It’s 2019. Why are we still using DEI strategies from 20 years ago?

I was watching when Regina King won the 2019 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. I was struck by the pledge she made during her acceptance speech:

In the next two years…I am making a vow, and it’s going to be tough, to make sure that everything that I produce, that it’s 50% women, and I just challenge anyone out there who is in a position of power … I challenge you to challenge yourselves and do the same.”

I loved it!!! She put a huge smile on my face, and I felt all warm and fuzzy. But that feeling didn’t last, and it took me a while to figure out why. Her declaration served to amplify the point that people in positions of power are directly responsible for shepherding change. But it’s equally important to recognize that how leaders choose to shepherd change is just as vital as their responsibility to do so. While King’s challenge was certainly impactful, the problem is that the jury is still out on the overall efficacy of quota systems. Compelling new research into the neuroscience of change suggests that it may not be the best way to shepherd the change we seek.

Human beings have blind spots. We can get stuck in group think, and too often we rely on what we know. Not because it works, but simply because it’s what we’ve always done…and familiarity breeds comfort. Remembering Pritchett’s 205030 Rule*, we might want to let science and research guide us when we’re trying to drive change because resistance is a given. And experience shows us that diversity projects always come with their fair share of resistance. Resistance to difference. Resistance to change. Fear of the unknown. The key is whether leaders drive the opposition, bend to it, or manage through it.

Since the late 1990s, private and public sector organizations alike have been under increasing scrutiny over the need to become what was then being called diversity competent.” For private sector corporations, legislated compliance was the traditional motivator, and so the have to” quality of DEI ensured that calls for action were often given lip service. Organizational leaders were either unwilling or unable to recognize that they did, in fact, have a diversity problem (e.g. the dearth of females and people of color in leadership/​board positions, the near absence of open/​out LGBTQ staff, etc.). Divorced from the notion that DEI changes needed to be systemic in nature, businesses opted instead for celebratory window dressing” projects that would look good while doing little. It allowed them to tick boxes and laud their success. So on the whole, corporate diversity initiatives were largely seen as medicine that needed to be topped with a spoonful of sugar” to help it go down.

This mindset led to decades of failed policies and programming. As a result, only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women in 2018 (that’s only 24 out of 500). Quota systems have been in play for decades, and here we still are. 24 out of 500. Men are still two to three times more likely to hold senior management-level positions. Hiring discrimination against Black Americans hasn’t declined in 25 years (in part because employers still lean towards hiring White applicants when all other factors are equal), and heterosexism continues to deter LGBTQ worker’s climb up the corporate ladder. When you start to tie these complex realities together, the numbers become increasingly stark.

There simply isn’t an excuse today; not a viable one at least. We know too much. So why can’t we seem to make the headway that’s needed? It can’t just be about resistance. Too many good leaders are trying their best to drive DEI. The answer is actually straightforward and can be found in the gaps between how we understand a problem and then frame its solutions. Again, it comes down to how we embed the science into what we do and how we do it. Let me try and explore a bit of the sociology behind the problem itself.

If I asked these 4 simple questions, how would you answer?

(1) Is racism a bad thing?
(2) Is sexism a bad thing?
(3) Are heterosexism and homophobia bad things?
(4) Is ableism a bad thing?

My guess is that most people would respond yes across the board. Now, on the surface, 4 affirmative answers here would seem positive and yet at the same time, 4 yes responses mask a potential problem. What does it mean if you responded yes to question (1) without having a grounded understanding of what racism actually is. What would that yes mean? And imagine if you had the power to put policy in place even though you didn’t fully understanding the issue you were trying to solve for? It’s similar to when people conflate climate and weather. Imagine there was a serious threat to the climate, let’s say something like global warming; you couldn’t solve that challenge if you looked out the window in the winter, and interpreted a brisk and snowy Minneapolis day to mean all was good with the climate. That flawed understanding would likely lead to really bad decision making and even worse long-term consequences.

So back to our discussion of question (1), or more importantly, your answer to question (1). How do you define racism? Are you thinking about people using racial slurs? Is that racism to you? Are you thinking about overt bigotry and physical violence? Or are you thinking about the intentional withholding of resources or access from some people due to skin color? What if I told you that we don’t get to make up our own definitions of things like racism, sexism, homophobia or ableism any more than we get to make up our own definition of climate? Well…we can, but it doesn’t become valid just because we believe it. These are scientific terms, which brings us back to the problem. The social science and research underpinning these complex challenges have rarely been accessed, let alone relied upon to guide DEI strategy.

So what do we do? How do we break out of this pattern? On the positive side, we’ve taken the first critical steps. Understanding that culture is in large part what allows organizations to attract, hire, retain and develop top talent, today’s forward thinking corporate leaders are making the connections between diversity, inclusion, culture and productivity. And so the DEI silo is being brought down in favour of programming and resource allocation that reaches beyond comfortable old-school approaches (e.g. stand-alone trainings, quota systems) and towards engagements across the talent cycle. I mean, why bother working on the inclusivity of your culture if you continue to hire people without a mind to how inclusive they actually are? What’s the point of ensuring 50% of your new hires are female, without also ensuring that they’re welcomed, supported and allowed to thrive? (read my previous post here on how belonging impacts women in the workplace).

Good DEI is about so much more than numbers…and bodies being hired simply because they are the right kind of different” ensures little more than surface-level change. At the end of the day, the diverse bodies you hire need to mesh if they are going to thrive and reach their potential. We have to break out and away from a reliance on DEI’s traditionally accepted best practices” and see many of them for what they really are: outdated and comfortable. DEI is a sociological challenge, and so it’s vital that we start to employ sociological approaches to solving it, because at the moment most of us don’t. Marrying science, technology and business imperatives will allow us to make thoughtful choices that are both impactful and fundamentally conducive to the bottom line.

In the meantime, I’d like to ask all of us to restart this conversation with our networks. And in next week’s blog, I’ll begin exploring why inclusion depends entirely on the state of your organizational climate and culture.

If there is a topic you want me to cover, email me at leeno@​meshdiversity.​com. If there’s a topic you want to talk about, BOOK ME. I’m opening my calendar every Friday morning at 9:00 a.m. (ET) to have a virtual coffee with you.

*Pritchett’s Rule asserts that 20% of staff are change friendly,” actively helping the change process, 50% are fence-sitters, (neither backing nor resisting the change) and 30% actively resist change and are generally more vocal and adamant than the others. See, P. Pritchett (1996) Overcoming Resistance to Change. (Pritchett Publishing, Texas)