Debunking Myths About Equity, Diversity & Inclusive Excellence

Debunking Myths

Debunking Myths About Diversity, Equity & Inclusive Excellence

As Johnnella Butler observes, “equal opportunity remains our national myth” and “debates about diversity compete awkwardly with debates about immigration, same-sex marriage, environmental justice, poverty, globalization and global conflict – all viewed as separate, unrelated issues despite their connectedness within a multicultural context” (Butler, 2014).  In other words, the principles and goals of diversity, equity and inclusive excellence are complementary and interconnected, but they are not the same.

Perhaps one of the greatest myths about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are that they spring from a deficit model in which differences from the norm or dominant culture are regarded as a hinderance, a problem or something to be remedied or fixed.  On the contrary, the focus of DEI efforts should be in respect to the educational benefits that flow from diversity and inclusion, including improved teaching and learning, preparing students for a twenty-first century workforce, and enhanced preparation for civic engagement and leadership, among others (Coleman, 2014). These benefits can be gained by stakeholders from all backgrounds and depend on more than compositional diversity or critical mass, which focuses primarily on gender or race and/or ethnicity.

According to Mauricio Velásquez, President of the Diversity Training Group, some of the most common myths about diversity are the following:


Myth 1:  Diversity is a problem as opposed to an opportunity. Too often leaders assume that emphasizing DEI planning is a sign of weakness, demonstrating to the public that it is something we do poorly and need to work on. The opposite is true, however. Tangibly demonstrating a robust commitment to ongoing DEI planning and assessment is now seen as a positive sign that a University takes these ideals or principles seriously. Those who value DEI look for visible manifestations of DEI efforts in selecting what university to attend, to send their children to, to work at, and to hire graduates from.  As Velásquez observes, an DEI strategy and plan provide an opportunity to differentiate an organization or institution from its competition. In effecting behavioral, attitudinal and cultural change, diversity also enhances recruitment and increases workforce and student satisfaction, productivity and retention. DEI practices and programs targeting students are identified as “high impact practices.”


Myth 2:  Diversity is a Chief [or Principal] Diversity Officer’s responsibility; and efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion are, and should be, coordinated and deployed by underrepresented groups seeking better representation and voice. According to the ideal of Inclusive Excellence (as discussed in section II) and national best practices, DEI must be treated as everyone’s responsibility; and all leaders, supervisors, staff, faculty (of all ranks) and graduate and undergraduate students play a significant role in successfully achieving the goals of an DEI strategic plan. Leadership at the highest levels is essential to buy-in and success (Lindsey, Robins and Terrell 2009).  Achieving DEI goals requires engagement, efforts and contributions from individuals belonging to dominant groups.  According to Flaherty, underrepresented faculty are called on to perform most of the invisible labor or unrecognized work by virtue of their status (2019).


Myth 3:  Diversity is just about race and gender. Though the ongoing legacy of racism and/or sexism in the U.S. has yet to be resolved—and as a result women faculty and faculty of color continue to be underrepresented in higher education (especially in the upper ranks of academia and at the level of administration)—an intersectional approach to diversifying a workplace or institution (as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989) acknowledges the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, ability, sexual or religious orientation, etc. as they apply to an individual or group.  These interconnected social categories create overlapping and interdependent systems of privilege and advantage or discrimination and disadvantage, which shift according to geographical location and historical, political and cultural context.


Myth 4:  DEI is about exclusivity [rather than inclusivity]. DEI, Velásquez notes, is about all of us. It’s not about attacking the white male; rather, it’s about creating a culture where everyone (each individual) can thrive and contribute to your organization (integration) and understand and serve your increasingly diverse [students and community]. (Durer, 2018, Smith et. al. 1997)


Myth 5:  DEI is about lowering standards [ie. hiring less qualified candidates/ admitting less qualified students].  There is little evidence to support this claim; nevertheless, it pervades many corporations, organizations and institutions of higher education. In fact, research on faculty hires, for example, find that very basic steps can be taken to create more diverse applicant pools and increase the numbers of qualified minority hires (Smith, et. al. 2004).


Myth 6:  There are not enough qualified diverse candidates.  Not unlike the fallacy regarding lowering standards, there is little evidence to support this myth. 


Myth 7: An approach to hiring that claims to be equitable and ‘status blind’, yet employs a narrow definition of what constitutes the ‘best’ or most qualified applicant and consequently excludes factors such as diversity of experience, especially related to social identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual or religious orientation, age or disability. This approach, which tends to perpetuate cronyism, fails to acknowledge affirmative action initiatives that have traditionally benefited the privileged, and obviates and ignores historical discrimination and the ongoing legacy of disadvantage.


Myth 8: Diversity is just another fad.  If you think it is, Velásquez comments, good luck. Look at your workforce and client marketplace today and compare it with five and ten years ago and try to look five and ten years into the future. Do the same analyses for your [prospective employee and student] base. Have you seen the demographic projections for the future?


Myth 9: Diversifying an institution is easy.  Diversifying an institution requires a great deal of time and effort from all parties involved, including supervisors and senior administration.  At the most fundamental level, it requires universal training in implicit bias and cultural proficiency.  


Myth 10: DEI only benefits minoritized and/or underrepresented people.  Although research overwhelmingly suggests that diverse workplaces and classrooms, as well as DEI curriculum and programming, increase the retention rate of minoritized or underrepresented populations, majority populations tend to benefit equally from a diverse and inclusive workplace as outlined in the introduction.


Myth 11: Diversity planning always requires paid consultants and trainers and costs large amounts of money. Many institutions have underutilized internal resources. Most universities have a significant number of well-trained diversity scholars, teachers and consultants in a range of departments and units, who are deeply committed to their institutions and are passionate about putting their skills to use to serve the University.


Institutions of higher education, as well as businesses and other organizations, are increasingly facing public scrutiny and consequences when they demonstrate their failure to fully understand diversity, equity and inclusion (ie. Starbucks). On the other hand, there is a growing movement among universities and businesses to make visible and tangible their genuine commitment to these principles. Certified B corporations, for example, are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance a profit and purpose.  B Corps are committed to a global cultural shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy [] These institutions of higher learning and businesses recognize that being fully committed to, and accountable for, DEI is cost effective, produces stronger, more innovative approaches and collaborations, and improves job satisfaction and success on a wide range of measures (Lorenzo et. al. 2018). A strong and visible commitment to DEI elevates institutions of higher education.  Contrary to the myths discussed above, diversity and equity practices create inclusive learning environments where everyone feels valued, less vulnerable and safe. Members of a university community have higher levels of trust and loyalty when they see that their institution not only “talks the talk” but actually “walks the walk.” Moreover, diversity, equity and inclusion enhance the learning experience of all students and introduce memorable life lessons that cannot be found in any textbook.