is where we must consider equality versus equity - giving everyone the same blanket treatment versus giving the correct support to all individuals. Cisgender individuals are almost always referred to with the correct pronouns because we associate terms such as she and he with particular expectations of physical appearance that many transgender individuals cannot (or do not want to) meet. An equitable and thus inclusive approach would involve adjusting one's approach to language to avoid making assumptions based on appearance. Some individuals working within DEI prefer to substitute equality in the acronym for equity because this approach involves addressing and tackling internalised assumptions based on protected characteristics instead of implementing the "blanket treatment" mentioned above.

Mistake 3: thinking of intersectionality as the simple addition of different characteristics

Intersectionality is a word used, and misused, more often now than ever before. Incorrectly synonymised with diversity, the term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. It describes how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics "intersect" with one another - and how within those intersections, unique identities emerge. It may help to imagine a blue line intersecting with a red line, what emerges in the middle is not "blue plus red", but rather purple, which is a unique colour distinct from both red and blue. If we were to consider the experience of a black woman, we would not characterise discrimination against her as misogyny plus racism but rather misogynoir, which is a term that describes prejudice and discrimination based on gendered and racial stereotypes and assumptions simultaneously. For example, misogynoir may include the assumption that black women are not truly women as blackness can often be incorrectly associated with innate masculinity; this is also evident in the "angry black woman" stereotype.

"When considering individual needs of employees or clients, their identities cannot be separated out by adding or subtracting protected characteristics that pertain to them; intersectionality is not supposed to demonstrate a greater number of boxes within which to label communities."

When considering individual needs of employees or clients, their identities cannot be separated out by adding or subtracting protected characteristics that pertain to them; intersectionality is not supposed to demonstrate a greater number of boxes within which to label communities. Instead, it should be used as a lens through which to consider how to approach the needs of different groups and individuals. White women cannot speak on behalf of black women, nor can binary transgender individuals speak on behalf of non-binary transgender individuals. The importance of acknowledging individual narratives and not making sweeping assumptions about the needs of groups leads us on to our fourth point - how do we know who can speak for whom?

Mistake 4: using your space to advocate when it would be more powerful to offer it as a platform

When do you advocate, when do you platform? Effective DEI practices are often less about championing recognition for others, and more about a non-hierarchical deferral to individuals who can speak from personal standpoint. In Linda Alcoff's essay, The problem of speaking for others, she highlights three approaches to the handling of sensitive discussions relating to the rights of particular groups and communities. The first is speaking on behalf of a group without consulting them, which can often be well intended but allows for miscommunication and insensitive handling of complex subjects. The second approach, is refusing to talk on a subject but then taking up that space and time so, for example, a panel of able-bodied individuals acknowledging that they cannot discuss disability effectively but still continuing with an event which then neglects matters of disability. The third approach is offering that platform to others. This can look like many things but ultimately the outcome is that an individual who has authority, influence and the ability to enact change defers to the voice of someone who can speak on an aspect of lived experience such as gender, disability, race, socio-economic status - albeit from their own limited lens, which cannot represent all voices within a community. DEI must go beyond acknowledging which voices are unheard, it must include the use of one's "platform"; so their power and impact, to amplify the voices of those without the same privileges and avenues for communication.

Mistake 5: delivering a monologue instead of entering into a dialogue

Imagine a scenario in which an organisation is rolling out DEI training for its workforce. A representative of DEI or HR hosts talks on diversity, equality and inclusion with a large group of employees. After the representative has discussed their examples of different communities and conscientious approaches to working with them, there may be an opportunity for questions. However, many individuals who feel anxious about discussing such a sensitive topic are likely to abstain from asking questions. As a consequence, these subjects remain unclear, abstracted and potentially intimidating for many employees. At the core of this issue is the delivery and implementation of DEI as a monologue; a one-sided informing of DEI practices instead of an open discussion.

