DEI of the beholder: Exploring the subjectivity of diversity, equity, and inclusion
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and so may be Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). These items can be hard to objectively measure as they often rely on the subjective experiences of individual humans and this article is about exploring the relative nature of these metrics.
Why did I choose this tool?
I think sometimes we choose topics in academia and organizations that sound very concrete and easy to identify, and yet they can be very hard to pin down. I believe that’s the case with DEI. I think it’s important to explore the dictionary definitions of these terms, but also to dive into the details of how people decide if something is diverse, equitable, and inclusive in the implementation itself. What makes something diverse? How diverse is diverse enough? When is something equitable? What makes something inclusive or exclusive? I find it helpful to explore a variety of questions that remain in this space and to highlight the largely relative nature of how these terms will be defined in our experience as trainers.
How does this apply to being a trainer?
In bringing people through nonformal educational experiences, we play with many layers of uncertainty—when will the activity end, what will the participants learn, how will the group interact with each other, what events will change the direction of the training, etc.
One of the main areas of uncertainty is how people are feeling in the group. Despite our efforts to craft the perfect group dynamics, we may fail or succeed in ways that we didn’t anticipate. When it comes to DEI, what we do may not always equal how people feel. We may try to create the most diverse participant group and find that 30% of the people thought there wasn’t enough diversity. We may think we failed on including people on the margins and then find out that those people have never felt so included in a group. We may have no idea how the training went, where people say one thing during the training, another after the training, and yet another a few months later, or say nothing at all! I believe that as a trainer, we may learn a lot in exploring how people may or may not believe a training was diverse, equitable, or inclusive.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is an old expression to say that not everyone will have the same definition of what is beautiful. Along these lines, I believe that not everyone will have the same definition of what is diverse, equitable, or inclusive (DEI).
If everyone had the same definition, I think it would be much easier for us to implement DEI in our trainings and organizations. We could easily measure the current state, take some actions, measure the future state, and compare how we did. However, our ability to do this depends on how clearly we can agree on what those three things mean.
In a previous article, I described some definitions of what diversity, equity, and inclusion are. In this article, I want to show how people in our trainings and organizations may judge these concepts differently than others.
Diversity is about differences, but some people see more differences than others
I think it may be easier to describe this using an extended metaphor. So instead of talking about a training group, I’m going to start by talking about a wine-tasting event.
Let’s say we set up a wine-tasting event for people in town. We try to include a diverse set of wines, so we get wines of different colors, regions, brands, levels of sweetness, ages, and bottle shapes. We set all the wines out for people to taste and invite them to enjoy themselves.
After the event, we ask the participants to answer a survey about how satisfied they were with the diversity of the wines on a scale from 1-10 (10 being the most satisfied) and to write a few sentences explaining their answer.
When we look at the survey results, we see the following:
- 9: I was blown away by the selection of wines, I didn’t expect there to be so many types! So many colors, flavors, regions, and ages! It was the most diverse wine tasting I’ve ever attended.
- 7: I appreciated that you had wines from different regions, but you only brought wines from European countries. I would have liked it better if you also included some South American wines and African wines as well. Other than that, I thought you brought wines from many different sweetness levels and I was surprised to see the diversity you had in the bottle designs.
- 5: It seemed not so different than most wine tastings I’ve attended—I mean, all you had were regular wines and no dessert wines, just like every other event. I wish someone would finally get dessert wines at these events, it seems as if they’re never included.
- 3: I thought the selection was a bit bland—it was just red and white wines. Where were the more exciting wines? Why not wines of different colors?
- 1: All you had was wine and I don’t like wine, I like beer. Why didn’t you have beer? You have to understand that not everyone wants to drink wine and you should have drink options for those people as well. It seems as if you didn’t understand your audience at all.
So, how diverse was the selection of wines? Just looking at those five results of the survey, it may be hard to determine whether the selection was considered diverse. In measuring whether something is different enough, we are going to get different opinions. Does this make it impossible to measure? No, we can take averages, do more in-depth interviews, and come to better approximations of what people believe and feel. However, at the end of the day, we will still have different answers about whether something was diverse.
Equity is about fairness, but some people see more fairness than others
For this one, I want to use an extended metaphor of a basketball game.
Let’s say we host a basketball game with 10 people from many different heights, ages, and experience playing basketball. Because we want the game to be exciting and not one team to easily defeat the other, we create rules to make it more even. The first rule is that each team needs to have an equal amount of people who have played on an organized basketball team before—we don’t want one team to have all the experienced players. The second rule is that the players over 2 meters tall cannot block the shots of the shorter players—this way, the short players have a more fair chance at scoring. The third rule is that before either team shoots a basket, at least one player under the age of 16 on that team has to touch the ball—this way the young kids are guaranteed an opportunity to touch the ball.
