What does diversity mean to you?

What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

-Chip and Dan Heath

I was recently having a conversation about my work, and the senior leader that I was talking with took issue with the way in which I was using the words diversity and inclusion.  I was accused of watering down diversity and doing kumbaya, feel-good presentations on diversity that failed to tackle the stuff that really matters.

A core component of my work is about helping to bring clarity and consistency to the language and logic that we use in diversity and inclusion work.  I always spend some of my time with groups talking about what diversity means, what the key characteristics of diversity are and doing the same thing with inclusion.  I see this as incredibly important because every time I go into an organization and ask employees and leaders what diversity and inclusion are and why they matter to their organization, I hear a bunch of different stuff that does not usually even make a lot of sense.  No consistency.  No clarity.  We might be using the same words (diversity and inclusion) but we are actually all talking about something different…I think it is very difficult to have well informed and actionable conversations when there is no common language in place.

From my perspective…

Diversity means difference and inclusion means our ability to include difference.

Some folks think that I am trying to take attention away from issues related to race and / or gender with this definition.  Some people think that diversity means race relations.  Some people think that it means social justice.  Some people think that I am trying to say that diversity means everything and so it ends up meaning nothing.  This conversation continues to bubble up in my work, so I want to make a few points about why I use the definitions that I use.

  1. The actual meaning of the word diversity is difference. I am not making something up here, I am using the actual definition of the word…which I think is a pretty logical approach.  Diversity does not mean race or race relations.  If you want to talk about race or race relations, then use those words.  If you want to talk about social justice, then use those words.
  2. I do not want to take attention away from race and / or gender or any other specific issue of diversity.  I think that we continue to be deeply and profoundly dysfunctional regarding race and gender and it was actually racial health disparities that brought me into this line of work.  I think that by having a consistent and logical foundation in place regarding difference we are much more likely to have valuable and actionable conversations about specific kinds of difference (such as race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, etc.).
  3. I have been told a number of times that I am trying to say diversity means everything, and it ends up meaning nothing.  I am not saying that diversity means everything, I am saying that it means difference (because it does).  Difference does take many forms though, there are maybe countless ways in which we can be different from each other.  This also does not mean that I am saying that all these kinds of difference are the same (which I have also been accused of)…simply that they are the same kind of thing.  A sunny day is by no means the same thing as a hurricane, but they are both weather.  Differences in thinking styles are not the same thing as differences in values.  Differences in values is not the same thing as differences in race or ethnicity or orientation (all aspects of our social identity).  But they are the same kind of thing…they are kinds of difference.  And again, if we are not wanting to talk about difference, there are other words for us to use.
  4. I am not watering the word down.  I am actually trying to save the word.  It is 2011 and we scratch at our heads at why there is still so much work to do related to diversity and inclusion, yet we are still having conversations about “what diversity is.”  Maybe our greatest barrier to further progress is that this remains an issue that seems very vague and ambiguous to many people, primarily about platitudes and political correctness.  It is watered down now, it means a bunch of different stuff to a bunch of people…and to some people it has become too negative, too complicated, too charged.  On a regular basis I hear business leaders, HR professionals and diversity practitioners that are ready to give up on the word and move to something else.  We should not run away from the word, it is a big, beautiful and powerful word.  And it means difference.


Words do matter.  Language is messy by nature, which is why we must be careful in how we use it.  As leaders, after all, we have little else to work with.  We typically don’t use hammers and saws, heavy equipment, or even computers to do our real work.  The essence of leadership — what we do with 98 percent of our time — is communication.  To master any management practice, we must start by bringing discipline to the domain in which we spend most of our time, the domain of words.

-Peter Senge

Be good to each other.

  1. Delaney Kirk

    Great post. I teach about diversity and inclusion and had an interesting experience in class a few years ago. I’ve published an article about it and the problem with language recently in the Journal of Management Education. You can read more about this here: http://www.delaneykirk.com/2011/02/what-to-do-.html

  2. Barb Holden

    It is very important that we be very clear what we mean in our conversations around this topic. I have been involved in conversations around the terms ‘learning coach’ vs ‘collaborative teaching partner’. The role of the learning coach/collaborative teaching partner will be to work alongside the classroom teacher to design and implement programming. One term means something very different than the other, I believe. I also really appreciate the quote that you have included in the post. Thank you for sharing your thinking!

