Ellen McGirt | Essays

Navigating the fraught new reality of DEI

Supreme Court
Credit: photo collage using photo by Claire Anderson.

Now, more than ever, we need to find our people.

I was reminded of how important that is when I joined an all-star panel to discuss the future of corporate DEI efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in education in an online session co-hosted by PolicyLink and the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program. (More on the latter, here.)

We started by discussing how little has actually changed.

“When the decision came down — banning the use of race in college admissions — we began trying to figure out what this means for corporations,” says Lisa Fairfax, presidential professor and legal scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. “And on the one hand … the short answer was, nothing. In fact, the chair of the EEOC issued a statement right after the opinion saying it remains lawful for you to continue to implement and engage in your DEI programming.”

And contrary to the headlines, this work remains popular, says Megan Hogan, global head of talent and chief diversity officer at Goldman Sachs.

She ticked through a list of all the things that continue to make diversity a key business imperative: Are you interested in investing in the talent you have? Reducing turnover? Finding the next generation of talent with the energy and ideas to innovate? Finding talent that looks like your customers?

“If all the answers to that are ‘yes,’ you still need to be focused on equitable, diverse, and inclusive practices at your organization, right?” she says. “None of that has changed … for me personally, and I know for a lot of my peers across financial services, we still have many clients, institutional clients, individual clients, high-net-worth clients … continue to focus and demand, quite frankly, that we share information and are transparent about our steadfast commitment to DEI.”

And while it’s tempting to talk about what we may be losing, we’ve been here before, says Dr. Asif Sadiq, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for Warner Bros. Discovery. “If you look at the DEI space over the last 20, 25 years, there have been waves and challenges.”

Even with the rise of right-wing rhetoric, the work is continuing. But to assuage the anxieties of this strange era, Sadiq says it’s time to ask a very basic question: Why do you do this work?

The moral case is clear, and the business case is clear. But people often are not.

“It’s really important that you build your own narrative and communicate that [case] to people so they understand why you’re doing things,” he explains. Even if they disagree, “people will appreciate you being authentic and genuine and reaching out to them and communicating with them.”

The audience made his point.

More than 1,100 people signed up for the panel, and more than half showed up in person and fueled the conversation with a steady stream of questions and comments.

Some were specific pleas for guidance. Others asked important questions about the ground that inclusion work had failed to cover in the past few years — the differentiated and under-explored experiences of AAPI and Latinx talent, as one example. Others asked questions about the need for more robust faith-based inclusion, particularly addressing anti-Semitism.

And many were concerned that the window to engage potential white and majority-culture allies was closing, perhaps for good.

Their questions were enough to keep this columnist busy for months, and I thank them all. (And thank you, too, Deepa Purushothaman, for your thoughtful moderation.)

But it was also a reminder to everyone that, no matter how big the challenge may feel, there is no more important act of inclusion than convening and sharing with your people.

“It just feels so good to hear people say these things out loud,” one participant told me later. “It just feels so good to know I’m not alone.”


>A version of this essay was originally published in the Equity Observer email newsletter. Catch up on past issues here. Sign up for insightful commentary, breaking news, and community shout-outs delivered twice weekly. Find your people.

Posted in: Inclusion

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