EDI: in search of an acronym’s meaning

EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) is all the rage in academia and the professions. Grants, professional bodies, the hiring process – all now place EDI front and centre. I am glad that – finally – issues of EDI are being raised in the academy and professions. It is long overdue.

However, I am worried that EDI has not been meaningfully discussed (at least at the level of those expected to implement it, like me), its premise is vague, and it has become a top-down mandatory approach. If I obediently follow the recipe, then I can tick the EDI box and move on to something else. If I ask questions, I invite scrutiny and trouble.

Yet EDI is a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. It touches upon complex and debated underlying principles, which are not made explicit in current policy documents.

For someone on the receiving end of EDI policies and guidelines (e.g. granting agencies, Universities, Canadian Institute of Planners…) it is unclear who is imposing their views, and also what these views are. Discussion and questions are needed, but not encouraged.

Below, I briefly go over some of the questions I would like to ask…


What is meant by equity? There are various theories of justice, each drawing attention to different types of equity. Not all are compatible.

Are we aiming for equality of outcomes? If so, how can personal choices and preferences be incorporated? How do we determine which outcomes to equalize? This approach is communistic in the sense that it suppresses difference, and calls for unequal allocation of means in order to achieve equality of ends. It also seems to imply a centralised allocation system. Whilst equality and equity are not necessarily the same, some views of equity do equate (!) them.

Are we aiming for procedural equity? From this perspective, it is not outcome but process that must be the same (i.e fair and unbiased) for all people. Questions about which biases should be corrected for, and how equity is operationalised, still arise. Equitable processes can lead to unequal outcomes, as individuals’ capacities and choices differ. Some type of procedural guard-dog (e.g. a legal system) is necessary to ensure equity: but how equitable is the guard-dog?

Are we aiming for equality of opportunity? In this case, similarly to procedural equity, outcomes do not matter provided initial opportunities are equalised is some way: how people use these opportunities is up to them. Thus, an apparently inequitable society (as measured by outcomes) can be equitable (if initial opportunities are the same). Equalising opportunity probably requires a procedural guard-dog, and also some form of (re)allocative system to compensate for each person’s different initial conditions (e.g. inheritance, social status, …). Who ensures the equity of reallocation? Who decided which opportunities to equalise?

Are we aiming for some other ideal of equity? If so, which one? What are its premise? Who has chosen it?

These questions relate to fundamental ideas and ideologies, as discussed by the likes of Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, Robert Nozik and John Rawls. They also raise the issue of who decides what should be considered equitable. Is there just one ‘correct’ way to view equity?

Many EDI policies seem to be premised upon procedural equity: yet equity is measured by outcome (% representation of different groups – see below), which seems contradictory.

Another issue is that equity is mandated by highly competitive institutions, such as universities, granting agencies, and professional organizations: competition, based upon the accumulation of resources (be they degrees, citations, capital, grants, clients or labs) and power, does not square easily with many definitions of equity. Yet under some assumptions, competition is an equitable process.

So, my problem is this: what does the ‘E’ of EDI mean? Who decides? How does equity square with the competitive and elitist professional and academic systems that tout it?


To operationalize the concept of diversity, classification and statistics are necessary: to assess diversity, someone (who?) first needs to classify people along dimensions that have been chosen (by whom?). The dimensions could be, say, skin colour, gender identity, ethnicity, income, cultural-capital, etc….

Once these key decisions are made (by whom?), statistics are applied. Someone determines that certain groups are disadvantaged and/or underrepresented (who? using what criteria? using what data?). Efforts are then made to boost the representation of these groups, i.e. to increase diversity.

This is fine as far as it goes, but not all underrepresentation points to inequity (only if we assume all groups have the same desire for access does this maybe hold true), nor does underrepresentation necessarily follow neat taxonomic lines.

For example: white men from low-income families in disadvantaged neighborhoods will typically not be perceived as underrepresented from an EDI perspective (they are, after all, white men, who, as a group, are probably overrepresented); however, such men may be less represented in the academy than, say, black women from families of high socio-economic status. We simply don’t know because we (who?) have chosen not to measure diversity across these dimensions.

Intersectionality – assuming information is available and put to use – attempts to deal with this by crossing multiple classifications, but does not address the central issue: people are still classified. Classes, however detailed, are never homogeneous : they run up against a basic fact – people are not merely members of classes, they are also individuals.

Current diversity policies focus on underrepresented classes of people. In so doing, they only consider one aspect of diversity, diversity between classes. How do they address diversity within classes? How do they consider individual circumstances? How do they address underrepresentation that falls outside, and therefore blurs, chosen taxonomies?

As mentioned above, diversity is typically assessed by looking at the representation of each class within the population of interest. Equality of outcomes is therefore being sought: yet equity policies tend to profess procedural equity …

The ‘D’ of EDI policies merits discussion, and far more explanation.


I am not sure what ‘inclusion’ adds to ‘equity’ or ‘diversity’ : indeed, the Canadian bar association only has an Equity and Diversity policy – no ‘Inclusion’.

Wouldn’t a diverse and equitable institution be inclusive by definition? Maybe not, but some explanation would be helpful.

Explaining EDI in a meaningful way

I am delighted that EDI is being taken notice of by universities and professions. However, it is not discussed or problematised (at least not widely).

EDI seems to have been instituted by committees (who is on the committees? what interests do they represent?), with little effort to communicate its principles or to invite engagement by the wider community expected to implement it.

Questions are not encouraged – they are too readily perceived as criticism of EDI itself, rather than as attempts to understand, and co-construct, the principles it enshrines.

For EDI to be effective, it is not sufficient (but maybe better than nothing) to mandate it.

EDI raises questions of principle, ideology, and implementation, which have been elided in the rush to roll it out.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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