What is DEI? The Oxford Review Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
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What is DEI? The Oxford Review Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion)

What is DEI?

The initials DEI stands for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and might also be seen as DEI&E in some organisations and consultancies, which refers to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Equality. For this briefing we will use the shortened form of ‘DEI’ (Definitions of each of these terms are given below).

What is EDI?

You may also see the term EDI used by some organisations. This refers to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion however these organisations have placed the emphasis on equity.

A brief history of DEI / EDI

The term ‘DEI’ has its roots in the social justice movements of the 1950’s and 60’s in the US and other countries like the UK. This was a period marked by a push for civil, equal rights and non-discrimination primarily based around the injustices being witnessed in those societies particularly around issues of race and gender inequalities such as segregation, voting, access to housing and other resources and other basic human rights. 

These movements have gained increasing traction in recent years across societies in many countries particularly in the Western world. As a result of legislation in many countries enshrining human rights often focussing on equality, anti-discrimination and a recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion in modern societies, DEI has, more recently, become the representation of all of those initiatives, especially in organisations abd businesses.

CSR – Corporate and Social Responsibility

An essential part of this continuing movement for greater representation, equality, equity and inclusion has been the increasing realisation that businesses and organisations (and their employees) are part of and have a responsibility to society in general. CSR or corporate social responsibility encapsulates the idea that organisations and businesses have moral, ethical and social responsibilities. Since the 1980’s organisations have realised and the findings from research studies have shown that there is a strong business case for having a more diverse workforce and working conditions that are equitable, fair and just. In effect that people need to be looked after if they are to do their best work.

I will look at some of this research findings in the recent research section below.

The United Nations Charter of Human Rights

No history of DEI can be complete without reference to the United Nations Charter of Human Rights which was the foundational treaty of the United Nations (UN). The Charter’s preamble sets forth the UN’s purposes and principles, including the promotion of social progress and better standards of life, reaffirming faith in fundamental human rights, and the dignity and worth of the human person. It establishes a commitment to uphold and promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

Signed on 26 June 1945, 51 countries initially, in the wake of the atrocities of World War II, the Charter emphasised the importance of fundamental human rights. It laid the groundwork for more detailed human rights treaties and declarations, notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted on 10 December 1948.

There are now 193 countries who are signatories (out of 195 countries in the world as at January 2024). The other two countries are considered to be observer states (The Holy See (Vatican City) and the State of Palestine).

DEI and The UN Charter of Human Rights and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As such, The United Nations Charter of Human Rights and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) form the basis virtually every country’s legislation around human rights, anti-discrimination and equality and every DEI / EDI initiative. The Charter represents a milestone in the effort to establish a global standard for human dignity and rights, reflecting the collective aspiration of nations towards peace and humanity’s welfare.

The Oxford Review DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Dictionary

Why DEI professionals need to know the UN Charter and UDHR

Every DEI professional should know and understand both The UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because:

  • Foundational Principles of Equality and Human Dignity – Both documents articulate fundamental principles of human dignity, equality, and non-discrimination. These principles are the bedrock of DEI efforts, aiming to create environments where all individuals are respected and valued irrespective of their background.
  • Global Framework for Human Rights – The UN Charter and UDHR provide a global framework for human rights. DEI professionals working in multinational organisations or in diverse cultural contexts benefit from understanding these universal standards to ensure their practices are aligned with internationally recognised human rights.
  • Guidance for Policy Development – The principles outlined in these documents serve as valuable guidelines for developing organisational policies and practices. DEI professionals can draw upon these standards to advocate for inclusive and equitable workplace policies.
  • Legal and Ethical Benchmark – The UN Charter and UDHR are referenced in many national and international laws concerning human rights and equality. Understanding these documents helps DEI professionals navigate the legal landscape and uphold ethical standards in their initiatives.
  • Promotion of Inclusivity and Respect for Diversity – These documents emphasize the importance of respecting and embracing diversity, which is central to the work of DEI professionals. They provide a rationale for promoting inclusivity in all aspects of organizational life.
  • Educational and Awareness Tool – DEI professionals can use these documents as educational tools to raise awareness about the importance of human rights and the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and beyond.
  • Addressing Global Challenges – In an increasingly interconnected world, challenges such as migration, globalisation, and international business require a thorough understanding of global human rights standards. DEI professionals can and should apply these standards to address such challenges effectively.

