Corporate diversity experts get stumped when asked what the D word means, suggesting society needs an answer.
  • A recent push to broaden workforces focuses on people of color, and may downplay women, older workers and those with disabilities who also bring variety to a company.  
  • Working towards diversity requires being specific about the groups included in its definition.
  • Diversity has come to mean many different things, sowing confusion and miscommunication; companies need to be specific, experts say.

This question stumped them: “How do you define diversity?”

“Them” was a group of corporate diversity specialists at a New York conference, which drew attendees from all over the country last year.

What followed the audience member’s question was dead silence and deer-in-the-headlights stares from the panelists to the questioner. Finally, only one panelist, a man, ventured, “It means that we want to include more women in management.” 

When so-called diversity experts either can’t or won’t answer a question that’s at the core of their work life, how can employers, job applicants and the public at large figure out how to define diversity and put it into practice?

“It’s an important question,” Nate Wong, managing director at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, told Karma. “I don’t think it’s helpful that diversity has come to mean so many things. Sometimes it refers to people who are not white. Sometimes it means other attributes. Or it has become a monolithic word to define representation.”

“In its purest form, it’s meant to be inclusive, to identify racial, ethnic, gender or sexual orientation differences,” he added. “It’s best to be specific about what those differences are so, whether it’s race or gender or other traits, that diversity is clearly defined for all. If you are focusing on women, then say it. If you are focusing on blacks, then say that, too.” 

Since George Floyd’s death in police custody in May, talk of diversity has more often focused on blacks and other persons of color. However, that leaves out the many other ways diversity can be defined and those it can include — women, those over age 50, persons who are mentally and physically challenged, transgender people, and refugees or persons from specific countries or regions. 

“Inclusive” is a stronger, more definitive, word than “diversity,” Wong said. It’s a word that’s often paired with diversity when human resources professionals discuss varying their workforces. They often define their companies now as having diverse and inclusive policies.

Doing the right thing in terms of diversity and inclusiveness is only one advantage for companies. Another clear benefit of having a management team and board with people of color, women and all different age groups, for example, is that the companies tend to be more profitable, productive and innovative than those that don’t.

“We want to build inclusion,” Molly Ford,’s director of the office of equality, told Barron’s. Ford also cited company research showing workplace equality influences employee engagement and that an inclusive culture increases productivity.   

McKinsey and Co.’s “Delivering Through Diversity” report found that companies “in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.” It also concluded that the best-performing firms on both profitability and diversity had more women in revenue-generating roles than in staff roles on their executive teams. The McKinsey writers added that what also helped produce better results were greater diversity in race, sexual orientation and international experience.