The Backlash Proves that DEIB is Working

Every social transformation goes through bouts of progress, followed by a reactionary backlash. Take solace in the progress made, embrace hope, and let’s get to work with our committed partners.

man on mountain against sky

It’s exhausting.

We need to talk about the Backlash.

The headlines are enough to make you weep: “DEI is a Lightning Rod for Controversy,” “Behind DEI’s Rise and Fall,” “Is DEI Going to DIE?” Unless you really want to destroy your optimism, I don’t recommend watching the news programs either.

DEI teams are being reduced or dismantled, and program budgets are being slashed. This trend accelerated dramatically after the Supreme Court gutted Affirmative Action. This decision essentially authorized the legal pushback being spearheaded by Stephen Miller’s America First Legal organization, which continues to file lawsuits against Fortune 500 companies with DEI in their hiring or investment policies.

Woof, I need a mental break after that.

closeup photo of brown and black dog face

Look at this cute face!

low angle view of cat on tree

One more thing: If 2021-2023 was the Great Resignation, 2024 is the Great Dismissal. Thousands of people are being laid off from our largest companies, and Tech is doing the most. It can feel like workplace culture and DEI efforts are being targeted as “optional” roles. Even outside of DEI-specific roles, the people from underrepresented groups in my network report feeling the brunt of the layoffs.

If you feel derailed, you are not alone. We are going through this, and we need to talk about it—not only the painful parts but also how we move forward.

empty yellow and black jet ski in teal sea water

This Wave will Ebb

Backlash is Inevitable. So is a Resurgence!

Historically, backlash happens after significant forward momentum in any progressive social movement.

Humans are generally averse to change. So, when social changes move forward quickly or without the consent of the powerful, the resulting backlash is swift and can be violent.

I love this analogy of social movements being like a freight train: it takes a long time to get going, then momentum builds, and things seem to be humming along. Suddenly, the brakes are applied, and bangs and crashes sound as the cars’ couplings slam into each other.

The slow-down sounds louder than all the forward progress. There isn’t the same kind of noise as things are moving forward, but the noise of the backlash is only as loud as the previously built-up momentum.

This is my primary source of hope! It sounds funny, I know, but the backlash is loud because DEIB efforts are working!!

Resurgence is as inevitable as the current backlash. Due to the backlash, we will feel a lull in forward progress, followed by a bigger leap forward. The length of the lull depends on the size of the gap between the people who have doubts and the everyday people who have already joined the movement.

yellow flower field under blue cloudy sky during daytime

Hope is Necessary

We Will Not Stop.

Let’s take a minute to focus on what’s happening outside of the headlines.

I’ve been making the rounds on the HR conference circuit these past few months, and I can attest that DEIB efforts are thriving. It continues to be one of three major content tracks for most, and the sessions are largely focused on doing the work, not imagining it.

A few short years ago, conversations about DEIB were awkward, but are now more comfortable and more confident. Significantly, when telling people that I’m on a mission to create the roadmap for workplace inclusion, people responded in 2023 with, “Oh wow, that’s such important work!” In 2024, the responses are often, “Wow, how cool! What does that entail? Who do you typically work with?” It’s moving from idea to action on a broader scale. HR professionals are especially dialed in and actively promote the work.

McKinsey’s December 2023 Diversity Matters Even More reported, “Companies in the top quartile [of gender or ethnic diversity] are 39 percent more likely to outperform peers.” This metric has doubled since their first report in 2015. Catalyst reported that The Hartford’s dedicated DEIB efforts over the past ten years have hit significant milestones: women in positions of SVP is now 42%, up from 18% in 2010. There are now 109 higher education institutions in the US that have attained the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) award. Capterra’s HR Leaders survey reports that the Supreme Court decision has moved 86% to feel more responsible for DEIB efforts.

I particularly enjoyed learning about GE Vernova’s cultural transformation as they completed the spin-off from GE corporate, which built “Thrive” (employee experience and company culture) into its four pillars of success.

Friends and Neighbors Change Hearts

When anyone changes their mind about a political or social stance, it’s not because Taylor Swift publicly announced her position, although makes it easier to talk about. Sociologists studying how social change occurs have concluded that influencers announce their position only after it has already developed a groundswell. If the people you see regularly but don’t have a close relationship with, like your neighbors, have adopted this new idea, you are much likelier to do the same. Similarly, if your close friends adopt the new idea, you probably will too.

If you are not a DEIB professional but want to contribute, one way you can help boost momentum is to be willing to share your experiences: why DEIB efforts impact your work experience or how you changed your mind about the need for DEIB in the workplace.

One final reason for hope: there is a tipping point at which a new idea becomes the new normal, and that is when only 25% of a group has adopted it. I posit that we are already there! More than 50% of Fortune 500 companies have a Chief Diversity Officer! DEIB is the new normal, and that is here to stay.

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