DEI: What does it mean and what is its purpose?


(NEW YORK) — Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, or DEI, have recently come under fire and are at the center of political battles being waged by Republican governors Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis.

These initiatives, seen in businesses, schools or government agencies, are intended to address inequities against historically marginalized groups that may be found within an organization.

ABC News spoke to DEI experts and consultants about what DEI is and what these initiatives look like.

What is DEI?

“Diversity” refers to the representation of people from a variety of backgrounds – particularly referring to people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, religions and more – at all levels in an organization, including the leadership level.

“Equity” focuses on fairness and justice, particularly referring to compensation and whether people are being paid or treated fairly, DEI experts told ABC News.

“Inclusion” is about whether people feel like they belong, and whether they feel heard or valued in an organization, experts say.

DEI initiatives focus on three main areas: training, organizational policies and practices, as well as organizational culture, according to Erica Foldy, a professor at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Initiatives focusing on policies, practices and culture exist to correct inequities within an organization, said Tina Opie, a DEI consultant and professor at Babson College.

This includes addressing discriminatory hiring practices, pay inequity, or rectifying issues that cause poor employee retention rates among marginalized groups.

DEI training is meant to encourage people to be more aware and reflective about inequities and discrimination on an individual level, Foldy said.

What’s DEI’s purpose?

DEI has its roots in the 1960’s anti-discrimination legislative movement when laws like the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 addressed labor issues based on protected classes.

Companies had to comply with these anti-discrimination laws, and the DEI movement stems from these efforts to continue to create equitable workplaces and schools.

“Somewhere around the late ’80s, early ’90s, people are realizing that simply trying to stop discriminating against different groups of people is not enough,” Foldy said. “The kind of ethos of those initiatives was to go beyond just avoiding discrimination and to actively changing organizations so that they were more welcoming and more inclusive.”

And though DEI is in the spotlight, Foldy says, these initiatives are efforted under a plethora of different acronyms or names.

Every DEI initiative may be run differently, experts say, but the overall goal is to make companies and leaders examine the way their company treats or serves marginalized groups.

“Historically, there have been some groups of people who have had more access and control over resources, money, time, other people and the ability to affect policies, procedures, law,” said Opie.

“Are you saying that you think across the United States … they’re the only ones who are best equipped to run these companies? Is it something about their DNA, genetics or is it something else?” she added.

Opie and Foldy say DEI makes people uncomfortable because they feel that correcting power inequities can be seen as “unfair” to the people with power or privilege.

Opie and Foldy believe critiques of DEI often frame these initiatives as unfairly giving something to marginalized people who “have not earned” it and are taking things away from people.

“Dominance and privilege – understandably, those things are hard to give up,” Foldy said. “For the greater good, of not just a workplace, but for our country, our democracy, we have to become a country that equally and passionately welcomes all the people who live in the country.”

Opie argues some critiques see diversity as not an “us” issue, but a “them” issue.

Why are conservatives attacking it?

DEI initiatives have come under attack by conservative legislators including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In a recent memo, Abbott told state agencies that DEI initiatives are “illegal.”

The memo, sent on Sunday by Abbott’s chief of staff, Gardner Pate, said these initiatives violate the law because they “expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others.”

It did not specify which groups were being harmed under such programs.

Pate claimed these programs “proactively encourage discrimination in the workplace,” and do the opposite of what they claim to do.

Renae Eze, a spokesperson for Gov. Abbott’s office, said in a statement: “The letter from the Governor’s chief of staff is a reminder that state agencies and public universities must follow federal and state law in their hiring practices.”

“The issue is not diversity—the issue is that equity is not equality. Here in Texas, we give people a chance to advance based on talent and merit,” Eze added.

The memo came days after DeSantis said he plans to bar state universities from funding DEI initiatives.

He argued that DEI is an “indoctrinating” program.

His administration requested data from colleges and universities throughout the state regarding race-related and DEI-related programs and courses, asking employees to “report the amount of money that they are using in things like DEI and [critical race theory] programs.”

“It’s a lot of money, and it’s not the best use of your money,” he said at a Jan. 31 press conference. “We are also going to eliminate all DEI and [critical race theory] bureaucracies in the state of Florida. No funding and that will wither on the vine.”

ABC News’ Armando Garcia and Max Zahn contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.