So, You Want to Work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI / D&I)? Here's What You Should Know!



Note: Below is a modified transcript from the video embedded above.


Recently, I've had a lot of conversations with folks who are interested in working in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Space (DEI). Here are some things to consider:


First, let’s be clear about what the words Diversity Equity and Inclusion actually mean.


So, diversity, simply put, is the presence of differences. Often people think of the big 3: gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but diversity is so much more. We can think of abilities and disabilities, religious affiliation, age, culture, socioeconomic status, etc. All of that contributes to our collective mix of differences as humans.


Second is equity, which is about promoting fairness. One of my favorite visuals for understanding equity and differentiating it from equality is the Bike illustration below.


A two part illustration to differentiate between equality and equity. In the first illustration, the equality illustration, four individuals of various physical statures and abilities are provided the same bike. Only one person can comfortably sit on the bike. In the second illustration, the equity illustration, the same four individuals have been provided with bikes that fit their individual physical needs.
Visualizing Health Equity

Image: Visualizing Health Equity by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Image Description: A two part illustration to differentiate between equality and equity. In the first illustration, the equality illustration, four individuals of various physical statures and abilities are provided the same bike. Only one person can comfortably sit on the bike. In the second illustration, the equity illustration, the same four individuals have been provided with bikes that fit their individual physical needs.


Equality takes on a one-size-fits-all approach, giving everyone the same size and shaped bike, assuming they’ll make it work. Whereas equity requires us to look at individual needs and provide each person with the same thing (a bike), but one that is custom-fit to their needs––allowing them to thrive and do their best work. Equity is a critical component for making sure no one is left behind. You can read a bit more about my thoughts on equity here.


And third is inclusion, which is about making sure that all that are diverse, not only feel but are welcome into a space––meaning they have their voices heard, and can contribute to decision making.


And just to note, there are a number of variations to DEI out there: previously it was just D&I (diversity and inclusion), but now you may see I&D and IED (which put an emphasis on inclusion and equity before diversity).


There’s also DEIB, which adds on the idea of belonging.


There’s DEIA (which adds the idea of access or accessibility).


And there are a few others out there 😅. But essentially, all of these acronyms refer to the same body of work.


DEI, at the moment, is most commonly used, and it’s what I use because, quite frankly, I just don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel. For me the work itself and the outcomes are much more important than the title or the order of words.


So now that we’ve got that out of the way….


When it comes to DEI in the workplace or within an organization, DEI is really a catch-all term used to describe the various strategies, initiatives, programs, policies, etc., that foster representation and participation of individuals from a variety of backgrounds (i.e. diversity).


From my experience over the years, there are really 6 primary focus areas that DEI work falls under:

  1. Leadership Engagement: which centers around leadership expectations and inclusive best practices

  2. Communications: thinking about how we embed DEI into our internal and external interactions

  3. Recruiting: thinking about how to evolve the mindset, practices, and partnerships used to attract talent

  4. Data & Impact: establishing usable data sets, both quantitative and qualitative, to make decisions and identify solutions

  5. Employee Enablement: establishing shared ownership of fostering inclusive and equitable workplaces

  6. Employee Development: which is making sure that all employees have equitable access to resources, trainings, etc. to further develop their careers


Now I won’t go into too much detail about these areas today, but just know that the vast majority of work in the DEI space generally falls under one or more of these categories. And imperative to DEI work, is a strong emphasis on change management and organizational development.


So, now that we’ve talked about what DEI stands for, and what the work looks like within an organization, let’s zoom into some of the skills and competencies that a person needs to work in this space:


Historically DEI has been sort of an add-on to existing HR and People Team roles; however, now we’re seeing more defined DEI roles with clear objectives and responsibilities. For example, there are entry-level positions, such as DEI coordinators and assistants. There are usually more mid-level roles, such as DEI Project or Program Managers and Business Partners. And of course there are more senior or executive roles, such as Director of DEI and Chief Diversity officer.

And it’s important to note that the path to working in the DEI space can vary significantly. I know plenty of people, like myself, who entered this space through recruiting. Some came into DEI through HR and L&D (Learning & Development). There are also people who came into this work by way of psychology and social studies and other human-centered fields. Again, the entry point into this work varies significantly––what’s most important is that you identify your existing transferable skills and work to strengthen others.


So let’s talk about some of the skills and competencies needed to work in DEI...


First, It’s really important to note that belonging to a marginalized or underrepresented group does NOT make you qualified to be a DEI practitioner or professional. Nor does having a child or significant other belonging to an underrepresented group qualify you. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a unique perspective and experience to share and to leverage, but know that that is not enough. There are a number of skills and competencies that are critical to working in the DEI space. I won’t talk through all of them, but I do want to highlight a few.


I’m a huge fan of research, so I’m leveraging a study conducted by The Conference Board, which is a non-profit organization that conducts research and produces insights to support over 1000 private and public organizations across more than 60 countries. They conducted the aforementioned study back in 2008 and identified 7 buckets of core competencies that DEI professionals should possess:

  1. Change Management

  2. Diversity, Inclusion, and Global Perspective

  3. Business Acumen

  4. Strategic External Relations

  5. Integrity

  6. Visionary & Strategic Leadership

  7. HR competencies


Obviously this study is a bit out of date, but from my experience and conversations that I’ve had with other DEI professionals, this list of skills is still very relevant. So if you’re interested in working in DEI, or if you’re already working in the space and trying to elevate your career, definitely check out this study! It breaks down each of those buckets into more defined, tangible skills which you can use to benchmark and track your own growth and progress against.


One skill that wasn’t really touched on or explored in the study is self-awareness. In fact, when they surveyed the diversity professionals to collect this data and develop the competency list, they asked them to list the top skills needed to achieve global success in the DEI space. Self-awareness was listed last, with just 1 person indicating that it was a key to their success.


Now if you are working in the DEI space, and particularly if you are someone who identifies as a marginalized individual, you MUST be self-aware and know how to practice self care.


Working in the DEI space is emotionally taxing and burnout is so real! Every successful DEI professional that I’ve encountered has been insanely introspective and aware of their limits. So, be mindful of that as you go on to explore this work.


The last thing that I’ll touch on here is education…


A lot of folks often ask if they need a specific educational background or DEI certification to do this work. In short, the answer is no.


Sure, you can get an MBA or other professional level degree. There are also a number of DEI certifications out there. But is it a necessity? No.


There is just so much nuance and ambiguity in the DEI space, that much of the skills development and knowledge leading up to becoming a DEI subject matter expert, is simply based on experience and trial & error. It’s also important to note that many of the traditional approaches and frameworks to DEI work, which many of these DEI programs have centered their certifications around, haven’t worked. BUT! You should still be aware of what’s worked or hasn’t worked over the years, for example, you should have some foundational understanding of affirmative action, the pros/cons of it, and how it led to the DEI industry as we know it today.


That’s all for now! I hope this was helpful for those of you interested in working in DEI. If you have questions or if there are specific topics you’d like me to discuss, please drop me a note. And please subscribe to my YouTube channel or check back here for weekly updates!


Be well,

Adriele