What is inclusion and how does it differ from diversity?

How inclusive is your organization? And what does it mean anyway? We take a closer look at why inclusion is key to developing a thriving diverse workforce.

CULTURE | 7 MINUTE READ

People often use the words inclusion and diversity interchangeably, but they mean very different things. While diversity is about representation, inclusion is more a feeling of involvement. Together, they're a winning combination for company culture.

It’s really important that every business leader knows and understands the concepts. Studies show that a healthy balance of people from different backgrounds and cultures makes organizations more successful. Not only that, they’re more reflective of a multicultural society – a priority for brands who want to be more in touch with their customers.

McKinsey’s latest report on diversity shows that companies with greater ethnic diversity perform 36% better than those with the least diversity. What’s more, companies with greater gender diversity perform 25% better than those with less gender diversity.

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What’s the difference between inclusion and diversity?

What’s the difference between inclusion and diversity?

To properly understand how organizations can change, we first need to look more closely at the differences between diversity and inclusion.

Diversity focuses on the make-up of your workforce. It recognizes the differences between employees - their age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education or national origin. Each employee offers a different set of thoughts, beliefs and ideas that can help bring fresh perspectives to the workplace.

Inclusion is more difficult to define as it’s less visible. But it’s about valuing and respecting people from all backgrounds and embracing what makes them unique. When employees feel valued and appreciated for who they are, they do their best work and feel part of the organization’s core values. This can only be good for the bottom line.

To sum up the differences between diversity and inclusion in one simple sentence, it's perhaps best to hand it over to often-quoted US social commentator Verna Myers. "Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance," she says.

Some would say that oversimplifies a complex issue because you shouldn't have to be asked to dance. But the critical thing to remember here is that diversity doesn't automatically lead to feelings of inclusion. For instance, although women might be well represented at the senior management level, they still might not feel included because of pay discrepancies or a macho 'winner takes all' culture.

Inclusive workplace

Removing the confusion about inclusion

Why are diversity and inclusion important?

Why are diversity and inclusion important?

With 75% of organizations saying they see diversity and inclusion as a top priority, leaders are switching on to the idea that these qualities really matter. After all, they can bring great rewards to workplaces. Here are four of them.

  • Greater innovation

    Diverse teams are more innovative and creative precisely because of the mix of views and skills each member brings to the table. In an inclusive environment, everyone will feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their ideas. This brings new perspectives to brainstorming and problem-solving sessions, ultimately giving businesses a fresh outlook.

  • Wider talent

    Diversity and inclusion are qualities that many people look for when applying for a job. In fact, 83% of Generation Z job candidates say that a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is important when choosing an employer.1


    Candidates weighing up whether to join an organization want to see others who look like them in top positions and will gravitate towards a workplace culture that values different ideas and beliefs. From an employer’s point of view, hiring people from all backgrounds gives you a wider talent pool to draw from.

  • Happier employees

    Working in an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion can help make employees feel happy and comfortable. Contented people are likely to be more productive and produce a higher standard of work than unhappy ones. Employees who are enabled to be themselves will thrive in their roles and work well as a team. And that can help your business flourish and achieve its full potential.

  • Happier customers

    Prioritizing diversity and inclusivity doesn’t only help internally. It helps you better understand the needs of your customers out in the real world. It’s much easier to market your company to customers from different backgrounds when diversity is already ingrained in your culture. With inclusion part of your business strategy, you can improve your reputation with customers, clients and suppliers alike.

But diversity on its own isn't enough. In fact, it can even draw attention to the differences between people rather than bring them together. And, if you're not careful, it can become a box-ticking exercise just to fill quotas.

No matter how different their backgrounds, people won't want to contribute their diverse ideas and experiences if they don't feel included. And, more often than not, they'll leave your organization and won't say nice things about you to their network.

The McKinsey survey shows even diverse organizations still have a long way to go when tackling inclusion. It found that while overall sentiment on diversity was 52% positive, sentiment on inclusion was significantly worse, at only 29%. That's quite a gap.

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A greater need for diversity and inclusion

A greater need for diversity and inclusion

The past 18 months have been some of the most uncertain times any of us have had to face. But a positive change has been the push to focus on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

We've seen a fundamental cultural shift – which will hopefully bring about lasting change. Here are five things that have helped change the diversity and incclusion conversation.

  1. Black Lives Matter

    The protests over the murder of George Floyd have added urgency to concerns over ongoing inequality in society. As more people continue to speak out against racism, we’ll see more injustices at work called out too.


    The BLM movement has also drawn attention to the lack of people of color occupying senior roles within companies. In 2020, there was no black woman at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. In 2021, that has risen to two – Rosalind Brewer of Walgreens and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA.

  2. The introduction of Juneteenth

    Juneteenth was signed into law by President Joe Biden in June this year, making it a new federal holiday in the US. It celebrates the liberation of African-American slaves, and Biden said he hoped it was the “beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another.”


    Many major brands were proactive in marking the holiday. Global advertising agency WPP used it to fund in-house inclusion efforts to fight discrimination, while Facebook allocated $2 million from small business grants to support black women-owned small businesses.

  3. Innovations in AI

    In the past, an online search for 'images of hands' would throw up results that were almost all white. And a search for 'black hands' would produce a white hand reaching out to help a black one. Similarly, many corporate websites would only show white men in suits. This, of course, made people from some sectors of society feel excluded.


    Traditionally, it’s been white males who design AI algorithms and web pages. And while there’s no suggestion that this group is prejudiced, it’s only natural that they reflect themselves in the AI they create. Advances in technology have given rise to new conversations about stereotyping and unconscious bias and, increasingly, you’ll now see a broad spectrum of people represented in online images and advertising.

  4. Microaggressions and privilege

    As terms such as 'microaggression' and 'white privilege' gain ground in public awareness, it's causing people to think about their behavior towards others.


    Microaggression refers to everyday interactions, often unintentional, that make someone feel marginalized, like asking a black colleague where they’re from originally. White privilege refers to advantages not shared by people of color, like not having to worry about being pulled over by the police for driving an expensive car. For a non-disabled person, privilege means having physical access to buildings and parking spaces. Organizations always need to be mindful of how their decisions and actions affect others.

  5. Remote working

    The rise in remote and home working has opened up some fantastic opportunities for inclusion, with flexible hours and access to a more diverse talent pool. For example, people who can’t afford a car don’t have to travel to work. Working parents can fit in childcare around their jobs, and people with physical disabilities can now do many jobs from the comfort of their own home.

“If diversity is an invite to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance, then belonging is dancing like no one's watching. ”

DEI and the role of equity

DEI and the role of equity

Alongside diversity and inclusion, there’s another word that is equally important in making sure everyone is treated fairly in the workplace – equity.

Businesses that prioritize DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) are even better placed to attract and retain talented people from underrepresented groups.

DEI isn't a new concept, but it's the equity and inclusivity part that companies often struggle to get right. In a diverse workplace, equity is about creating fair access and opportunity for all your employees based on their individual needs. For example, a disabled person may need different resources to a non-disabled person to carry out the same task. Everyone should be given a level playing field and have an equal chance to succeed.

You want to encourage people to express their different points of view. You want them to speak out openly, not wait for an invitation. And you want them to have a fair chance to succeed. Building a sense of belonging can transform your whole work culture.

You could put it like this – if diversity is an invite to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance, then belonging is dancing like no one's watching.

The goal is to give people the freedom to be their true selves at work without fear of being judged or sidelined.

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1 "What workforce diversity means for Gen Z." Monster, undated.
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