A key problem in this scenario is that the representative informing others is positioned as an authority on all things DEI and is instructing others how to approach things. This practice abstracts the facets that define DEI; who is involved and how they are affected. DEI training can often risk talking about individuals with protected characteristics (particularly those whose characteristics may not be as obvious, for example disability, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status) as if they do not exist in the very training sessions that are being facilitated. Often these individuals have their own opinions and suggestions for improving these sessions which would be hugely valuable if heeded.

DEI training should facilitate individuals feeding back to transform practices, calling for training in specific areas and normalising all workplaces as continual learning environments. Ultimately, nobody can be an "expert" in the human experience. DEI is about being open to new approaches, transforming policies and being open to dialogues - learning from our colleagues in a way that is non-hierarchical and makes the abstract personable. Michelle Kim, co-founder and CEO of Awaken highlights the importance of holding space for "dialogues and self-reflections" during DEI training and that in facilitating these sessions, "diversifying the types of activities is an important part of our learning experience design". DEI training should allow for feedback and for individuals to both position themselves as representatives of their communities (without pressure or "outing" by others), as well as for private one-on-ones with DEI representatives where difficult questions can be asked without judgement. DEI representatives should be open to learning as much from their non-DEI colleagues as those colleagues are expected to learn from them.

Outcomes of reforming DEI practices

As we consider common misconceptions and mistakes around diversity, equality (or equity) and inclusion, key themes emerge. It is evident that an approach that wishes to compartmentalise human experiences into objective, categorical, quantifiable examples only serves to abstract these issues in a way that makes them difficult to relate to and understand. Power dynamics that position DEI representatives as authority figures who can speak for others also serve to undermine the efficacy of DEI training practices. Finally, it is evident that any approach that celebrates difference but does not facilitate that difference thriving in the workplace with the support of appropriate policies will impact wellbeing and attrition as well as an organisation's reputation.

"Power dynamics which position DEI representatives as authority figures who can speak for others also serve to undermine the efficacy of DEI training practices."

It can often come as a surprise to employers how enthusiastic their employees may be to give their time and perspectives to reform DEI practice and policy within their organisation. This is why the dialogues, rather than monologues, approach can be so useful - by pooling the experience, insight and suggestions of employees across the organisation, you can transform DEI to better reflect the needs of the workforce. With its engagement and enthusiasm, this "reflexive" and two-way avenue of feedback will improve the organisation's external reputation as well as employee satisfaction and retention rates. It provides employees with a sense of agency while supplementing the resource base of relevant DEI or HR departments.

We are on the crest of a wave of social change relating to identity politics, human welfare and inclusive workplace reform. With a clear and informed understanding of diversity, equality and inclusion, that wave can take an organisation in the direction of unprecedented success and growth, benefitting stakeholders at all levels both professionally and personally. DEI does not have to be a threatening or intimidating subject - it can, and should, be a tool for exponential progress and the generation of competitive advantage where an organisation truly practices the diversity it preaches.


Binary transgender: An individual who was "assigned male at birth" (AMAB) or "assigned female at birth" (AFAB) but transitioned to another gender within the male-female gender binary. Other (outdated) terms you may have come across are male-to-female (MtF) and female-to-male (FtM).

Cisgender: An individual who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth (which is almost always either male or female)

Intersectionality: A concept which describes how multiple protected characteristics (such as race, gender, disability, socioeconomic status) "intersect" to create unique identities within the intersections.

Non-binary transgender: An individual whose identity does not match the identity they were assigned at birth, but does not identify with either gender within the "gender binary" - male or female. There are many terms for this kind of identity around the world, as gender binaries have not existed in all countries and cultures throughout history, so non-binary is a predominantly Western term. Awareness of non-binary identities is a matter of both gender and race.

Reassignment/affirmation surgeries: Surgery which transgender individuals often undertake to align their physical appearance more with their identity. Originally these were referred to as gender reassignment surgeries but, as gender is a psychological concept and not a biological one, "reassignment" is a misnomer. "Gender affirmation surgery" is considered a more suitable term.