We’ve written dozens of profiles on chief diversity officers (CDOs) and those in similar diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leadership roles and gained some great insights into how these leaders have helped transform their organizations and the varied paths their careers have taken.
For this installment, we’re not featuring another CDO but rather someone who’s taken a more behind-the-scenes role in corporate diversity efforts but nevertheless has had a tremendous impact in this space.
Amira Barger is an executive vice president of health sector Communications and DEI at Edelman, a global public relations consulting firm, where she has had the opportunity to advise a variety of diversity leaders around the globe.
Driven to Lead a Life of Purpose
Barger grew up on the island of Guam, a U.S. territory located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where her parents were missionaries. “My childhood experiences inform my approach as I strive to ‘live in purpose’ – highlighting for me the need for access, participation, and treating others with dignity,” Barger says. “For me, my vocation in the health space isn’t just a job; this is my purpose and who I am.”
A decade-long career in nonprofits led Barger to a career in DEI, storytelling, and communications. she believes the experiences she had growing up helped guide her to a commitment to advancing DEI within healthcare institutions, which Barger calls an entry point for social services the community relies on. “Healthcare employers have a special role in advancing DEI for all stakeholders,” she notes, adding that she is moved by Edelman’s Trust Barometer data, which shows 77% of employees expect their employer to play a meaningful role in making sure they are as healthy as possible, but only 61% of respondents are confident in their ability to find answers about health questions and make informed decisions for themselves and their families. “This means there is ample opportunity for healthcare employers and the DEI leaders within them to advance change and equity by addressing the information gap and actively promoting services or benefits that address the social factors employees encounter daily,” she continues.
An Early Interest in Nonprofits
Barger started her undergraduate career at the age of 16 and pursued a pre-med degree. However, a seemingly insignificant lecture in a course taken to fulfill a general education requirement sparked her interest in the nonprofit sector.
“In one of my general ed classes, the professor spoke briefly about nonprofits,” explains Barger. “I thought everyone within these organizations was a saintly person who volunteered their time and didn’t get paid. My professor, whose mother was the CEO of a large nonprofit, helped me understand otherwise. I tracked down the professor to ask some follow-up questions, and she even offered to set up several informational interviews with leaders of nonprofits that she knew. That experience translated into a 10+ year vocation in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser, volunteer manager, and communicator.”
A Career in DEI Advisory Work
Barger joined Edelman in 2021 to take on the top spot in DEI for the firm’s Health Sector—the first role of its kind at Edelman. In her role, Barger also partners with leaders in building the DEI practice globally across various sectors, helping to oversee a cohort of DEI-focused staff responsible for generating millions in revenue. “My work also serves to shape the conversation around the daily lived experiences of stakeholders – from employees, to boards, to volunteers, to suppliers, to consumers and patients,” Barger adds.
Leveraging the Connection Between Communications and Diversity
Barger acknowledges that a communications consulting firm isn’t the first type of business that comes to mind when people think about DEI, but she also notes there are some surprising and important links between these two disciplines.
“Many institutions do not immediately think of a global communications firm when it comes time to hire a partner in advancing DEI work,” she says. “The truth is, DEI work and communications work are aligned and intersect in more ways than one. So much of the work we do in communications and marketing is about influence, behavior change, and driving stakeholders toward desired actions. It is very similar to the work of DEI in terms of principles and theory of change. And as a communications firm, we have business units that specialize in employee experience, business transformation, sustainability, and more—we apply this expertise with all of our clients calling us for DEI advisement. The full force of a global communications firm is a value add to advancing DEI.”
A Difficult Job
Barger works with many DEI leaders, which means she’s seen firsthand the mental and emotional toll the role of CDO can take on the leaders who hold such positions. Barger sees two key factors driving this trend:
First, Barger says the burden to solve the significant systemic inequities in the workplace and beyond is often solely on DEI leaders and those broadening that focus to include “belonging” (DEIB).
“Every DEIB practitioner that I know works diligently to outline organizational KPIs and then cascade those to employees,” Barger says. “And yet, many institutions fail to provide DEIB leaders with the authority to enforce changes, policies, behaviors, and accountability for those assigned KPIs. The work of DEIB is everyone’s work and every employee within the institution must be held accountable with KPIs that are tied to their overall performance.”
Second, many organizations have thrown money at the DEI problem in the wake of widespread social unrest that sparked a national conversation in summer 2020; however, that investment isn’t always aligned with the right mission and goals. “DEIB investment skyrocketed in the summer of 2020 due to immense societal pressure. In fact, Edelman’s Trust Barometer found in 2022 that 82% of respondents expect CEOs to act in response to systemic racism and racial injustice, alongside 54% of respondents who believe that companies at-large are not living up to their promises to address racism. But these investments did not always come from leaders with an innate belief in the work and vitality of DEIB, causing DEIB leaders to fight more aggressively for every inch of progress with others who have not done the individual work of shifting their mindsets and truly supporting DEIB efforts,” Barger explains.
Keeping a Seat at the Table for DEI
Another counterproductive trend Barger has seen in recent years is the urge to roll DEI into the broader HR function. This is a mistake, she says, and it doesn’t do any favors for DEI or HR. “DEI is a distinct function and practice that exists as a partner to make clear accountability, consequences, and DEI principles to operate by,” Barger says. “DEI lives above the function of HR (recruitment, retention, compensation, learning & development) to examine and influence every function of the institution; it is a business strategy. These roles are distinct and to move DEI forward this nuance has to be acknowledged and actioned accordingly so that both DEI and HR can thrive.”
With her responsibility for advising many diversity leaders across a variety of organizations in the healthcare sector, Barger has a perspective on the state of the DEI industry that many CDOs lack due to their necessary focus on a single organization. Her unique experiences growing up and this access to a variety of diversity leaders have helped Barger forge a successful career as a DEI leader herself.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.