DEI Initiatives
The Equity Issue

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Are DEI Initiatives Working?

Within a month of starting at a top technology corporation, a 45-year old woman of Caribbean South Asian descent received an urgent late-night email and Slack message from the company's vice-president. She had been asked to call him and was told to remove her social media posts about their lack of diversity at a recent event.

Since the VP said her post went against their policies, she acquiesced, but notes, "I checked after and what I did, did NOT violate anything. He had said he would schedule a follow-up meeting for me regarding DEI, so I waited to see if he'd follow through."

It would take a month before that meeting happened. "Within that time, none of my managers mentioned his urgent email that they had been copied on. Had I not dealt with this sort of thing before, this may have been enough for me to quit my new Solutions Consultant job with only his violent reaction to my social media posts," she says.

In preparation for that meeting, she put together a presentation to demonstrate how her social media posts did not violate any policies. At the meeting, a Human Resources representative was also present, as her VP explained that he had scheduled a follow-up to apologize to her since he had been wrong to tell her to remove her social media posts.

While her story could have ended much worse, it highlights how companies may mean well when they attempt to invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion, but may still have a negative impact on marginalized staff. Here is what some other employees, business leaders, and equity experts have to share about the reality of DEI efforts in 2022.

Inclusive Culture Critical

Clinical psychologist, 2020 Health Disparities Research Institute Scholar with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and director of medical affairs at Big HealthJuliette McClendon, PhD, says, "It’s critically important to cultivate an environment and culture dedicated to inclusivity. This means that employees should feel like they belong; that they’re a part of a culture that doesn’t require them to change who they are to fit in, and in which their hard work and dedication are recognized regularly."

Juliette McClendon, PhD

We know that feelings of belonging and mental health are linked—research shows that anxiety, depression, and even suicide are linked to one’s sense of belonging. When companies really dedicate themselves to diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) work that actually creates an inclusive, psychologically safe environment for everyone, it communicates to employees that their employer cares about them.

— Juliette McClendon, PhD

Talk is cheap, so McClendon says that DEI work means actually putting resources towards creating an inclusive workplace, not just saying they’re doing it. "It is important for companies to hold rigorous training for staff around bias, microaggressions, and how to handle them at work," she says. 

In a former role, McClendon recalls how a DEI working group once led a workshop on microaggression training by looking at and discussing racist advertisements in small groups. "Inadvertently, the workshop ended up being a microaggression, in itself, by encouraging the few people of color in the department to look at racist images and analyze them intellectually. Until this was called out, it went unnoticed," she says.

While that is only a single example from her work experience, McClendon notes, "This example is to emphasize the importance of ensuring DEI training needs to be led by experts. At best, those who aren’t experts can open a conversation and dialogue, but at worst, such initiatives can further harm the most marginalized employees."

DEI at Walgreens Boots Alliance

As the senior vice president and global chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA), Carlos Cubia says, "We really weave diversity, equity, and inclusion into every aspect of our business."

While Cubia has been at Walgreens Boots Alliance for 5 years, he initially began in the role of director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. "From the C-Suite, to our board of directors, to our global beauty brands, we've woven DEI into our recruiting practices, our hiring and retention practices, and even into our marketing efforts," he says.

With his team, Cubia has worked hard to embed their commitment to DEI at WBA. "When George Floyd was murdered, my team took the lead on the conversations across the organization to make sure that people were doing okay," he says.

Cubia explains, "We wanted to know how this was impacting them. We talked about the return to work as a result of this pandemic. We wanted to know how this was going to affect all of our people, not just in the United States, but in the UK and abroad."

With a leadership accountability model that has tied staff bonuses to the DEI goals, Cubia highlights how any employees that are eligible for a bonus has their work performance tied to the five goals that they set for DEI.

Cubia notes, "We have really been on the frontlines of the pandemic response. We played an instrumental role in providing the public with vital information and education on COVID-19 testing, and vaccines. One of the things that the DEI team and I did in partnership with our government relations team is start a vaccine equity task force."

Through that task force, they ensured that as distribution of vaccines began across the country, they went to those communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including Black and brown communities, rural communities, etc.