  3. Sukh Pabial

    What a kick ass post Joe. I am in absolute agreement with your points above. I had to deliver Diversity and Dignity at Work training to staff from an automotive manufacturer. My biggest learning from this was that there may be technically correct definitions of bullying, harassment, equality, etc, but everyday people a) don’t know these definitions exist and b) don’t care. What that meant for me was to start listening to their personal issues and problems they were facing and help them within the confines of the session. As you so rightly say, it’s about difference, and that is at the heart of diversity. No matter which you cut it, we’re looking at the same topic.

    I also agree that when discussing it, we need to be very clear about what exactly we are talking about. How can I appreciate and understand what you’re saying if I haven’t first understood what you are trying to define and explain?

  4. Laurie Hunt

    Thanks Joe for an articulate post about the use of language. Our use of language is important in the change process and so as change agents we must be fussy about it. Simple definitions are good.

    Just yesterday I had a conversation with a colleague about the meaning and use of the word diversity. I agree with you. Diversity means difference. One of my pet peeves is the term “diverse people”. I am seeing it more often and it is being used to refer to people who are not in the dominant group and mostly from a race/ethnicity perspective. Not a good use of the word.

    Yes let’s keep the word diversity and continue to educate about what diversity and inclusion mean.

  5. Beth

    It’s amazing how far away from original meaning we can wander. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Andrew S. Dungan

    BAM! Well done! Probably your best work!

  7. Attitudes towards diversity management: personal lenses | Corporate Diversity

    […] With either a tool or another, a simple scale used by Vinci, or a sophisticated 10 lenses evaluation,  it is always critical to consider the different personal attitudes towards diversity management within an organization. It will affect the speed of the change management process to build an inclusive workplace and your chances to have meaningful conversations with key executives. Beyond self-assessments, perhaps it is just a question of begining with the basic question “What does Diversity mean to you?” […]

  8. Denisha Ruballos

    Thanks for the good read 🙂

  9. Diversity meaning | Mystorycd

    […] joe gerstandt » What does diversity mean to you?Mar 21, 2011 … Diversity means difference and inclusion means our ability to include difference. … The actual meaning of the word diversity is difference. […]

  10. Korynne

    Diversity to me means understanding that each individual is unique and recognising our individual differences. These are along the lines of race, age, gender, religious beliefs, political beliefs and physical ability.

  11. Winnie Smith

    I found this article while looking for the definition of Diversity. I sit on the Diversity Committee for Florida Realtors. The designation At Home With Diversity I’d one we are ting to promote. The challenge is in promoting the full context of Diversity to thousands of Realtors so they will see how important it is to our profession. I would love to have a new logo created that reflects it better than the colorful house we have now. Thoughts?

  12. Data Meant to Inspire: Fostering Creativity in a Organization – Data Meant to Inspire: Fostering Creativity in a Organization

    […] of leading off of the previous point, make sure you have a team that is well diverse. Diversity could mean a lot of things so don’t narrow it down to just what you think it is. Some ways a team can be diverse is through […]

  13. Stephen Miles

    Laurie Hunt’s comment in 2011 above was prescient. In 2018 the meaning of the word ‘diverse’ has changed to become ubiquitous shorthand for those groups in society who we think are discriminated against. So it now means those not in the majority population such as ethnic/racial minorities. I don’t think its original usage meant this at all – as your post shows, in 2011 it meant quite simply ‘difference’, and could just as readily be used to describe different personalities or ways of speaking in any workplace or group.
    My concern in 2018 is that the word is being hijacked as a political weapon to push particular agendas. So ‘diversity’ is always a positive thing – there can be no hint that it might not work or is bad in any way. These sentiments are quite simply excluded from the discourse surrounding this word. Workplaces have to be ‘diverse’ and statistics have now been found to prove that ‘diversity’ is better for productivity.

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