Is mock DEI a window dressing for major corporations?
When McDonald’s recently announced three new directors to their board, 2 out of 3 were women and none were a person of colour – in contrast with McDonald’s customer base. According to the non-profit Catalyst, women of colour “hold just 4.6% of board seats in Fortune 500 companies.”
“While increasing women board members is a significant step, gender equality is still not racial equality,” says DEI expert, Dr Nika White, president/CEO of Nika White Consulting and author of Inclusion Uncomplicated: A Transformative Guide to Simplify DEI.
“DEI is about elevating humanity in the workplace,” says DEI expert, Dr Ella Washington, Founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a Professor of Practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business who co-hosts Gallup's Center of Black Voices Cultural Competence Podcast. “Organisations are a microcosm of the rest of the world–even with the best diversity management processes, the rest of the world and the rest of the country need to catch up and change holistically so we can have these workplace utopias. The best DEI policies and practices in the organisations can’t be done right, without society shifting as well.”
A “workplace utopia” Washington says is more of an idea in terms of a “place where everyone can thrive.” While no organisation is perfect, she says a good example of a DEI practice is a corporation that involves all employees in the conversation with a strong top-down and bottom-up approach. Especially as decentralised organisations face unique challenges, it’s imperative to have initiatives that take hold, and company culture “not only from a sense of how work gets done, but how people are treated, topics and things that are addressed daily with managers’ involvement in the DEI efforts.”
White contributes the long-established issues with diversity and equity in corporate leadership to the “systematic and corporate policies that intentionally and unintentionally exclude women of colour.” One way to address this inequality, she says, is by adopting a diverse “search committee and pool of candidates.”
“Corporations must ensure representation at all levels to show that DEI is not a money grab but something the corporation holds as one of its core values,” White says while organisations aren’t required to publicly show DEI metrics, transparency would ensure progress and accountability. “Many companies have very robust DEI initiatives, but many need more tracking and evaluation to measure progress–and can seek out “anonymous means of feedback.”
Are DEI claims then just corporate window dressing?
DEI window dressing is similar to the Black Lives Matter signs most businesses post without really practising equity or diverse hiring policies.
White agrees that lack of diversity in the board rooms can be considered a corporate window dressing. DEI efforts can “appear disingenuous” especially when predominantly white decision-makers engage in public initiatives centred on Black people. Corporate makeup must reflect the patrons, she says, emphasising how most customers choose to “spend their money at places that represent their values.”
DEI can be a tough conversation for business leaders to have, but an important one once they have their purpose, understand what they're doing, why they want to do it, and what's their primary goal, says Washington. She suggests corporations hold up the mirror, and think about their pitfalls while asking tough questions like “what’s holding us back from achieving that purpose, things historically done as a company, things never thought about or weren't intentional about, policies in place that aren’t actually as equitable,” or informal practices that may be holding them back.
Since every organisation is at a “different place on their DEI journey” Washington says rather than emulating others, organisations should conduct internal audits and ask tough questions to set clear metrics. The most important metric is where they were in the past and where they aim to be in the future. And most importantly, she cautions organisations against making diversity and inclusion mistakes with tokenism.
“Tokenism is not just window dressing–but has some ramifications for the individual and the organisations involved,” Washington says that an organisation must be truly inclusive, and engage in the invention, reinvention, making mistakes, and having humility while adapting to a changing world be constant in their self-reflection while making significant sacrifices.
Once organisations identify and address their purpose and pitfalls, then there’s progress, says Washington. And metrics–ideally short-term metrics on an annual or quarterly basis–should measure improvements. A system of accountability can also help corporations meet metrics and goals.
Customers can hold corporations accountable
“Saying you have a commitment to DEI without actually making adjustments shortchanges everyone involved while also misleads consumers who want to spend money with organisations that prioritise DEI,” White suggests holding organisations responsible for their DEI policies and practices while eliminating misleading representations and underutilised policies and procedures.
Customers can exercise their buying power by demanding corporations reflect the diversity of their customer base, says White.
“Customers can play a strong role, but they must be active, and willing to speak up without being afraid of asking uncomfortable questions sometimes. Organisations listen to customers!” Washington suggests B2B business partners ask for accountability if the business doesn’t want to jeopardise a valuable partner – and follow up diligently to see how the business is faring.
To strengthen their DEI efforts, corporations should seek “real-time feedback from real people.” Involving customers on their board or by holding “town hall meetings” corporations can embrace a legitimately diverse workplace, says White. Policies must ensure a “diverse recruitment process” with employee follow-ups through “informal and formal check-ins” that address possible microaggressions for a well-rounded recruitment and retention process.
To establish a talent pipeline of qualified Black students for their recruitment pool, White suggests corporations should tap into historically Black Colleges, Universities, and high schools “to create an internship process.” Among organisations with a healthy DEI, she lists the Veterans United Home Loans which recruits employees from racial/ethnic backgrounds, Banfield Pet Hospital which partners with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Instacart, which holds company-wide cultural heritage months.
White underscores how Corporate DEI is imperative to “our globalised world” and requires meeting equitable opportunities for a diverse workforce. Likewise, an equitable work environment, she says, helps employees thrive, increasing innovation and revenues while providing “access to larger salaries” that help increase generational wealth.
A recent Bank of America Global Research report on the lack of diversity within American companies reads: “Is it $70 trillion in foregone economic output? Or $23 trillion in USD GDP? Or $172 trillion in lifetime earnings? No matter how you measure it, lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) limits national economies and reduces GDP.”
As post-Covid workplaces shifted to increased remote or hybrid work–26% of U.S. employees now work remotely. By 2025, 36.2 million Americans will work remotely–so corporations must strive for an equitable culture. Washington says it’s essential to have structures in place on how work is assigned, evaluating employees’ promotions and opportunities for advancement and keeping track of the outcomes. Also essential are the annual assessment of assigned work and “who got which projects” and the unintended consequences.
When is the right time for DEI metrics?
“I think 2023 is the pivotal year! It’s approaching three years and because of the economic challenges we are facing, many organisations have significantly dialled back their DEI efforts,” Washington suggests public diligence. “Pay attention to a company you’ve followed for the past few years to see what they’re doing now, find their metrics to find out if they missed the mark, what they’re doing about that, and if they’re still talking about DEI.”
Words: Jackie Abramian
Jackie Abramian is committed to amplifying the work of women pace-builders, change-makers and social entrepreneurs as a contributor to various publications. She is a social enterprise, NGO advisor and the founder of Global Cadence consultancy.