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The challenge of defining equality, diversity and inclusion [EDI]

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

Having a clear definition and vision of EDI is a key starting point for successful and effective EDI activity, and employees should be part of the team that define it.

Very few companies have a clear vision underpinning their EDI activity

Companies are recognising the importance of investing in equality, diversity and inclusion [EDI], and research provides plentiful evidence that diverse workforces, executive teams and boards provide very beneficial outcomes for businesses (1). However despite the myriad of EDI programs and activities, it is surprising to learn that as little as a third of companies have an agreed in-house definition for equality, diversity and inclusion (2) .

Given that the unique company environment affects the success of EDI efforts and the large number of possible EDI activities out there, it is a fundamental oversight not to clearly define these terms, and what success should look like, before investing any time and money in EDI activity. This lack of clarity of what EDI should look like is perhaps one of the reasons that 16% of the 5,000 recently surveyed senior business leaders in the UK seem unconvinced that EDI efforts have a positive effect on company performance (3) . Research has also shown that not having a clear and consistent definition of diversity can inadvertently reinforce discrimination bias and stereotyping in the workplace, as people bring narrow views to what diversity means (4) .

The challenge of defining EDI

The terms equality, diversity and inclusion take on different meanings depending on a range of elements: from external factors like industry and geographic location to internal skills, capacity and commitment to cultural change (5) . Broader societal influences such as availability of education also have a part to play; the availability of highly trained individuals of a particular ethnicity or gender may limit the ability of companies to meet targets set on these criteria.

Defining ‘what success looks like’ is also challenging. As an example, it is broadly accepted that 50/50 is a good benchmark for gender representativeness, but this becomes complex as soon as other characteristics of equality or diversity are considered. Conceptually, one may think of equality and diversity as occupying opposite ends of a continuum (6) but the terms are also mutually exclusive, as you can have

one without the other (7) .

So, companies are well advised create their own definitions, and make this clear in their policy and strategy. This precision will create a clear message for internal and external stakeholders and signal the values that underpin its approach to EDI. From this, a common understanding of what successful equality, diversity and inclusion looks like should follow. And then, the activity and action planning should begin.

Create definitions by consensus for maximum cultural change

Notably, companies should not underestimate the importance of engaging broadly with their employees in helping to define these terms. Research shows that failed EDI efforts can be really damaging (8) . Furthermore, the approach of ‘add diversity and stir’ can create conflict (9) , time and resource costs (10) . On the other hand, employees helping to define the EDI vision become ambassadors of the work, and help shape both existing culture and any new arrival’s understanding. This approach ultimately helps to develop more targeted EDI efforts and more effective results. Identifying key employee stakeholders is therefore critical, and consideration should be given to ensuring both diverse voices and social influencers are included. Verifying their input against broad staff opinion, via survey or consultants, would add legitimacy and transparency to the process.

Process for Defining Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)

Definitions to bring to the table

Some definitions are provided to help you kick off these discussions in the unique context of your organisation, framing it around the questions: “What does our profile look like, is that OK, and how would we change it?”

Equality. Defined by the Equality Act of 2010 (England, Scotland and Wales), this is typically described as the fair and unbiased treatment of others. Equality is viewed through the lens of protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion/belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage/civil partnership or pregnancy/maternity (11) . Explicit and indirect discrimination, or a failure to make reasonable adjustments and the harassment and victimisation along those lines are all punishable by law. There is also an expectation that all groups should have equal opportunities.

Diversity. Companies tend to define and interpret this term quite differently from one another (12) . It is frequently measured by the representativeness in the numbers of those with protected characteristics, yet the underlying concept is that companies should value individuals despite their ‘difference’. Difference can encompass political, national, social class, linguistic and other categories of identity which might be sources of social inequality (13) but are not legally protected so perhaps do not so powerfully appeal to a sense of justice (14 ).

Inclusion. Companies who strive to get the most out of employees do so by creating organisational cultures that make them feel involved and empowered, not only represented. The following quotes provide a nice contrast with diversity:

“If diversity is having a balance of different voices in a business,

inclusion is making sure those voices are heard” (15)


“Diversity is going to a party; Inclusion is being a member of the party-

planning committee”. (16)

Inclusion is therefore a facet of organisational culture, a work environment of empowerment and accountability, ultimately shaped by leadership (17) .

This article is part of a series based on research which involved interviews with global equality, diversity and inclusion professionals on what it takes to deliver successful EDI programs and how EDI consultants can bring value. To see or discuss the original research, please contact the author on

Ivana Vasic Chalmers, Working in strategic planning, risk and governance in higher education, Ivana works with leadership and the Board to develop frameworks, programs and process to support the strategic plan. A passionate advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion, she has led equality initiatives and teams, published research on the subject and works pro-bono for a start-up focused on improving lives of working parents and their children. Having lived in the Balkans, South Africa, the Middle East and United Kingdom, she is fascinated by the effects of culture on gender parity.


1 CIPD, 2004. Managing Diversity. Learning by Doing.

2 Society for Human Resource Management, 2007. Annual Report

3 Grant Thornton, 2018. Women in business: beyond policy to progress


4 Pasztor, 2016. Exploring the Framing of Diversity Rhetoric in “Top-Rated in Diversity”

Organisations. International Journal of Business Communication. Sage.

5 Anderson and Metcalf, 2003. A Retrospective View of Corporate Diversity Training From 1964 to

the Present. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 7 (3), 356 – 372.

6 Malvin and Girling, 2000. What is managing diversity and why does it matter? Human Resource

Development International, 3 (4), 419-433.

7 Ibid

8 Dobbin and Kalev, 2016. Why Diversity Programs Fail? Harvard Business Review. Available from:

9 Rosenzweig, 1998. Managing the New Global Workforce: Fostering Diversity, Forging

Consistency. European Management Journal, 16, 644–652

10 Metcalf, H. and Forth, J. (2000). Business Benefits of Race Equality at Work. DfEE Research

report No 177, London: Department for Education and Employment. DTI (Department of Trade

and Industry). 2004. Women in the IT Industry: Towards a Business Case for Diversity. Interim

Report. London: DTI. Benschop, Y. (2001). Pride, prejudice and performance: relations between

HRM, diversity and performance. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 12(7),

1166- 1181.

11 EHRC, 2018. Equality Act 2010 Handbook for Advisers. Available from


12 Pasztor, 2016.

13 Mannix and Neale, 2005. What Differences Make a Difference? Psychological Science in the

Public Interest, 6(2), 31-55.

14 Benschop, 2001:1166

15 Grant Thornton, 2018.

16 Daniel Juday:

17 Grant Thornton, 2018.

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