Read the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has direct access to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you are a DEI professional detailed knowledge of both treaties is essential:

The Meaning of DEI

Understanding the meaning of DEI beyond the basic terms (diversity, equity and inclusion) included in the acronym D.E.I. is important for every DEI professional and anyone involved in

  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Human Resources
  • Learning and Development including coaching
  • Organisational Development
  • Work and industrial psychology
  • and just about any other position within organisations

In this section I will look at the meaning of DEI through each of its primary components.

Diversity – definition and explanation

Diversity refers to the differences between people within any group or organisation. In terms of diversity the categories of differences that tend to be applied to groups of people and which make a difference to people and their perceptions of each other include areas like:

  • Education
  • Race (see below for the difference between race, ethnicity and nationality)
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity (see below for the difference between race, ethnicity and nationality)
  • Nationality (see below for the difference between race, ethnicity and nationality)
  • Language
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability  
  • Economic status – Financial resources and income level. It is typically measured by income, wealth, or material possessions.
  • Socioeconomic status – Refers to both social and economic factors and comprises not just income, but also educational attainment, occupational prestige, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. Socioeconomic status often indicates one’s overall position within a societal structure.
  • Social background on the other hand refers to the social environment and context one grows up and lives in. This includes factors like family structure, race/ethnicity, neighbourhood, education systems, cultural values, etc. Social background shapes an individual’s opportunities, behaviours and perspectives on the world.
  • and so on.

The critical differences between race, ethnicity and nationality

The distinctions between race, ethnicity and nationality (as well as the terms culture, minority and indigenous) are often confused and used interdependently. However, within the DEI literature and research there are definitive differences between these terms:

Race – Definition and explanation

Race refers to groups of people who share certain physical or biological traits considered significant within a society, such as skin colour, facial features, hair texture, etc. Race is considered to be a social construct without scientific basis as a system of identity or classification. The following should help to explain this idea that race is considered to be a social rather than a scientific construct:

  • Historical Perspective – The concept of race has evolved significantly over time. Historically, it was often used to justify social hierarchies and inequalities, particularly in the context of colonialism and slavery.
  • Biological Diversity – From a biological standpoint, the human species exhibits relatively little genetic variation. The genetic differences between individuals of the same ‘race’ tend to be as significant as those between individuals of different ‘races’ (American Association of Physical Anthropologists, 2019).
  • Genetic Research – Genetic research has shown that most physical variations (like skin color) are found in gradual gradients across geographical areas, challenging the idea of distinct racial categories (Royal Society, 2020).
  • Cultural and Social Dimensions – Race is often more about cultural and social identity than biological differences. These identities are shaped by societal beliefs, histories, and experiences rather than by clear-cut biological distinctions.
  • Impact on Society – Despite its lack of scientific basis, the social construct of race has real and profound impacts on individuals and societies. It influences social dynamics, access to resources, and individual experiences (American Psychological Association, 2019).
  • Policy and Research Implications – In research, including those related to leadership, management, and organisational development, understanding race as a social construct is crucial for analysing how racial categorisations affect people’s experiences and opportunities in the workplace and society at large.

Ethnicity – definition and explanation

Ethnicity on the other hand refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, beliefs that connect a particular group. Ethnicity is fluid, self-identified, and may change over time. The concept of ethnicity, like race, is complex and multifaceted, with its own set of challenges and considerations:

  • Definition of Ethnicity – Ethnicity refers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. It’s typically based on common ancestry, language, history, society, culture, or nation (Eriksen, T.H. (2002). Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. Pluto Press).
  • Social Construct – Similar to race, ethnicity is considered a social construct. It’s based on group identifications and cultural factors, rather than biological ones.
  • Cultural and Historical Contexts – Ethnicity is deeply embedded in historical and cultural contexts. It encompasses a broader range of characteristics than race, including traditions, heritage, language, religion, and shared history.
  • Diversity and Identity – Ethnic identity can be a source of pride and community. However, it can also lead to exclusion and conflict, especially in multicultural societies.
  • Challenges in Classification – Classifying ethnicities can be challenging because of their fluid and subjective nature. Individuals may identify with multiple ethnicities or change their ethnic identification over time.
  • Impact on Organisational Dynamics – In organisational settings, understanding ethnicity is important for addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It plays a crucial role in shaping individuals’ experiences and perspectives in the workplace.
  • Policy and Research Implications – In fields like organisational development and human resources, considering ethnic diversity is key to developing effective policies and practices that respect and leverage cultural differences.

While ethnicity, like race, is a social construct, it encompasses a broader range of cultural and historical factors. It’s a significant aspect of identity that affects social dynamics, including in organisational and workplace contexts. Understanding the nuances of ethnicity is important for fostering inclusive and equitable environments.

