A Question of Semantics? Some Thoughts on the “D” in DEI

In early October 2022, I had the opportunity to attend Diversity Abroad’s Global Inclusion Conference in San Francisco, CA. For me, this was an excellent and exciting opportunity to take a deep dive into the world of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) within the international higher education space. At the same time, I also found myself reminded of just how much work remains to be done and how the field and its leaders appear not yet to have coalesced around a manageable set of focal points.

An Observation and Conundrum (or Two)

Whenever someone mentions the need for greater diversity, DEI practitioners and their supporters around the globe (including myself) react in a rather predictable manner: We nod dutifully, maybe smile with a determined look on our faces… and never question the semantics of what we’re discussing. In short, it appears that everyone talks about “diversity” without really reflecting on what exactly they’re discussing – and, more importantly, why.

I know this may sound harsh and dismissive to some readers. But hear me out.

As I mentioned, there seems to be a somewhat murky understanding of what diversity entails in practice and how our understanding of the issue is shaped by long-established mental models. Case in point: The pre-conference workshop I attended began with facilitators and attendees introducing themselves to the group by using an Identity Wheel. (If you are unfamiliar, it is a set of 20+ dimensions organized in a wheel-like fashion and includes a wide range of aspects like military service, faith, linguistic ability, and socioeconomic status.)

This framework allowed us not only to talk about ourselves in more than the usual four or five aspects that first come to mind but, by extension, to interrogate the diversity of any social group holistically and serve as a compelling way to reflect on and articulate more varied layers of what makes us who we are. I must mention that doing so required humility, vulnerability, and stepping out of our comfort zone. After all, not everyone is so easily predisposed to talking about a hidden disability or difficult upbringing to a group of strangers. In the end, though, I felt this exercise brought the group somewhat closer together and created an initial level of trust and mutual understanding.

So far, so good.

Questions Abound

Here is the thing, though: As the hours passed, even the most seasoned DEI practitioners in attendance reverted to discussing diversity along only the most (over)used lines: race, gender, ethnicity… and, maybe, sexual orientation or age. In the end, that was it.

What about all these other dimensions provided by the Identity Wheel? What about diversity of opinion and perspective? Can we simply assume that being, say, a lesbian or gay person of color will automatically result in a mindset and sets of dispositions our organizations need to flourish? Does the proverbial “checking the box” and “diversifying” our teams in often all too predictable ways necessarily result in changes that truly serve our institutions? These thoughts and more were racing through my mind.

I had many questions. And the one question at the center of it all – one I never heard addressed – was this: What is the actual purpose of diversity?

Ironically, I did not feel comfortable asking this question at the conference. It seemed all too fundamental, ignorant, even heretical and seemed to be attacking the very foundations of the DEI enterprise. I felt like a fool even entertaining these notions. But throughout the conference, they kept coming back. And perhaps I should have asked…

“D” Stands For…?

As 21st-century educators, we certainly have a Duty to foster Diversity in our institutions. (See what I did there?) This goes without saying. In the international education space, it remains crucial that we support the inclusion and participation of students (and administrators) in ways that reflect the demographic makeup of our communities. I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

But why? Again, what is the purpose, the end goal, of DEI initiatives? Of course, bringing a diverse group of local students together with international learners attending our institutions will – given the right circumstances – facilitate a more authentic and meaningful exchange of ideas and help overcome prejudice. In the corporate world, having empowered diverse teams can have the same effect and lead to greater productivity and innovation.

In the end, the answer came to me in another “D.” Isn’t the ultimate goal of diversity the DISRUPTION of inequitable systems and practices that (in education, at least) frequently still perpetuate neocolonial curricula and mindsets, allow the participation of only a privileged few in international or global learning, and continue to bring potentially life-changing opportunities to those who have traditionally benefitted from them?


I propose that the same is true both for organizations within higher education and in the corporate world. After all, what good is a diverse workforce if leadership and the corporate culture perpetuate dehumanizing and task-focused command-and-control structures based on hierarchies, job functions, and work output (as opposed to outcomes)? And as long as what ultimately defines diversity is also what makes us human, does this not mean that failing to humanize the workplace first will result in the eventual failure to diversify?

When we assess someone’s worth in the workplace solely based on their job function and title, we have already failed as leaders.

To me, it’s that simple.

Effective and sustainable leadership is about human connections, inspiring others to do and be better, and holistically caring for and accepting those around us – irrespective of whether they are formally in our change – as fully formed human beings with a need to be themselves and find purpose in what they do.

Only by creating an environment that allows our organizations to be disrupted can we truly activate and leverage the diversity inherent in our teams and – most importantly – change the status quo for the betterment of all.

Therefore, let’s imagine what the future could look like and adjust our DEI strategy accordingly. Let’s listen to the “squeaky wheels,” the “misfit toys,” and the “black sheep” because they can probably teach us something and fill our blind spots. Let’s trust our teams to do the right thing and allow them to speak up without fear of retaliation. And if we happen to be “offended” by someone’s comments, maybe this is precisely the jolt we need to make a change that will serve all and make both our organizations and us better.

A Definition

So, where does all this leave us? What does “DEI” signify?

To me, DEI stands for Disruption through Equitable access and Inclusive caring.

Although some may see such a rephrasing of the acronym as splitting hairs and having no inherent value, it certainly helps me maintain a focus on what ends DEI initiatives ultimately serve and what it takes to get there. Of course, achieving this goal requires assembling a diverse workforce, but not by checking boxes so we can feel good about ourselves. Diversity, in all its many facets, must ultimately lead to the disruption of unjust systems and the elimination of inequities. That, to me, is the true purpose of these initiatives, no matter the organizational context.

This article was originally published on December 1, 2022, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.