After the game, we ask the participants to answer a survey about how equitable they thought the game was on a scale from 1-10 (10 being the most equitable) and to write a few sentences explaining their answer.
When we look at the survey results, we see the following:
- 9: I thought this game was going to be very one-sided but with the rules you implemented, it gave everyone a fair chance to score and participate. I’ve been playing basketball since I was 3 years old and now at 26 (and 2.1 meters), I would say this was the fairest competition I have ever encountered. Bravo for the rules you put in place to make this game so enjoyable.
- 7: I loved the rule where the tall people couldn’t block me as I have often struggled as the short lady trying to take the shot. However, I think it didn’t make sense to force the young kids to always touch the ball. I think it just wasted time and made the game less enjoyable. Overall, though, I thought it was pretty fair.
- 5: It seems as if you made up the rules haphazardly and they didn’t seem to add much more fairness to the game. I’ve never been good at basketball and these rules didn’t help me get any better at it. I never had time as a kid to practice, as I always had to work or study. But, I don’t know how you could have made it fairer for me, just didn’t seem as if what you did worked.
- 3: My team had one boy under 16 and he was really bad at basketball, whereas the other team had a girl under 16 and she was a basketball champion. I don’t think the rule was very fair to force the young person to touch the ball, it unfairly advantaged the other team over ours. We didn’t stand a chance with that rule.
- 1: It seems as if you made the rules to specifically prevent my team from winning. I don’t see how any of those rules helped make up for the disadvantages we had. I can’t believe that you either didn’t see the disadvantages we had or you saw them and just didn’t care. I feel as if I wasted 2 hours of my life that I’ll never get back.
So, were the rules equitable? Some people liked the rules, others liked some of them, others thought they were intentionally designed to make it even more unfair for them. Again, there are ways to dive into this more deeply, to pull apart whether the participants found the process, rules, and environment to be equitable, and yet, there may always be disagreement on exactly how equitable something is.
Inclusion is about feeling integrated, but some people feel more integrated than others
For the final analogy, I’d like to talk about a dance party.
Let’s say we host a dance party, where we invite people from many different ages, nationalities, religions, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. We want the party to be inclusive and we know that music is a key component to that, so we tell the guests that we will have a DJ that will take song requests and that if they don’t think the DJ will have the songs they want, they can bring the songs on a USB drive for the DJ to play. Also recognizing that not everyone may want to dance, we create a quiet room for people to relax and a talking room for people to talk.
After the party, we ask the participants to answer a survey (yes, a little weird after a party) about how included they felt on a scale from 1-10 (10 being the most included) and to write a few sentences explaining their answer.
When we look at the survey results, we see the following:
- 9: I’m an immigrant woman and I was afraid that coming to this event that I would feel very left out. I’m so excited to say that it was the opposite. I brought a song for the DJ to play and she played it! Not only did she play it, but so many people started to dance! They even wanted me to teach them how to dance to it! It brings tears to my eyes to think that I could feel so welcomed in such a foreign place.
- 7: I was looking forward to this event all week. I was nervous to be around so many different people—I normally only hang out with people who look like me. However, I felt mostly included. I asked the DJ to play a song and she didn’t play it, so that bummed me out, but I understand why—it was a slow song while she was playing fast songs. Other than that, I felt really connected with the people around me.
- 5: I was one of the oldest guests there and I didn’t want to dance to all that music—I get tired more easily these days, especially at the end of the day. So, I really appreciated that they had a quiet room and a talking room, so that I could step away from the loud music. Unfortunately, I found that there weren’t that many other people in those rooms and I felt alone some of the times. It’s OK, I somewhat expected it, but I just wish I felt a little more integrated into the group.
- 3: I don’t go to a lot of dance parties because I often feel uncomfortable on the dancefloor with my wheelchair. It was the same here. First, there wasn’t even a ramp for me to get into the dancefloor! I had to have people help me down the stairs anytime that I wanted to go in or go out. So, I mostly just stayed out in the talking room. I really wanted to dance but it seems as if they didn’t even think about how to incorporate someone like me. On the other hand, it wasn’t a complete waste, as I met some very kind and loving people in the talking room who, even though they wanted to dance, stayed to talk with me and made me feel like I wasn’t alone.
- 1: I go to dance parties all the time and the DJ always plays the music I want. This time, the DJ played horrible songs. I tried to give her my music but she said she didn’t have a CD player, and I didn’t have a USB drive. I don’t know how a DJ wouldn’t have a CD player, what kind of DJ is that? I talked to the party organizers and they said there was nothing they could do. Nothing?! They were running the party—they could find a CD player or something. They played the music of everyone else except me. It just seems as if no one there cared about me and what I wanted.
