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February 2, 2022

Workplace DEI Efforts: Diversity Theater or Genuine Progress?

By Jody L. Newman

As an employment lawyer and mediator, with decades of experience representing employees seeking redress in discrimination cases, I watched the national racial reckonings unleashed in the summer of 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd and other young black men and women with a mixture of shock and awe.  As a nation, we were roiled by a world-wide pandemic which had laid bare the deep inequities in our society, and it seemed that the structural bias in America’s institutions could no longer be ignored.

One of the places to which attention turned was systemic bias in the workplace. Businesses launched PR campaigns with statements of solidarity, announced Juneteenth as a work holiday and hired DEI consultants by the droves, while employees took to social media to demand employer accountability. I watched this watershed moment from my new position at BLC, a small law firm with an outsize commitment to equality that has long held workshops on implicit bias and structural bias. With corporate America speaking the language of social justice advocates, it seemed that business leaders might be ready to transcend the perfunctory playbook of legal compliance as a way to address workplace discrimination.

The game-changer, in my view, was that some DEI workplace initiatives transcended the typical hiring goals and mandatory bias trainings to focus on the concepts of “equity” and “inclusion”, the absence of which permits bias to flourish at work despite decades of anti-discrimination policies. The new playbook requires DEI to move out of HR and into the C-suite as a core business strategy. It requires talking to and believing what employees say about their work environment. It requires a strong and unwavering leadership commitment, including a willingness to understand white privilege.  Most of all, it requires the changing of hearts and minds of executives and employees who have been conditioned by cognitive processes and cultural indoctrination to harbor unconscious biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other factors, even while consciously holding egalitarian views. In other words, the new playbook looks at the hard and entrenched stuff.

So, almost two years later, has anything really changed at the office? Not much, say some. According to a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, “much of this work has not yet taken root.”  The article cites one recent survey in which 93% of company leaders agreed that the D&I agenda is a “top priority,” but only 34% believed that it is now a strength in their workplace.  The article found that 80% of HR professionals viewed companies as “going through the motions”:

In other words, they didn’t notice any significant positive impact from the organizations’ actions. Another survey revealed that while 78% of Black professionals believe senior leaders’ D&I efforts are well-intentioned, 40% hear more talk than action and have not noticed material changes to policies or culture. Meanwhile, many CDOs [chief diversity officers] leave their roles because of a lack of strategic, financial, and political support.

This candid (and discouraging) assessment of the latest DEI efforts is not new.  Underrepresented Blacks in the tech industry have long lamented the high-profile and high-dollar efforts of industry giants as “diversity theater.

Some industry experts see enthusiasm for DEI fading because of the sheer magnitude of the paradigm shift needed to implement the new playbook and the sustained commitment involved.  A recent article noting that many ad agencies dropped their DEI pledges after 2020, put it this way: “[p]ledge takers . . . got swept up in the anti-racist sentiment of last summer, but tangible efforts fizzled quickly as the idea of being transparent, putting a real process in place and operationalizing the system set in.”  The article quoted diversity advocate Reonna Johnson: “Creating action around anti-racist practices felt like a lot of work that many agencies either weren’t equipped for or interested in.”

Other commentors have suggested that progress is slow because businesses continue to prioritize diversity without putting equitable and inclusive structures in place to support a diverse work culture. “The reality is, before you can create a truly diverse workforce, you must commit to equitable and inclusive initiatives that support all employees. No matter how diverse your team is, your DEI efforts will fail if you don’t provide equitable programs and inclusive environments.”  This, in my experience, is key and creating an inclusive and equity focused business culture can happen immediately no matter the extent of diversity in the workforce.


Finally, the impact of the pandemic on the workplace cannot be overlooked in assessing the effectiveness of the new DEI playbook.  It is well-documented that women with children have been forced to scale back their workload or quit altogether because of the pandemic and the cost of childcare/lack of childcare–Oxfam International reports that the pandemic cost women around the world at least $800 billion in earnings in just one year–; others have retired early, left for better jobs or just walked away because of poor conditions in general. The “Great Resignation of 2021” — over 20 million people quit their jobs in the second half of last year — is still being unpacked, but I would not be surprised if the burnout driving resignations included awareness of the deep implicit and structural bias in the workplace.

At this point in time, the moral case, the legal case, and the business case for eradicating discrimination in the workplace have long been made.  Tackling both implicit and structural bias in the workplace is long, hard work, but efforts to create a just and inclusive culture where equal employment opportunities exist must be sustained.  Employees and job seekers, consumers and investors are demanding it.  As we have just celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, his words guide us to take the long view: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  And to those optimistic words one might add: it bends that way only if we push it and overcome the forces of inertia and resistance.

Stay tuned for more discrimination-focused BLC blog posts on Asian-American hate worsened by the pandemic and a look at the efforts of the legal profession to address the deep bias in its ranks.

Employment, Updates

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