Nationality – definition and explanation

Nationality usually refers to the country where someone holds legal citizenship/nationality. It may overlap with ethnicity and race but the key distinction is its basis in a legal relationship with a nation.

The idea of nationality, similar to race and ethnicity, carries its own complexities and potential issues. For example:

  • Definition of Nationality – Nationality is typically associated with legal membership in a nation-state, including the rights citizens have and what their duties (like national service in the armed forces etc.) might be. Nationality is normally determined by legal, political, and geographical boundaries.
  • National Identity vs. Nationalism – National identity can foster a sense of belonging and shared community within a national boundary or country. However, nationalism on the other hand, or the extreme promotion of one’s nation and the interests of that nation above others, frequently leads to exclusion, conflict, and xenophobia.
  • Legal and Political Dimensions – Nationality has significant legal and political implications, affecting rights like voting, working, and residing in a country. It also influences international relations and policies.
  • Impact on Globalisation – In an increasingly globalised world, the concept of nationality is both important and problematic. It can create barriers to global cooperation and contribute to inequalities between nations.
  • Challenges with Multinational Identities – People with multinational identities or those living in diaspora (A group of people who spread from one original country to other countries, or the act of spreading in this way) often face challenges in terms of belonging and identity, as they navigate multiple national affiliations.
  • Influence on Organisational Contexts – In the workplace, nationality can influence organisational dynamics, including diversity and inclusion efforts. Understanding the diverse national backgrounds of employees is important for creating inclusive environments.
  • Policy Implications – Nationality plays a crucial role in policy-making, especially in areas like immigration, labor laws, and international collaboration as well as for organisational policy and strategy.

Other concepts important to Diversity

There are many other important concepts and terms connected to DEI. For a more complete and growing dictionary of DEI terms and phrases you may like to have a look at The Oxford Review DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) Dictionary.

Equity – Definition and Explanation

Equity refers to fairness and justice in access to opportunities and distribution of resources. The goal of equity is to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background or identity, has the support and resources they need to be successful.

The term equity means providing individualised support based on each person’s circumstances, which may mean allocating resources unequally to those with greater need. The end goal is equality of outcomes, not just equality of treatment. There is a major distinction here between equity and equality.

The difference between equity and equality

Equity and equality are two distinct concepts within the context of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Understanding the difference between them is essential for effective DEI strategies in organisations:


  • Definition – Equality focuses on providing everyone with the same resources or opportunities.
  • Application in organisational DEI contexts – In an organisational context, equality means ensuring every employee has access to the same resources, such as training, support, and opportunities for advancement.
  • Limitation – It assumes that everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things to succeed, which may not address the varying needs and challenges faced by different groups.


  • Definition – Equity, on the other hand, involves recognising that each person has different issues and sets of circumstances. This means they each need a unique set of resources and opportunities needed to reach their potential and outcomes.
  • Application in organisational DEI contexts – In practice, this means providing more support or resources to those who have been historically disadvantaged or marginalised, to ensure fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement. In effect people need different things to level the playing field.
  • Benefit – By acknowledging and addressing unequal starting points, equity aims to promote fairness and justice within the workplace.

This distinction between equality and equity is an important one in organisational DEI. In effect, equality is achieved through equity, where everyone has the same opportunities but need different resources to get there.

A powerful equity – equality example

A simple, but powerful example I often use in organisations that gets the point across is that short sighted (Difficulty focusing on close objects or small print) people need reading glasses and other people don’t. To either not allow anyone to wear reading glasses or make everyone wear reading glasses makes no sense at all. It is an absurd notion. Equity is basically saying, treat people according to their needs to help them achieve what they are capable of.

Equity and bias

Equity seeks to address systemic barriers and biases that have historically disadvantaged certain groups (e.g. racial/ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities). It aims to level the playing field for everyone.

Equity and inclusion

True inclusion requires an equitable environment where diverse perspectives are valued and everyone feels able and willing to participate fully. Equity is an essential condition for meaningful inclusion in any organisation. See the next section on inclusion. Equity is really about justness of distribution and access to opportunities that create the conditions for true belonging and participation. It requires addressing the root causes of disparities, not just the symptoms.

Inclusion – Definition and explanation

Inclusion refers to the practice of intentional, ongoing efforts to ensure everyone, regardless of background, identity, ability and experience feel welcomed, valued, listened to, respected, supported and encouraged to fully participate in all aspects of organisational life and are involved in pertinent decision making processes.

