Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

At the start of 2020, many mid-sized and larger organizations had an employee in the company who was responsible for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Perhaps that person had a budget for initiatives and perhaps not — it was the rare head of DEI who had a seat on the executive team and the wide-open ear of the chief executive officer. Many small companies and startups, on the other hand, didn’t have a DEI head.

By the end of 2020, things looked a lot different — and they may look different yet in 2021.

Four Pivotal Events

From Feb. to May of 2020, four specific events shone a spotlight on inequity in how Black people are treated in the United States: the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor and George Floyd and the race-based false accusations by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper (no relation) in Central Park. These events and how they were handled showed obvious examples of the type of unjust situations in which people of color find themselves in — or have good reason to be concerned that they or their loved ones might find themselves in.

These four events occurred against the backdrop of the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and death among people of color, many of whom were essential workers who provided the services that enabled others to work from home.

Companies Respond

These and other incidents of racism have led to a deeper awareness of structural issues in society, including the workplace. Many companies have responded, with efforts including a “Black lives matter” statement on their website, increased programming, conversations of the issues and how they play out within a given company, equity reviews, and initiatives to increase diversity within the talent pipeline.

However, some companies’ efforts are considered “woke-washing”: a lot of talk with little or no meaningful action. In 2020, the attention moved from diversity and inclusion to a different kind of action to equalize the playing field: the introduction of equity to the “diversity and inclusion” conversation.

Diversity Without Inclusion

Last year, it became clearer than it ever that a focus on diversity solely in an attempt to improve numbers doesn’t bring companies or employees where they want to be. The diverse candidates hired at such companies aren’t as likely to stay, since they are apt to perceive that they were hired for their demographic identity, not necessarily for their skills, capabilities and perspectives. In fact, with a focus on diversity numbers, organizations often don’t cultivate the value that diverse employees bring to the team. It’s no surprise, then, that this approach doesn’t create a sense a belonging for all employees.

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity with (actual) inclusion is better, because at inclusive organizations, everyone’s perspectives are valued and appreciated. As David Thomas and Robin Ely wrote for Harvard Business Review as early as 1996, inclusive organizations understand that diverse employees:

“… bring different, important, and competitively relevant knowledge and perspectives about how to actually do work—how to design processes, reach goals, frame tasks, create effective teams, communicate ideas, and lead. When allowed to, members of these groups can help companies grow and improve by challenging basic assumptions about an organization’s functions, strategies, operations, practices, and procedures. And in doing so, they are able to bring more of their whole selves to the workplace and identify more fully with the work they do, setting in motion a virtuous circle.”

The Need for Equity

In 2020, we saw how challenging it can be to create inclusion, because inclusion without equity isn’t real inclusion. Without equity, some employees are unfairly disadvantaged, and some employees are unfairly advantaged. This inequity creates a culture of skewed incentives; a lack of transparency; and, ultimately, a lack of psychological safety, low morale, reduced productivity and a risk to the brand, as well as the loss of what could have been — the opportunity for learning and growth. Without equity, there’s also the potential for lawsuits, such as the racial discrimination lawsuit against Facebook or the gender bias lawsuit against Pinterest.

Looking forward to 2021, equity throughout the talent pipeline is likely to be a more prominent goal, including how organizations:

    • Describe a job opening and where they post it.
    • “Weed out” candidates.
    • Train hiring teams.
    • Determine compensation,
    • Make stretch, challenging and high-profile assignments.
    • Determine promotions.
    • Create mentorship and sponsorship opportunities and assign matches.

This list addresses just a few of the ways that bias and discrimination can creep into the workplace, creating inequity. As Robin Ely and David Thomas wrote in a 2020 Harvard Business Review article:

“Being genuinely valued and respected involves more than just feeling included. It involves having the power to help set the agenda, influence what—and how—work is done, have one’s needs and interests taken into account, and have one’s contributions recognized and rewarded with further opportunities to contribute and advance.”

Verna Myers, vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix, has said, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” I’d add that equity is being part of the team hosting the event — the team that decides the music, the guest list, the type of food and drink, and the event date.