Six Misunderstood Concepts About Diversity in the Workplace and Why They Matter

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a touchy subject. People are afraid of being wrong or using the wrong word. It doesn’t help that the words involved are confusing.

You’ve probably come across these concepts at a required training session, a workplace event, or on Twitter. They often involve decades of complex scholarship boiled down to a single word, and as such can be easily misrepresented.

But for any progress to be made, and for true diversity and inclusion to be achieved, it is crucial to understand what they really mean. Here, then, are six of the most contested concepts.


This article is part of Quarter Life, a series on issues that affect those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet, or simply making friends as adults. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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1. ally

Once limited to LGBTQ discussions (as in “straight ally”), this term became popular in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. As its 2021 Word of the Year, dictionary.com defines the alliance as:

The status or role of a person who actively advocates and works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with their struggle and point of view and under their leadership.

Allyship, then, isn’t about flying the right flag during the right month, or getting drunk at Pride with mates (well, no single that). It is an action word that requires action; such as education (of oneself and others), effective activism, constant advocacy, and using your platform or privilege (see below) to amplify the voices of other marginalized.

If, for example, your workplace did the white text on black square thing on social media in June 2020, and nothing else, you were probably engaging in a performative alliance. This type of superficial show of solidarity mainly benefits those who carry it out, as opposed to the group that suffers discrimination.

A person wearing LGBTQ rainbow wristbands types on a computer keyboard.
Alliance in the workplace is about actively signaling your solidarity.
Andrey_Popov | Shutterstock

2. Class discrimination

Within UK society, working-class people face inequalities related to, for example, access to in-demand unpaid internships, access to senior managerial and professional positions, and their average pay once in those positions.

However, the concept is easily understood: we’ve all seen snobbery in action (see John Cleese’s classic 1966 sketch with the Two Ronnies). However, the misunderstanding here does not refer to the definition of the concept, but to the legality of discrimination.

Social class is not protected in the Equality Act 2010, the UK legislation that prohibits discrimination in the workplace. This often surprises people, presumably because it feels like something that should be covered by legislation, and indeed it is, in more than half of all European countries. Just not in the UK.

3. Intersectionality

This term is often reviled, but its meaning is really quite simple. Each person has multiple intersecting identities (age, class, gender, sexuality, race, etc.) that can lead to specific outcomes, particularly in relation to discrimination or privilege.

White women, black men, and black women may face some common problems in the workplace, such as a pay gap. But research shows that this latter group often faces challenges specific to how their identities as women and black people intersect.

The term misogynist was coined to designate the specific type of discrimination faced by black women. This can manifest as medical misdiagnosis; racial differences in pain management after childbirth; pervasive and damaging stereotypes such as the “angry black woman”; and racist gender abuse of the sort directed at former Labor Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott during the 2017 election.

A black woman in pearls and a bright pink shirt stands in front of the Houses of Parliament.
Diane Abbott, who became the first black woman to be elected to parliament in 1987, has suffered from racist gender abuse.
peterjordan / Alamy Stock Photo

4. Gender pay gap

Not to be confused with equal pay. “Equal pay” means paying a man and a woman equally if they are doing the same job: this is a legal requirement. The gender pay gap, meanwhile, is the difference in average hourly earnings between all men and women in a specific company, industry, or country.

Research shows that it can be due to both traditional discrimination and differences in what economists call human capital: the economic value of an employee’s education, training, experience, skills, health, and other characteristics. Women’s experience and career choices are often affected by gendered expectations regarding child rearing and the broader division of labor in the family. There are also other wage gaps related to, among other characteristics, race, sexual orientation, and disability.

5. Privilege

It is often (and erroneously) used interchangeably with “privileged”. Namely, Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis, made headlines in October 2021, when he challenged any “awake warriors on the left to visit Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke and try to tell people there that somehow way they are ‘privileged'”.

As activist Janaya Khan has said, privilege is not about what you’ve been through, it’s about what you haven’t had to go through. It designates the advantages and/or the lack of disadvantages that any person could have for being who they are.

American activist Janaya Khan on what activism and privilege really mean.

“White privilege,” therefore, does not mean that whites are always privileged. However, it does mean that a white person living in Kidsgrove will not have to consider whether they will face discrimination, whether it be shopping, going to school or playing football, simply because of the color of their skin. That’s one specific disadvantage they don’t even have to think about. And it is not having to think about it that is the privilege.

6. Pronouns

Gender identity and gender presentation are not always aligned. Sometimes one’s gender identity evolves over time. The move to be explicit about what pronouns we want people to use when referring to us in the third person, as American singer Demi Lovato did in 2021 when they came out as non-binary, may be a way of signaling the gender identity of one. .

A recent viral video showed a man, when asked what pronouns he used, he dismissed the whole idea, replying, “I don’t do pronouns.” However, sharing your pronouns if you are cisgender (i.e. not trans) is easy and shows solidarity with trans and non-binary people.

It’s also helpful because we can’t always assume we know someone’s gender identity. Gender confusion (calling someone by the wrong pronoun) can contribute to the stress a trans person experiences as a minority. Recent court decisions have mentioned that regular and deliberate gender confusion could be considered discrimination. However, if you make a genuine mistake, apologizing and correcting yourself “doesn’t have to be any more complicated than correcting yourself after you mess up someone’s name.”

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