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First, define the words.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

As an educator, I’ve always found it helpful to begin a lesson with a review of vocabulary. There’s nothing worse than looking out over a sea of blank faces during the middle of a lesson and finding out that there is confusion over foundational concepts. It is better to flag and address potential misunderstandings right away.

With this in mind, I’d like to explain a few vital terms and concepts related to inclusion and diversity efforts that are often incorrectly used interchangeably.

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Privilege is about access. It’s not necessarily about race or gender, although that’s how it’s usually addressed in conversation. Who has the privilege changes depending on location and circumstances. Who benefits from privilege in a Fortune 500 company in the US is different from who benefits in China, El Salvador, or within a professional association. So privilege should be thought of as relative.  

Being underrepresented is about numbers. How many of something there are. When you compare the number of men to women in tech, women would be considered underrepresented. Which means that there are fewer women working in tech than men. It’s that simple.

Being marginalized is about treatment. Particularly, it refers to the groups of people who have been historically mistreated, discriminated against, and harmed emotionally and physically. This is a term that many incorrectly use interchangeably with underrepresented. So going back to the previous example, although women are underrepresented in tech, very few white women are also marginalized. Which means that more white women in tech does not equal diversity. This is especially the case in circumstances where white people are also benefiting from privilege. Examples of marginalized groups in the US would include people of color, individuals with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community.


Diversity is about variety. I like to use the example of a crayon box. Someone with a great amount of skill could be really creative if given only a box of four crayons, but the average person would feel pretty limited. But if given a box of 64 crayons, most people would feel unlimited in their ability to create, including the ability to create additional colors by blending what they have together. And this is the idea of diversity in the workplace. The ability to create together what could never be created from the perspective of only one or two homogenous groups. It’s this variety and the ability to blend for the purpose of creating that enables business leaders to innovate, differentiate, and gain a competitive advantage.  

Finally, there’s inclusion, which is about experience—the experience of a person, a group, or a community. It is how fully I feel that I can show up as my authentic self in the spaces that I enter. It’s how safe and welcomed I feel. It’s whether my ideas are supported and included in decisions and whether I am given credit for them. It’s demonstrated in the expectation that, rather than  requiring me to assimilate to the current culture and environment, what makes me unique will instead be absorbed, thereby creating an entirely different experience for everyone. Inclusion is not about the person changing to fit in, but rather about the environment shifting to accommodate those things that make each person unique. Inclusion is the holy grail. It is the end game. It’s not about the individual but the collective experience. But when we focus our attention on ensuring that only those with privilege feel included, we miss out on opportunities to create better products and services for a global consumer or client.

It is my hope that by taking the time to define these very important terms that are at the foundation of any work being done to improve inclusion and diversity it will enable business leaders to begin conversations and evaluate their efforts to ensure that inclusion becomes a strategy for organizational success.