Serious criticisms about organizational diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts have been leveled periodically over the last 3.5 years in response to the increased focus on the topic in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Yes, every movement has its countermovement and often a pendulum that swings back and forth between extremes ultimately settles somewhere in the middle. But if there is something that has become clear during this divided era: it is that two sides who refuse to speak to one another will never find a way to settle in the middle. They will just keep shouting at each other across a great divide.
As someone who works in the leadership advisory industry with a specific focus on corporate DEI, I come out heavily in favor of DEI efforts. But I am also willing to acknowledge that applications of DEI principles are not always perfect and that impatience for change can drive hasty decisions with less-than-ideal outcomes. But nothing truly new and different was ever achieved without challenges. If we scrapped things entirely when the first mistakes were made, we would have no innovation in our lives. To me, it seems clear that the questions raised by DEI critics present potential opportunities for innovation, not deletion. If we can apply the inclusive leadership practice of engaging in dialogue and open debate so we can see the issue from all sides, the practices will get better.
Actively working to expand access to opportunities is necessary because we are still contending with legacy dynamics of advantage and disadvantage, of available resources and established networks, and lack thereof. Legacy systems of hiring and promotion historically limited the opportunities available to some based on any number of characteristics, including race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, and disability. Expanding access to opportunities is, and has always been, the goal of DEI practitioners across their respective industries.
But with more legal protections in place today than for prior generations, why would any company need to expend more effort to add diversity to their ranks? Won’t this just naturally happen over time? I, and most DEI practitioners, would say NO, not without very specific effort. Why? Well, ironically, it might be a universally human trait that we gravitate toward sameness and are cautious around difference—a learned behavior passed on from eons ago when it was harder to traverse the physical distances between continents; for our predecessors, exposure to difference was rare and seeking safety within one’s own tribe was a necessary way of life.
Today we live in a more populated world with a global economy and the internet. Ideas and people are migrating around the world at an ever-faster pace, and we encounter people who think differently from us every hour of every day. If our natural tendency is to gravitate toward sameness, then it requires awareness, practice, and supportive tools and systems to change our habits and adopt new behaviors that are more inclusive of the differences we encounter every day.
Those who approach difference with curiosity and openness learn from those encounters. A team of people who think differently but share a common goal can engage in productive debates on tough issues, curious to hear each other’s ideas. This ability to see a problem from multiple angles can spur greater creativity in the solutions. An organization, a community, even a nation—made up of people who have different backgrounds, different ideas, different approaches—that can see benefit in that diversity and seek to learn from all the varying perspectives, has great potential to grow by tapping into the full potential of all of its people.
This admittedly idealized experience is what the champions of DEI are striving for in organizations large and small, for-profit and non-profit, new and well-established. Full inclusion of a widely diverse range of people and their ideas. Openness to debate. Interrogating ideas, not people. Equitable support to ensure that everyone can thrive.
Much of the anti-DEI rhetoric currently being tweeted implies that there is monolithic agreement on the root causes of inequity and a singular definition and approach to achieving equity. Even if we were to set aside that scholarly work on racial and gender inequity is sometimes misquoted and mischaracterized, we should at least acknowledge that there is considerable debate among those who deeply care about building a more equitable future over how best to go about it. Inequity has been studied by thousands of people, and there are thousands more who continue to experiment with solutions. The consistent intention over generations of effort is to expand access to opportunity, which has been the driver of the U.S. economy since our country’s founding. Implying that the study and effort to build a more inclusive future is in and of itself dangerous, unpatriotic, or anti-capitalist feels antithetical. Increasing access to opportunity increases competition, which improves the level of play. When companies compete with each other to recruit and retain the best talent, it improves the level of performance among them. These are DEI-aligned behaviors and also good growth-minded business sense.
To see these intentions besmirched by a combination of misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and occasionally poor implementation of DEI principles should be deeply troubling to us all. Because when DEI principles are well-applied and people of all backgrounds feel included, valued, and heard, that is a rising tide upon which all boats can rise. And that is the true work, the deep work, that an experienced community of DEI practitioners has been doing for decades—before it was called DEI, before it was “trendy,” certainly before the current backlash we are observing. I have met these people as clients, candidates, and fellow practitioners. When you acquaint yourself with their work these are the things you learn:
- Inclusion well-practiced does not shut down debate between those who think differently or remove the platform from which one end of the political spectrum can speak. It encourages respectful debate and allows multiple perspectives their time on the platform.
- Inclusion well-practiced is not racist or sexist, it is humanist. It is designed to foster dialogue, understanding, and acceptance of both similarities and differences across identity groups.
- Inclusion well-practiced does not reduce opportunities for any singular group. It expands and diversifies the groups of people who are considered for opportunities.
- Inclusion well-practiced does not favor one identity group over another. It expands the universe of people who belong in an organization and diversifies the types of support offered so that everyone can thrive.
One critique I read bemoaned the divisive time in which we live and centered the blame for this division on DEI. I maintain an optimistic outlook that some critics of DEI, like this one, are themselves well-intentioned. Some have felt misunderstood, fearful, silenced, and—seeking a remedy—they have landed on a now misrepresented acronym as the cause. I agree that we are living through an unfortunately divisive time in this country when winning an argument can be more important than learning from someone else’s perspective, and the surest way to “win” an argument in some people’s minds is to not allow the other side the opportunity to state their case. I have witnessed this behavior on both sides of the political spectrum, and both sides of the DEI topic too. (Just because one supports diversity and inclusion does not mean one is immune to the human tendency to gravitate toward those with whom you agree. Inclusion requires practice for all of us.)
Unifying our current divided state does not in any way require shutting down the efforts of so many who are working to build inclusive environments. This, too, is antithetical. Instead, I assert that the solution is for all of us to participate FULLY in inclusive practices at an individual level. Engage in real debate. Explore different ideas without bias. Wonder how you might be wrong, at least for the sake of continuing to improve your argument.
We are all part of the solution.