Business leaders have the skill, but lack the will, to progress on DEI

January 26, 2022, 8:53 PM UTC

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We are now approaching two years since 2020’s Summer of Promises, when every corporation agreed that “mistakes were made” and promised to “do better” on inequality in America.

How much progress has been made since then?

Not much. 

Do the people in power actually want progress?

It doesn’t look like it.

Four years earlier, America had another supposed awakening on race. Donald Trump winning the 2016 US presidential election surprised many Americans with the fact that someone so racially insensitive could have the support of so much of the country.

From my perch, the Trump election and the summer of 2020 were news cycles, not revolutions. The response from those in power was mostly public relations, and after that they hoped to get back to normal soon. For the most part, they got what they wanted.

2016 and 2020 weren’t America’s first awakenings. There were high-profile protests nationally in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. #MeToo alerted the public to the harassment women face both in and out of the workplace. Barack Obama’s election opened many people’s eyes. The OJ Simpson trial and Rodney King tapes come to mind in the 90s as moments where race came to the forefront of news and culture.

After all of these cycles, it seems like small steps of progress were followed by years of workarounds for new equity standards. 

We couldn’t prevent the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Public schools and other crucial social services were still seeing budget cuts across the country. Black people in America are still fighting for voting rights and other forms of basic dignity, let alone for opportunities in the workplace, where gender gaps in pay and promotion persist—an S&P 500 CEO is more likely to be named Michael or James than to identify as female.

Ultimately, best-practice diversity strategies from 2006 or 1996 are just as useful as any being published today, since not much has changed. 

If we’ve known the right answers for decades, what are the real barriers to equity? I believe a lot of leaders create a lot of leeway for themselves by saying that the solutions are far more complex than they really are, when the reality is…

You have to want to do it. No DEI playbook or consultant can get you there. You, the leaders of these companies, have to want to change.

How many more studies do you need proving the existence of discrimination? Would one more article presenting the DEI business case really help? Have you not seen enough ideas about improving diversity in recruiting? How many have you actually tried?

I think this is why many DEI leaders, including Twitter’s Dalana Brand, who is also the company’s chief people officer, say that focusing on the business case for DEI as the argument for change is setting yourself up for failure. The business case for diversity and inclusion exists, but focusing on the business case over the moral imperative hurts the authenticity of DEI efforts, Brand previously said in a Fortune panel.

Clearly, corporate leadership has philosophical barriers preventing it from progress on DEI. Here are my hypotheses for what they are:

Hesitance to give up power

A default belief of corporate leaders, one that aligns with their positions on labor unions or remote work, is that giving up power is a weakness and a liability. Leaders are also typically very bad at admitting their mistakes or even showing vulnerability.

Today’s leaders need to get much better at listening, learning and admitting when they’re wrong, otherwise we won’t get anywhere on diversity, sustainability or even operational efficiency in the future.

The meritocracy myth

The belief that corporate America is a meritocracy, that only people with the right combination of grit and intelligence make it to the top, is a pernicious one that is also very comforting to its leaders.

Data shows that “people who have more status, more resources, more privilege are also more likely to buy into the myth of meritocracy,” Laura Morgan Roberts, professor of leadership and organized behavior at UVA’s Darden School of Business, told The Modern Board.

This belief has been soundly debunked, and its effects on racial equality are also well-chronicled. For further information, leaders can also ask their Black or female colleagues about their experiences with meritocracy–if they’re willing to listen.

Believing in the “pipeline problem”

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, many executives insist that not enough diverse talent exists for their jobs. The more accurate phrasing of this is that the company doesn’t do enough (or anything) to attract or retain Black or female talent in their organizations.

The other, perhaps even worse, version of this is when they say not enough qualified diverse talent exists for their jobs.

The CEO of Wells Fargo shared his thoughts on this matter in 2020, board leaders repeated it in 2021 surveys, and just this week the CEO of Cathay Financial Holdings said, “The chairman told me to look for ideal female candidates for independent directors, but I can’t find any.”

If people feel that way, there’s no point in discussing recruiting strategies or how to build inclusive culture. The issue is within!

Fear of conflict

Terms like racial equality, diversity and inclusion obscure the real nature of the problem, but they’re much nicer to say than “Black people are being prevented from accessing career opportunities” or “The company protects managers who commit sexual harassment.”

Many attribute the difficulty of having open and honest conversations to the fear of conflict that is natural to any workplace. But this conflict is crucial for DEI progress. Leaders interested in progress need to facilitate these conversations by creating safe spaces for them and making sure people do not fear retaliation in the workplace for sharing their thoughts.

Aman Kidwai


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