As people protested and turned the tide to finally talk about once-taboo racial topics in the aftermath of George Floyd, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) prioritization that corporations promised have fallen well short of what was promised. Jochebed Fekadu discusses what real change would need to look like for meaningful DEI initiatives.
This past summer marked the second anniversary of the United States’ most recent racial reckoning. Following the senseless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (among dozens of others), everyday Americans took to the streets to voice their opposition to police brutality and racial violence — and, more importantly, demand real, material change. And for a minute, it seemed like our country was finally prepared to answer this call.
People began candidly discussing once-taboo topics like white privilege, anti-Black racism and police violence. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement soared (albeit temporarily), and elected officials campaigned for sweeping police reforms. Where the public goes, corporations follow, and leaders across segments quickly pledged large sums of money to tackle societal disparities and racial injustice.
Yet two years later, precious few have ponied up. By the beginning of 2022, only about $652 million of the $67 billion promised to racial equity efforts had been disbursed. Why have companies largely failed to deliver on their bold DEI promises?
No Middle Ground
For one thing, fostering a diverse, inclusive culture often gets “stuck in the middle.” C-level executives leave this critical work to newly hired DEI chief officers and middle managers — who are tasked with leading the DEI charge, often with insufficient knowledge, team support and resources. Indeed, a McLean & Co. report found that only 42% of organizations have leaders devoted to modeling inclusive behavior and advancing DEI in 2022. For DEI efforts to be generative, organizations have to back up their good intentions with time, energy and money.
Moreover, there’s still immense fear around DEI — mostly, fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. When fear takes hold, there’s real potential for DEI regression after a few weeks or months of “work.” One Deloitte survey uncovered that over 40% of upper management leaders believe their organizations are too concentrated on DEI, while another 60% admit their DEI commitments will likely fall by the wayside as different competitive threats emerge.
The underlying thread here is that organizations aren’t executing on their DEI strategies because a majority of C-suite executives aren’t actively engaged in the work through their day-to-day actions, strategic priorities and employee interactions. And therein lies the solution.
Follow the Numbers
We need our executives to dive into DEI alongside their CDEIOs and middle managers to demonstrate that it isn’t just a passing management trend — but rather, a business and moral imperative. We need them to see the inherent value in DEI in order to properly resource and demonstrate efforts. And we need them to engage in good-faith DEI discussions to show their employees that even leaders at the highest levels can ask questions, shift systems and grow as human beings. Simply put, we need genuine executive buy-in.
One of the best ways to gain buy-in on any company initiative, not just DEI, is to show the C-suite compelling data. To that end, start by examining your Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data. All employers with 100-plus employees are required to report to the EEOC on gender, race and ethnicity by job type. As of 2019, a large majority of these companies (61%) did not disclose these numbers publicly.
Do you see gaps in your workforce? It’s wise to address them. A field experiment by an assistant professor of accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business found that a majority of job seekers would sacrifice a higher salary to work for a more inclusive company.
Inspiring True Change
There are companies out there that can help in this regard. The Center for WorkLife Law, for example, audits how biases pop up in performance evaluations. The findings can be sobering, to say the least. Getting along with others and having a positive attitude are seemingly optional for white men but necessary characteristics for women and people of color — in one audit, 83% of Black men were praised for having good attitudes versus 46% of white men. To combat those biases, two changes to performance evaluations were suggested. The results were substantially more constructive feedback for marginalized groups and more leadership mentions.
True change comes from disrupting current power structures and systems. To turn DEI pledges into DEI practices, we need executives to get on board in a big way. DEI is three separate words, and oftentimes we get caught up on the first. But “diversity” means nothing without creating a truly equitable workplace, and that means something different to each individual based on their past experiences. And inclusion is only impactful if the company has systems to support and sustain it.
That doesn’t mean sending out companywide emails or public promises. It means acknowledging that the systems they’re operating in don’t serve the DEI work employees are demanding — and prioritizing actions that build more just workplaces.