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Where Are We With DEI In 2023?

Featured image: TONL
The movement for diversity, equity and inclusion is losing steam. We spoke to experts about its shaky future.

As the saying goes, nothing lasts forever. Certain things go out of style—fashion trends, music, dance moves, television shows and films. Not many people could have predicted that the movement for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) could just “go out of style” too—but it arguably has. 

Since the pandemic’s onset in 2020 and the protests that took place that summer, a painstakingly bright light has been shone on society’s racial and gender disparities. It was nearly impossible to look away at the jarring inequities. Simultaneously, there were numerous shifts to the standard 9-to-5 workplace, including remote/hybrid work models, greater pay transparency, increased caregiver support, and last but certainly not least, a push for DEI. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, DEI roles increased by 55% after the murder of George Floyd. 

In the last three years, however, DEI positions and titles have slowly been phased out or cut all together. If you Google “DEI leaders fired,” the results may alarm you. A 2023 survey by Revelio Labs found that DEI roles had an attrition rate of nearly 40% at companies impacted by layoffs, as compared to about 24% for non-DEI roles. Moreover, the DEI landscape has been impacted by this summer’s affirmative action ruling and recent laws attempting to rollback representation efforts

This jarring reality begs the question: Was DEI just a passing trend? One thing is clear: corporate America has not lived up to its diversity promises nor has it provided the support and resources necessary for DEI leaders to thrive. 

Here’s a look at where DEI efforts have gone wrong within today’s workplace zeitgeist, the inclusion trends fostering hope and the predictions for next year and beyond. 

Funding is being pulled away from DEI initiatives

Since the beginning of 2023, with a downturned economy and mass layoffs, DEI budgets have been cut and the number of diverse hires is dropping. Many big tech companies have stalled their DEI efforts and slashed diverse hires. Moreover, DEI teams are getting smaller within Fortune 500 companies. 

“The backlash against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and the drawback in funding that we have witnessed in 2023 makes these efforts important now more than ever,” shares Mita Mallick, Author of Reimagine Inclusion and Head of DEI at Carta. 

DEI leaders are leaving organizations or being laid off

By summer 2023, six DEI leaders in Hollywood had left or been laid off from their jobs, including Karen Horne, senior vice president of North America DEI at Warner Bros. Discovery; Jeanell English, executive vice president of impact and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences; Vernā Myers, Netflix’s first head of inclusion; and LaTondra Newton, Disney’s chief diversity officer and senior vice president.  

Many DEI leaders face a double-edged sword when they take on their roles. They are often given titles with great salaries but limited authority to make real change and a lack of  resources. Many DEI hires are also not given proper training, explains Netta Jenkins, vice president of Global Inclusion for Unqork, a technology organization, and the CEO of Aerodei, a platform that ignites DEI efforts by measuring the impact of every employee. 

“Many organizations do not have a real stake in this work because they have not seen an impact,” says Jenkins. “They are reaching out to employees who are passionate about this work, but they don’t have the experience and are not able to lead in a manner that will show tangible results.” 

The narrative around DEI has changed

Anti-DEI policies and the weaponization of DEI has begun to drown out the benefits of more equitable workplaces.  

“There is an increasing narrative that DEI does not work and organizations are questioning if ‘they are too woke,’” says Jenkins. 

Meanwhile, the competitive advantage of DEI initiatives are being lost in the noise, even though research shows “organizations with strong equity and inclusion programs are more resilient and adaptable in times of crises.” DEI initiatives have proven to increase businesses’ sales revenue, customer base and ultimately profits. 

Ashish Kaushal, CEO of the diversity staffing firm HireTalent and founder of Consciously Unbiased, a movement to build belonging in the workplace through corporate trainings, explains that the time for marketing diversity has passed. It’s time for organizations to follow through. 

“Where [businesses] missed it was that we have used diversity as a sort of marketing tool and have used it as the ‘right thing to do,’ but we haven’t tied DEI directly into how it helps business profitability,” says Kaushal. “Ultimately, companies are in the business of making money, so we need to show how DEI is directly tied to profits.” 

Politicians are part of the problem

This year, we’ve seen elected officials like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vocalize their opposition toward DEI initiatives. DeSantis went so far as to rebrand DEI to mean, “discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination.” 

“We have certainly seen more regressive attitudes and legislation come to the fore recently across the country,” says Donna Dozier Gordon, Head of Inclusion and Diversity, H&M Americas. “However, our commitment to our values and work in I&D is still strong despite this challenging environment.”

Looking ahead 

So where does this leave us? In 2024 and beyond, inclusion will remain a driver of business, predicts Mallick.  

“In the U.S., the spending power of the multicultural consumer is $5 trillion,” she says. “Those who don’t believe inclusion is a driver of the business will ultimately be left behind by their competition who understand the power of inclusion to transform businesses.” 

Jenkins predicts that we are going to see the language around DEI shift, with more organizations focusing on the terms inclusion and belonging, rather than diversity and representation.  

“We are at a different place with the economy right now, and as we see increased layoffs and fear of losing jobs, organizations will think of creative ways to engage the employees that they do have in this important work,” says Jenkins. 

Another prediction is that organizations will utilize data and artificial intelligence in connection with inclusion and engagement. Jenkins’ company, Aerodei, offers a tool to quantify DEI efforts in a fun and tangible way for both employers and employees. The goal is to create a forum where both groups can come together and see the impact in real time. 

When it comes to the future of DEI initiatives in the workplace, Kaushal explains that it’s time to shift from intent to action. 

Jenkins agrees. “The future of DEI is when we are not talking about DEI, but we are just doing it.”

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