So Many DEI Acronyms, So Little Time
Exploring the Many Representations of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Abbreviations
Much like staring into a bowl of Campell’s alphabet soup, the acronyms surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion (and occasionally a few other related words) float around and recombine in interesting ways. Now the weather has turned slightly colder. Apparently I’m carrying over my interest in soup from last week in another useful analogy.
People love acronyms. I will call this widespread acronym use and affinity (WAUA) and this article explains how… ah, just kidding! More seriously though, there are a lot of varying acronyms for diversity, equity, and inclusion (and belonging and justice) related work. The question then becomes - are they all just variations of the same thing?
Some of my past research focuses on how we communicate meaning across different disciplines and professional sectors. This work includes the concept of lexical ambiguity, generally understood as the situation in which one word has different meanings in different contexts. Particularly in the STEM fields, one word can have a meaning in a discipline and a different meaning (or multiple other meanings) more generally in society. Common examples are novel, culture, and bond.
Naturally then, seeing this acronym soup across the general DEI space intrigues me. Are organizations just being cute and clever with these different acronyms or is real meaning conveyed?
Arguably the most popular of the acronyms, DEI represents diversity, equity, and inclusion. Personally, I have been asked several times “what is DEI?” That seems to be a more complicated question than it seems. The term can be broken down into its component parts - diversity, equity, and inclusion - and discussed separately. Or it can be discussed as one concept of “DEI.” The central concept of DEI emphasizes the actions related to the component words. Recruiting, retention, community building, event planning, and similar create the actions of DEI. This acronym is prevalent across both industry and academia. Academia also has a propensity for other acronyms, more so than industry or businesses, incorporating many of the following combinations.
DEIB and DEIJ
The DEIB rendition of the general concept adds “belonging” to the end of DEI. When “inclusion” already appears in the DEI acronym, does the addition of “belonging” add meaning?
Inclusion is an act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability). From the definition, this centers the discussion on the actions of inclusion and orients this towards the space or, often, the dominant groups. Belonging focuses on a close or intimate relationship and roots in the situation and, by extension, feelings in the situation. Inclusion and belonging, while closely related, present slightly different orientations and information to the reader.
A much less common addition to the “DEI” acronym is justice - DEIJ. One useful, though likely unintentional, benefit to adding a letter is the continued avoidance of accidental “DIE” typos. That can become unfortunate (ask me how I know…). With the addition of justice, new elements are brought into the discussion. Justice focuses on the just treatment of all members of a society with regard to a specific public issue, including equitable distribution of resources and participation in decision-making. With connotations of important related topics like social and environmental justice, this extra letter includes three vital elements - treatment of groups, use of resources, and participation. Arguably, justice may be a more useful addition than belonging to the DEI acronym, as the elements of belonging are strongly related to participation. Justice includes not only similar elements, but also goes beyond the aspects of belonging.
This simple rearrangement may or may not enhance meaning as compared to DEI. One of the main advantages of this three letter acronym is the decreased likelihood of typos from “DEI” with the different first letter. While also slightly unfortunate itself, EDI can be useful to center or emphasize equity in the discussion. The order of equity, diversity, inclusion may convey added emphasis on equity. Equity itself, while appearing in other acronyms, equity has multiple related words in fair, impartial, and just. Again, justice appears buried in the general concept.
IDEA, at least from my observation, is much less frequently used than most of the rest of these acronyms. On the positive side, it creates great mental connections with innovation and thinking. This acronym represents inclusion, diversity, equity, and access. Personally, I am both mildly fond of and slightly agitated by this acronym because of its use in the employee certificate program I designed and have written about before.
One real drawback is that IDEA is infrequently used enough that it needs to be defined in conversation. Unlike “DEI” as a widely known acronym, “IDEA” is a real word as written and when vocalized, does not sound like an acronym (when pronounced “idea” not “I-D-E-A”). It makes conversation confusing and adds the extra layer of defining the acronym frequently and differentiating from “idea.” A useful alternative, also infrequently but occasionally used, is DEIA. DEIA conveys similar meaning but avoids the confusion of “idea” and creates connections to the frequently used “DEI.” In both of these, the “A” is access, which is arguably the least useful and impactful word in any of these acronyms. Access should be fundamental in several of the other words and concepts.
Eliciting visions of Star Wars, this acronym is generally difficult, at least for me. Personally, I often feel like the similarities to wildly popular science fiction and the vocalization of the acronym turn the work into less of a serious and important endeavor. Several prominent academic institutions use JEDI in their work and documentation, so it appears to be well enough known to not need to be defined word by word when used in the appropriate context.
Overall, industry and businesses appear to be mostly focused on using “DEI,” with the occasional incorporation of belonging to make it DEIB. With the variety of acronyms used above, academia does much of the same work but is more complex in the naming.
Much like the other aspects of academia, the interest in changing and adapting acronyms is likely some form of elitism (ironic) and an attempt at obfuscation (typical). The difference in terms may not represent any difference in practice, but likely incorporates at least some aspirational goals. In my own experience, a formal shift from “Diversity and Inclusion” to “DEI” represented both mission/vision shifts and, by extension, practical implications. However, this was a two letter to a three letter shift. Changes among three letter or four letter acronyms likely have less theoretical or practical differences.
So as we continue to stare at our wordy soup bowls and the abundance of acronyms, we can reflect on whether or not using different acronyms adds genuine meaning. While these may have nothing to do with the actual practices of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, belonging, or culture at the organization, they at least add some sort of perception. Perhaps they are the aspirational goals to which the group has set their sights. More likely, though, these variations are adapting the common acronym to look unique or avoid unfortunate typos.
Which acronym is your favorite? What others have you seen that aren’t listed here?