Diversity & Inclusion

How Companies Are Quietly Backsliding on Diversity and Gender Equity

There’s no question that we’re facing a time of skepticism about and hostility toward diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. As a DEI consultant based in Florida, I have a front-row seat. 

On the other hand, my role affords me countless opportunities to connect with people who are passionate about this work. Every day, I meet DEI champions who push back against the hostility, ask hard but necessary questions, and advocate for equity. Now more than ever, employees not only expect employers to make progress on DEI but also demand it.

These are the folks who were tentatively hopeful as big organizations made public declarations about their DEI ambitions during summer 2020. We are 3 years from the upsurge in awareness of the need to more firmly commit to DEI initiatives following the murder of George Floyd, and many people are frustrated by the lack of meaningful progress. In comparison with the enthusiasm organizations publicly expressed back in 2020, it seems as though they’re now “backsliding” on their DEI commitments. Although 80% of companies are working on some sort of DEI initiative, there’s a widespread perception that employers are falling off the lofty goals they once set.

As someone who’s in the weeds of DEI work day to day, I feel this perception isn’t totally wrong, but it isn’t exactly right either.

How can you ‘backslide’ on something you never really committed to?

In 2020, the country experienced an awakening that resulted in an increased understanding of systemic racism and the experiences of black Americans. But “awakenings” don’t lead to change by themselves. The feeling of stagnation we’re experiencing now is the inevitable result of highly publicized intentions that lacked any strategic underpinnings from the start. Organizations made broad sweeping commitments to DEI initiatives, but many didn’t actually harness the energy of 2020 with intentionality, so much of the enthusiasm we witnessed was hollow from the start. In this sense, “backsliding” mischaracterizes what we’re experiencing now. Organizations that didn’t take the time to build sustainable DEI strategies are still very much in the same position they’ve always been in. 

So, what does ‘moving the needle’ look like, and why is it so hard?

The piece most organizations are missing when it comes to advancing their commitments to DEI is investment in experts who have experience with operationalizing DEI initiatives. “Operationalization” involves overlaying DEI into everyday business practices such that DEI initiatives aren’t seen as “off to the side,” as I often say. Rather, DEI initiatives are most effective when they’re embedded into business strategies and made part of an organization’s DNA.  

As with other strategic priorities, DEI initiatives also need to have measurable outcomes that drive true impact. We still see many surface-level goals, including, for example, “Achieve X% of women or Y% of people of color in leadership positions.” While these pieces of data are important, they aren’t a measure of true impact. They are simply part of a larger impact equation. In this way, getting to true impact takes much more than hope, intention, and public declarations—it takes expertise. 

Today’s DEI experts should know how to assess the obstacles in your organization through rigorous data collection and use that data to guide the implementation processes that allow for concrete results. One challenge we’ve seen is that DEI experts with this skill set aren’t as plentiful as the demand. This is often compounded by the fact that many employers either fail to take a thorough data-driven approach to DEI or don’t always know how to make sense of the data they collect. Finally, many organizations rely on employees who volunteer to lead the DEI efforts through DEI committees or employee resource groups. While these types of contributions are invaluable, DEI efforts can only go so far with part-time efforts of employees who don’t have the needed expertise to see them through or otherwise pivot when circumstances dictate.  

Operationalizing DEI: An Example

Operationalizing DEI comes in many different forms, depending on the specific obstacles an organization faces. And it starts with identifying the root cause of the DEI issues. For example, with one client organization, we explored the experiences of underrepresented employees who felt they had been unfairly excluded from a decision-making process related to a new product they had recommended to senior leaders. We found that the senior leaders in charge of the decision-making process hadn’t taken the time to set clear project expectations or share knowledge with the underrepresented employees about what the approval process required, who had the final say, and how the underrepresented employees would be heard and involved. Fortunately, the senior leaders involved were open to feedback and eager to address the missteps. 

One of the ways we “operationalized” equity at this organization was by creating an “equity in decision-making” framework. This framework provided everyone at the organization with a set of steps to follow to ensure equity was centered in all of their decisions. The decision-making framework has specific steps to ensure they:

  • Reflect on whose voices are centered in the process.
  • Determine who should be included in the various parts of decision-making. 
  • Understand who benefits and is burdened by the project. 
  • Predict with reasonable certainty whether the intended outcomes will ultimately lead to a more equitable outcome.

Moving Forward

This is just one example of the type of thinking needed to foster true progress. Organizations can overcome the perceptions of “backsliding” on DEI initiatives when their commitments are made concrete. And in a time when DEI skepticism is loud and demands for meaningful progress from employees are even louder, it’s more critical than ever to push back against the impression that DEI is being deprioritized. It’s time for a new call to action: operationalizing DEI. 

Natalie E. Norfus is the Founder and Managing Owner at The Norfus Firm, PLLC, where she partners with employers on DEI and HR strategies.

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