So, was the party inclusive? As we’ve seen in the other examples, it really depends on who you ask. Some people thought they would be excluded and were surprised to feel so included. Others thought the opposite: that they would feel included and were surprised to feel so excluded. Others felt a mix of inclusion and exclusion.
So, if these definitions are subjective, how can I use them as a trainer?
I think the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion can act as dynamic tools to guide conversations. There are multiple times before, during, and after trainings where we can interact with participants and other stakeholders to ask them how they see the diversity, equity, and inclusion of the project, so that we can adjust accordingly. Below I’ve identified just a few examples of how we can use these concepts.
Before the training
- Create policies to help ensure diversity in the selection process—e.g., gender balance, 30% of people with fewer opportunities (coming from rural areas, unemployed, etc.), coming from different towns and different organizations.
- Share the short biographies of all the participants and ask participants, which, if any group, seems to be missing from the list that they wish had stronger representation—getting at the diversity question.
- Have one-on-one conversations with some participants to find out how included they think they will feel with the group, what they’re nervous may happen, and ways they have felt included/excluded in the past.
- Share preliminary ideas on how you’ll organize the training with participants and ask them how you could make the activities fairer for everyone.
- Share details of the project with other trainers and people who work in DEI to learn from their perspectives on how to make the training more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
During the training
- Hold reflection sessions where people journal about how diverse, equitable, and inclusive they believe the training has been so far. Ask people for suggestions on how to improve those factors, by saying they can tell you in public, in private, or even through an anonymously-written suggestion.
- Watch group activities to see if some people may look left out and if so, tell them you noticed that and just wanted to check on them to see if they’re OK and if not, then if there’s anything they want you to do to change the situation.
- When reflecting with your team of trainers, make space for the trainers to talk about how DEI is working for them but also to share their perspectives on how the participants are feeling about it.
After the training
- Give participants an anonymous survey they can fill to share their perspectives and ask questions around how they perceived the DEI of the project and what they would do to improve it next time.
- Describe the challenges you had on the project to a professional who works with DEI and ask if they see any way that it could be connected to DEI, hoping for ways to resolve the previous challenges if still unresolved, and ways to improve for the next training.
- If the training wasn’t perceived as diverse, equitable, or inclusive by many or even by just a few, then possibly reconcile with those people for not meeting their expectations and ask for their suggestions on how to do it better the next time.
What about how outsiders see the DEI of the training?
In the examples above, I talked about how the people directly involved with the project could vary in how they judge the project to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive. However, often there are people outside of the project who will judge those things as well. Someone may see a post on social media and see that everyone looks the same or have heard a story from one of the participants about how it wasn’t fair and then spread that perspective on the internet. I believe that most of the articles in this Trainers Library talk about how to interact with the trainers, participants, and maybe one or two layers outside. I think we also need to consider the people who may be loosely connected to the project but also still care about it.
Again, just as we can do with the trainers and participants, we can use the DEI concepts to guide our conversations with external stakeholders. We can engage with people on social media who don’t see a lot of diversity, equity, or inclusion in our trainings and enter into dialogue with them to learn from their perspectives. Sometimes we may have every participant feel included, see the diversity, and see the equity, and yet people from the outside don’t. It doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong, it just means that people have different perspectives and we can learn from those perspectives.
I believe this is more and more important as we disseminate our work to people who weren’t directly involved. Again, it’s not about defending how right we are and wrong the other people are, it’s about learning from each other and having a much wider conversation than just the training itself.
I hope that after reading this, you feel a little more comfortable with the terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and recognize that they are not static entities but dynamic conversations that we will continue to have with ourselves and the other people in our training environments. Also, I believe we’ll never achieve perfect diversity, equity, or inclusion, and yet we can strive to listen and learn how to make our trainings more diverse, equitable, and inclusive for all of those involved.
- What is one time when you thought the training was diverse and someone told you they didn’t think it was diverse enough?
- What is one time when you thought the training was fair and someone told you they didn’t think it was fair enough?
- What is one time when you thought the training was inclusive and someone told you they didn’t think it was inclusive enough?
- How do you feel when you think about having a conversation with someone about diversity, equity, and inclusion?
- How do you feel when you think about asking someone whether they thought the group had diverse perspectives, thought the training was fair, and felt included?
- What are some ways you can imagine talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion using different words but still focused on the same concepts?
- Who is someone outside of your trainings that you might want to help you review the DEI of one of your projects?
Exercises / how to apply it in everyday life
- Write about a time when you were on a training and you didn’t feel included but other people seemed to feel included.
- Write about a time when you thought an experience in life was fair and you later learned that some of your closest friends thought it was unfair.
- Use some of the communication techniques above to communicate with your family, friends, or romantic partners to get a sense for how much diversity, equity, and inclusion they perceive in your relationships with them and in their lives outside of their interaction with you.