Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The diversity backlash is underway. Here’s how to resist it

a diverse group of people facing away from the camera -- diversity backlash is underway

The benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion to an organization are clear and overwhelming. Image: Pexels

Denise Hamilton
Founder, WatchHerWork
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  • The work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in business is facing a backlash.
  • Some people feel aggrieved, insisting that they are losing opportunities because they don’t fall into certain groups.
  • Handling this takes leadership and courage – and an awareness of the bigger picture.

Those of us who work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in businesses knew this was coming. When protests for racial justice spread across the world in 2020, many corporations were quick to make promises. They vowed to change hiring and promotion practices, doing their part to achieve equality.

It was inevitable that some people would soon fight against this movement. As Dow executive Karen S. Carter once wrote for Agenda, anyone who steps up as a sponsor or advocate for gender equality and diversity “may face resistance, even backlash. That comes with changing the game.”

Have you read?

A movement against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts is now in full swing. I see it in my work each day. As a consultant, speaker and adviser to C-suite executives, I have faced a barrage of questions about how to handle employees, especially white men, who see only the costs of DEI but don’t feel included in its promise. Many people feel aggrieved, insisting that they are losing opportunities because they don’t fall into certain groups.

In a notable public example, America’s wealthiest author James Patterson complained earlier this year that white men are having trouble getting writing jobs in film, TV and publishing are victims of “ another form of racism.” He later apologised and said that he does “not believe that racism is practiced against white writers”.

Start with a reality check

Executives tell me they have employees leveling the same complaints about hiring and promotions. I tell these executives that one of the first things they should do is deliver a clear reality check, just like the one Patterson got.

Media were quick to point out the fallacy of Patterson’s view. The Washington Post noted that a self-audit from one major publishing house found that about 75% of contributors are white, and only 6% were Black, and a New York Times report found 89% of books written in 2018 were by white writers. A 2019 survey from children’s publisher Lee and Low Books found that 85% of the publishing staffers who acquire and edit books are White. Data like this underpinned Patterson's U-turn.

Diversity in Publishing 2019 survey from children’s publisher Lee and Low Books found that 85 percent of the publishing staffers who acquire and edit books are White
Diversity in Publishing 2019 survey from children’s publisher Lee and Low Books found that 85 percent of the publishing staffers who acquire and edit books are White Image: Lee and Low Books

Data can be enormously helpful to dispel a false picture people have of what’s actually going on in corporate America. For example, the Fortune 500 (a list of 500 of the largest US corporations) includes only six Black chief executives. That's up by only one from last year, and it’s a historic high previously reached a decade ago. It’s only about 1% of CEOs, while about 14% of the US population identifies as Black or mixed race with African-American as part of their identity.

A group of researchers from McKinsey and the Forum reported earlier this year that globally, many companies are making very slow progress – if any at all – on the key metrics of diversity and inclusion.

So what do these companies do? Many avoid reporting the data, instead keeping the numbers private. This creates a destructive paradox. Employees hear aspirational rhetoric about inclusive changes and come to believe that those changes are happening in numbers that don’t actually exist. The myth grows that a DEI monster is coming to take their jobs. Accurate numbers help communicate the real story and give much needed perspective to employees of all kinds.

Exhibit courage in workplace relationships

For executives, making a promise amid global protests took some courage. But making it real takes more.

In some cases, this courage needs to be shown on a personal level. For example, some people who always assumed they were next in line for a promotion might not get that promotion. Executives need to recognize that a candidate of colour whose contributions were previously ignored may be the right one for the promotion – and they need to ignore those who lazily write off the decision as some sort of effort to be “woke.” It can be difficult to accept that a long-coveted role is not something a person is entitled to; it’s something they’re chosen for.

Similarly, a beloved but toxic superstar may lose their position because of inappropriate behaviour. Or an executive may be required to take an intern from somewhere other than their own fraternity or alma mater. Change requires accepting these things.


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Acknowledge the resistance to diversity

It’s important to acknowledge that some people believe these efforts hurt them. While a claim of unfairness is not supported by the numbers overall, it can nevertheless be deeply felt and can be the greatest test of leadership in this space.

Leaders must work to inspire positive change while still honoring the achievements of the current team. Emphasize that the point of diversity, equity and inclusion is to be inclusive of everyone. That the organization can move forward optimistically without leaving folks behind. Be honest, open and direct about the steps being taken to make sure everyone is given an equal, fair shot.

This balance of needs requires a surgical approach, not a club. It requires thoughtfulness and intention.

The benefits of DEI to an organization are clear and overwhelming. But working toward more equitable businesses requires changing norms that have been in place for decades. Change is not easy, and it can be painful. This process is more of a marathon than a sprint. The tenacity and stamina of executives now will determine whether diversity, equity and inclusion become a reality in business, or becomes a big, empty promise that fails us all.

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