The Year 2021 in Review: Taking Stock of DEI Work

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Following the nationwide protests in the summer of 2020, many high-profile leaders made public commitments to address systemic racism and inequities. In real terms, the biggest 50 companies have pledged $50 billion toward racial justice. In an article published in Harvard Business Review, Ben Hecht noted achieving racial equity has become one of the most critical issues facing organizations.

So how are organizations faring? As 2021 draws close, it is important to take stock of the DEI practice.

Racism has a long and complex legacy in the United States. Typically, in our discussion of race, we neglect organizations’ role in reinforcing socio-economic inequities. Organizational structures are a painful reminder that racism is deeply embedded in how we work, lead, and live.

With a renewed commitment to race and equity issues, DEI practitioners are under the spotlight. They are increasingly expected to transform organizations and root out centuries-old racism.

Since racism is deeply embedded within organizations, what are their experiences implementing DEI practice in this charged environment?

I highlight their experiences during the year below, using interviews with 54 DEI practitioners across several industries in the United States. Here are some major takeaways to start a discussion. It may be worth reading these experiences in light of the articles I published in 2020 and 2021.

First, DEI practitioners and their organizations have conflicting goals. They described these tensions in “how they want to ‘do’ DEI” and “how organizations ‘do’ DEI.” Overall, most DEI practitioners desire a cultural transformation within their organizations- by breaking away from the past and rebuilding an equitable future. On the other hand, most organizations continually push for piecemeal performative changes that lack strategic vision. The polarization of these goals resulted in several challenges described below.

Intent: Integration & Separation

DEI practitioners described an intentional separation of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their efforts to establish an organizational-wide understanding of each term. However, many practitioners also noted that their organizations operated under the impression that simply having diversity was sufficient. A senior diversity manager at a non-profit organization described this as a flawed but persistent belief. She argued,

Top leadership thinks that if we just recruit diverse people and put everyone together, it would be all hunky-dory.

The Global Head of Diversity Management at a multinational company described it as a perennial challenge of conceptualization. She shared that organizations have difficulty comprehending an integrated diversity practice because they either don’t understand the need to put together diversity, equity, and inclusion; or they are too afraid to address the real issues. Several other practitioners shared their organizations lacked a ‘systems view’ or an inability to develop systems and processes that lead to the strategic integration of DEI. A diversity specialist at a non-profit organization commented,

Let us consider DEI-related training and single initiatives; these are helpful. However, if the organization doesn’t have the right policies and support structures to apply what employees learn, then you have only checked a box approach and are not invested in a meaningful change.

A complicating factor was the lack of clarity on which specific aspect of diversity (for example, gender, race, ethnicity, or neurodiversity) was most important in the organization. When participants talked about race, several organizations pivoted- instead of focusing on (for example) neurodiversity. As a result, DEI efforts became even less targeted.

Overall, while practitioners’ capability and knowledge demanded renewal and alteration of routines to enable change, organizational systems undermined their work by favoring rigidity and stability.

Structure: Co-creation & Control

To fulfill their overarching goal, DEI practitioners envisioned a long-term cultural change within the organization through co-creation. They shared they had to achieve a bottom-up transformation by changing individual attitudes and mindsets. However, many of them recounted situations where their clients and leaders were frustrated that there were no quick fixes to the problems they encountered. When leaders faced a racial incident at work, their reaction was to ‘put out the fire quickly and move on.’ And even when leaders witnessed public outcry for racial awakening and equity, they believed a few training sessions or other piecemeal approaches (such as isolated measures of diversity hires and unconscious bias training) could suffice.

This mindset had an unfortunate impact on the positioning of DEI practice within organizations. Interviews indicate that DEI units are primarily within HR, training, and development, or legal compliance, which proves detrimental to creating organization-wide DEI policies, adequate allocation of resources, visibility, and the process of enacting change. They wanted to impact changes within their organization- that would place DEI into all business units for better contextualization, distributed power, and focused support for stakeholders.

A senior diversity manager at a hi-tech firm explained,

The mindset is that diversity happens in a diversity office…. and that we should fix systems-wide racial and gender diversity on our own. I am trying to change this mindset by explaining that diversity [knowledge, programs, and conversations] should be distributed throughout the organization for it to succeed.