Key points about inclusion

  • Inclusion is more than simple diversity representation. It’s about creating environments where diverse perspectives and individuals are actively sought out, heard, and integrated.
  • True inclusion requires examining systemic barriers and biases that prevent marginalised or minority groups from having influence. It aims to redistribute power more equitably.
  • Inclusion necessitates that everyone, not just the leadership or key functions like HR, are involved in co-creating a respectful organisational culture. In effect, all voices matter.
  • As a component of DEI, inclusion focuses on engagement, belonging, accessibility, and participation at individual and systemic levels across the organisation.
  • Inclusion involves the active and intentional involvement of diverse individuals in decision-making, planning, and organisational development processes.
  • It is important to be inclusive when developing and implementing policies and practices that support diversity and inclusion, such as flexible working arrangements, inclusive recruitment practices and anti-discrimination policies.
  • Inclusion is an ongoing process, not a one-time initiative and committing to continuous learning and improvement in this area is critical for organisations. Demographics, research and ideas change around the entire area of DEI.

The Importance of Research and Evidence-Based DEI

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become priorities for many organisations, businesses and institutions. There is growing evidence that diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments lead to a range of positive outcomes for both employees and their respective organisations.

Evidence-Based DEI

Evidence-based DEI refers to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and policies that are supported by scientific research and is now a major plank of organisation evidence-based practice. This research draws from fields like psychology, sociology, education, and organisational behaviour. For more about evidence-based practice see The Essential Guide to Evidence-Based Practice.

Research in DEI serves as a critical resource for understanding the complex dynamics of diverse workforces. It provides empirical evidence and insights into the effectiveness of various DEI initiatives, helping organisations to make informed decisions and implement strategies that are not only morally sound but have also been shown to be beneficial to the organisations bottom line.

Evidence-based DEI practices

Evidence-based DEI practices are those that are grounded in rigorous research and have been shown to effectively promote diversity, foster equity and ensure inclusion in the workplace as well as provide the outcomes organisations need. One of the issues with any form of practice, be it business, management, leadership, HR, sales, practices, is that they are constantly evolving and being updated as new contexts, practices and evidence become apparent.

It is important therefore for professionals in any field to keep up-to-date with the latest thinking, research and evidence as things change and evolve.

The definition of a ‘professional’

There are a range of characteristics that contribute to what it is that makes a professional in any field, including, leadership, management, sales, HR, DEI and so on. These include:

  • Expertise Knowledge and Competence – Possessing advanced skills and knowledge in a specific field, usually acquired through extensive learning and experience
  • High Ethical Standards – Adhering to recognised ethical and moral standards, specific to their profession.
  • A Commitment to the Field – Demonstrating a long-term continual commitment to developing their professional knowledge, skills and contributing to the advancement within their field.
  • Autonomy in Practice – Having the authority and independence to make decisions based on one’s professional judgement.
  • Service Orientation – Prioritising the interests of clients, patients, or employees etc. often over personal gain.
  • Continuous Learning – Engaging in ongoing continual professional development to keep abreast of advancements in their field.
  • Keeping up-to-date – Professionals are defined by how up-to-date their expertise and knowledge is. Understanding what the latest research is saying and using the latest finding to inform their judgements, decisions and actions in an area like DEI is an essential trait of a professional.

Keeping up-to-date with the latest research, ideas and thinking in DEI

However, keeping up-to-date with the latest research, ideas and thinking in DEI is a real problem for any professional. The main problems with keeping up-to-date are:

  • Time Consuming – Getting the time to search for, read and assimilate research findings, think about the implications of the research etc. is a real constraint for many professionals because each of these processes are time consuming.
  • Comprehension Issues – Academic research papers tend to be written in the academic language of research. Unless you are part of the research community, unpicking the pertinent aspects of a research paper can be difficult and fraught with translational issues.
  • Searching for Research – Searching for the right research is both time consuming and can be frustrating. There are over 130,000 new research studies published every month, and that rate increases at about 9% per year – every year. For example in the first 5 days of 2024 there were over 1,580 DEI research papers published! Thats 316 papers a day.
  • Access issues – Many of the most valuable papers are hidden behind paywalls or simply aren’t accessible to non-academic researchers, hidden away in academic databases and libraries and yet they often contain the most valuable and actionable information for organisations.
  • Making the Research Actionable – Extracting and translating the right findings that can be turned into action, practice, policy and/or strategy is not easy without expertise.

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