Cubia explains, "We provided information on why they should take the vaccine. We knew there were barriers for people that were hesitant about taking a vaccine. We had educational seminars, and we partnered with the Urban League and Black fraternities and sororities, as well as Uber to provide 10 million free rides across the United States."

Equity Means Looking at Power

Civil rights attorney, educator, author, and social justice advocate, Diana Patton, Esq., says, "First of all, do your own research. Where is the power here? If you want to talk about equity, we need to look at the power dynamics at your corporation."

Patton explains, "I want to see your board. Who's making decisions on your board? And then how diversified is that power? How many people that are Black, White, Asian, etc. Then I want to look at where the power is and the diversification of that power."

In addition to diversifying their board, Patton recommends that companies should be partnering with organizations that have a longstanding commitment to equity that have already been doing anti-racist work, like Black Lives Matter.

According to the World Economic Forum, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the time expected to close the gender gap from 99.5 years to 135.6 years. In this way, Patton notes, "It widens the gap of gender inequality and racial inequality."

Diana Patton, Esq

We need integrity and accountability. If I sat down, and interrogated business leaders to ask, Do you really believe this is important? Unfortunately, many of them would say, I'm just trying to do this because I should, because it is expected now.

— Diana Patton, Esq

Small Businesses Must Invest in DEI Work

While large corporations may often have bigger budgets, the founder and chief executive officer of Truss, Everett Harper, says, "Small shifts in hiring or departures can have a big impact on diversity percentages. It is important to measure multiple variables when assessing how well a diversity or inclusion initiative is progressing."

Everett Harper

When we started Truss, we made it one of our core values to embrace diversity in people, voices, and ideas, and put it on our website. It sets an expectation for all new employees and new clients, and sets a foundation for future decisions.

— Everett Harper

By setting explicit goals and measuring them, Harper highlights how Truss works towards an employee base that matches the US population. Currently, 53% of their employees are women, 35% of their employees are Black, and of other racialized backgrounds, while their leadership team has been over 50% women for years.

Harper highlights, "These numbers are far beyond the average of our peers in the tech industry. Each of our recruiting cohorts are evaluated for diversity of applicants, and if we find that we are not hitting our goals, we analyze the root cause and make specific adjustments. Our actions are transparent to the company, which keeps us accountable."

Since women and other underrepresented minorities are often paid less than their White male counterparts for the same job, Harper explained how Truss has implemented a salary transparency policy. "By making our salaries transparent internally for all employees, we ensure that everyone is paid fairly. In addition, if there are any mistakes or anomalies, we can correct them during our quarterly reviews," he says.

Many Still Get It Wrong

When a Black educator, based in Saint Paul, MN, logged on for her Grade 10 History class during remote learning online, she had expected a thoughtful lesson on secession from the union by the confederate states. But instead, her colleague, a White teacher, presented a historically accurate whip that was used to beat enslaved people.

After having to navigate such violently racist behavior from this teacher at her day job, she questions, "If I was traumatized as a Black woman in a position of relative power as an educator, how would such an image have assaulted the minds of our Black high school students who were then expected to engage in class for the sake of learning?"

As a Black educator, she felt a sense of responsibility to follow up with the school administration about this incident in the online classroom, despite how such actions can often lead to further targeting for marginalized employees. "Especially when kids are involved, this is crucial work that must be done by educators," she says.

Even the American Psychological Association only apologized to communities of color last year for its contribution to systemic inequities through complicity with White supremacy. McClendon described "a minority tax" as what happens when a person of color is asked to do DEI work on top of their full-time job, which can lead to burnout.

It is why McClendon says, "It is important that employers keep in mind that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color, in addition to the psychological toll stories of police brutality against people of color has had, as well as isolation."

By acknowledging that there are groups of people suffering at a disproportionate rate, McClendon reinforces the need to put resources into place to specifically help them as a crucial part of creating a sense of belonging and inclusiveness in the workplace.

Additionally, McClendon notes, "DEI work requires a lot of dedicated time, energy and resources. It is not meant for an individual with a full-time job to take on that burden, it needs to be led by experts in the space. Often, DEI is assigned to an employee with an interest in this area and can go unpaid, which further marginalizes this work."

Artwork by Catherine Song