Some other practitioners expressed DEI’s inadequate positioning within organizations served as an example of limiting their influence and further marginalization and isolation. Their experiences and perspectives highlight the inadequacies of existing organizational structures that resist change and further perpetuate exclusion.

Performance: Possibilities & Results

Most practitioners joined diversity practice either by some serendipitous act or volunteered for the job. However, they pressed on because their lived experiences instilled a strong passion and commitment to social justice and equality. They demonstrated a deep emotional connection with the social justice aspects of their work based on their values. DEI work represented their identities, communities, and aspirations. At the same time, they described organizations as fixated on short-term business metrics. Executive Director at a consulting company remarked that organizations try to figure out the easiest way to measure DEI.

The easiest way, many participants mentioned, was counting in terms of the number of training sessions, diversity hires, and the total dollars spent. They agreed that these measures didn’t capture the long-term cultural change most DEI efforts aimed for.

The above examples represent tensions between DEI practitioners’ sense of purpose and the business-focused goals of their organizations. In essence, while practitioners imagined ‘wondrous’ possibilities of advancing social justice and equity, they felt constrained by short-termism and inadequate metrics.

Coping Approaches & Small Wins

Fortunately, many practitioners remained undeterred despite these challenges. They ‘pushed barriers and challenged mindset.’ Many referred to developing thick, strong, or smooth skin to maintain a task focus.

Participants acknowledged a seismic impact of the twindemic- the global pandemic and racial awakening. For many of them, these crises created a fertile ground for discussing privilege and racialized structures with their stakeholders. ‘Holding yourself accountable’ became important within organizations.

Many of them were actively experimenting with new approaches. Several practitioners had implemented caucuses, listening sessions, and brave spaces for diversity education and learning. They shared their excitement at creating a shared vocabulary within the organizations and helping employees critically examine their entrenched assumptions about race and privilege.

They provided specific examples of other coping approaches to resolve these tensions. They reframed their roles, focused on their passion, celebrated small wins, and demonstrated behavioral complexity and integrative complexity. For example, a senior diversity manager in healthcare discussed using employee resource groups to create advocacy and support mechanisms. She also facilitated working with underserved communities to raise awareness about (health) inequities within their organization. Diversity and Inclusion Consultant at a technology firm organized town halls across the country to engage in ‘social justice reforms’ and build a stronger network of supporters and allies.

Many practitioners listened to others and empathized with them in the most challenging situations. A senior Diversity Director in a healthcare company explained,

Choosing and embodying empathy is critical for DEI work. If empathy is not there, then you will end up alienating others…Genuine empathy has an almost magical quality. It fosters stronger relationships.

Empathy allowed these participants to ‘live in the and,’ recognize, and integrate multiple perspectives in their work- helping them demonstrate integrative complexity. They explained that it diffused tensions, reduced biases, and encouraged compassion and vulnerability in their relationships.

Crises can amplify diverse voices within organizations and raise the status of non-dominant groups. DEI practitioners realized the changed societal context and confronted the paradoxes in their practice by asserting their power. Hence, rather than being pushed into a corner, they played through the tensions by focusing on their values. They made statements such as, “I stand by morality and equity” and “This is a space where you have to talk, act, and lead to be the voice of the voiceless.” They sounded determined to participate in a greater cause for justice and equity and were driven by compassion, idealism, and passion. They remained optimistic about a just and equitable world despite the many challenges. In the words of the Vice President of Inclusion at a pharmaceutical company, “Despite all odds, our work remains undeterred… we should keep chipping away.”

The “Year in Pictures 2021,” published by the New York Times a few days ago, provides glimpses of hope and disappointment in the face of chaos. The images and their captions allow us to reminisce about the year passed but also propel us into the future. Browsing through these pictures, I couldn’t help but connect these images to DEI practitioners tasked with an enormous responsibility. And if these interviews are representative of other organizations and the DEI work being done- we should all brace for a bumpy ride ahead.

Shaista E. Khilji, Potomac, MD

Dec 17, 2021

This article has emerged from the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate humanistic leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com

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Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is Professor at the George Washington University University. She is also Founder of the Humanizing Initiative.

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