The Aspen Institute has challenged -and enabled- every tech company claiming to care about equity, to act upon their good intentions. By providing actionable evidence-based recommendations and a sensible framework, they have opened the door to impactful transformation for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs, initiatives, and investment.
CEO and Founder
ACT Report – A Paradigm Shift for DEI
The evidence-based recommendations were developed collaboratively with 21 organizations across sectors, ranging from tech (Google) to nonprofits (Kapor Center) and academia (Harvard).
In the years after 2020, getting support for DEI efforts required very little “convincing.” The awakening caused by the on-camera murder of George Floyd shook America into awareness and some progress was made, at least in the amount of effort and investment in corporate spheres.
Rolling the clock forward to 2022, the increasing financial instability caused by the geopolitical climate is creating a shift away from the previous focus on DEI. Corporations are putting the brakes on perceived “discretionary” spending that does not have a clear connection to the business imperatives of profit-making or cost savings. The underperformance of DEI programs yielding low ROI has sadly resulted in a stealthy move away from the commitments made to DEI.
When organizations experience an increase in accidents, spending is not pulled away from safety protocols, conversations, training, and monitoring. On the contrary, investment is doubled, plans are reviewed, and focus is given to actions and outcomes until they get it right. DEI should be no different. It is imperative that companies bring a business approach to inclusion and an inclusive approach to business. In order for tangible benefits to materialize – they cannot be separate strategies.
This is the first of a series of blog posts, in which I will address why many DEI efforts have failed and why even with heavy investment, the results in DEI have been lackluster at best and detrimental at worst.
In the following weeks, I will unpack how you can use the main recommendations from the ACT report (M.O.S.T.) with its 10 distinct actions.
Publishing data became the “end” instead of the “means”, and simply normalized the status quo.
An absence of team-level DEI data made tracking and measuring success difficult. ¹
Although there are important things that are hard to measure such as integrity, agency, and even humor, the maxim “You can’t improve what you don’t measure” remains a critical concept in DEI. The ability to create change such as understanding where and how HR processes may be broken has proven doubly hard with virtually no team-level DEI data. Companies have claimed success by just publishing whatever data they have thus creating a “good-enough” mentality. A mentality that expressed, “well, at least we are transparent and that should get us a gold star.”
The time to use data as a means to support innovation through data and learning and not only as a compliance exercise is now.
Even when leaders and teams wanted to act, they often lacked clarity about where to start.¹
Even with (limited) data on hand, in fast-paced organizations dealing with high levels of complexity, and multiple and often competing stakeholders’ interests, the task of determining a plan for action was daunting.
A lack of accountability meant that while the problem was huge, no one owned it. ¹
Stephen Covey says “Accountability breeds response-ability.” Organizations did not take the time to define accountable parties for the success of DEI holistically. Not designating an owner that could remove obstacles and assign resources resulted in nobody stepping up to make things happen. Furthermore, with no clear accountability, there were no consequences or deep incentives to make the hard calls when the going got rough… which in DEI, it inevitably does. Finger pointing and shoulder shrugging became the norm and nobody felt vested in the success or had repercussions for the failures.
Success in DEI (as in every other business area) requires clear accountability.
“DEI teams historically had little authority and sat many layers below the C-suite.” ¹
When the going got rough, those in charge of implementing DEI programs may have had the will but did not have the power. Making the tough calls to shift company culture required not only courage but power and organizational influence. The many layers between the DEI function and those with the power and resources obscured the needs and messages. Objectives and politics of departments or sub-organizations, (usually in HR) where the DEI function was buried, often blocked, distorted, or created time gaps in the critical and transparent messaging to the C-Suite.
DEI leadership must be aligned and at the level of other executives to drive effective change with authority.
“Sensitivities around DEI have often made C-suite leaders wary to take big bets—or any bets.” ¹
Cultural competence has not ranked high in priority within the typical development plan of a Senior leader. This left most feeling unprepared to take the lead in implementing new initiatives that had any semblance of controversy. White privilege, systemic bias, sexism, and other forms of organizational inequity were not touched with a ten-foot pole. The fear to do or say something wrong and the lack of knowledge of what to do when they made a mistake left executives shy to get involved in any way, much less leading the charge or becoming active sponsors.
Fear of mistakes must be set aside by building the competency to address DEI issues at all levels of a company.
6. COHESION and COMMITMENT
“Companies relied on piecemeal diversity solutions rather than systemic, cultural, multi-pronged, research-based change efforts.” ¹
The steady flow of news highlighting instances of injustice, violence, and hatred based on race, gender, ethnicity, and other diversity characteristics left well-meaning organizations in a constant reactive mode. Unfortunately, many had not invested in creating a cohesive DEI plan that addressed their unique circumstances and these responses had the effect of attempting to cover the sun with a finger. Putting out fires resulted in performative check-the-box efforts resulting in employees’ eroded confidence, and without an aligned response, there was no significant change.
Integrating DEI efforts into all core strategic goals will drive permanent change and impactful results.
“Companies focused on “fixing” groups of excluded people by encouraging them to eliminate their differences—e.g., coaching women to be more like men, or people of color to be more like White majority groups—instead of focusing on fixing biased systems.” ¹
Those creating the programs, though well-intentioned, have focused on trying to make those “different” fit in the existing and biased systems. DEI interventions lacking research-based approaches can manifest such results. As a Latina, one of the worst pieces of career advice given to me was “to be successful cut your hair short, and never wear a skirt.” These messages “to act and look more like a man” has hindered many in their ability to be both successful and authentic. The understanding that “different” is not “broken” has not made it into the consciousness of those creating human resource systems.
DEI programs focused on seeing and valuing differences will build rich internal cultures and in a global market, a stronger bottom line.
8. SELF-AWARENESS and REFLECTION
“Majority groups were unaware of the extent of barriers, systemic bias, and daily struggles faced by underrepresented groups.” ¹
Most senior decision-makers in Corporate America are either white males or taught leadership skills by them. In addition to the fear to do something wrong, the homogeneity of experience has perpetuated the privileged groups’ lack of awareness of the lived experiences of those outside of that circle. This is often a part of systemic inequity.
White corporate America took many leaps forward in awareness but positive impact requires continued reflection on the power structures they uphold.
Despite widespread awareness of the lack of DEI in tech and public commitments from companies to do better, the big question is how to make real progress. The ACT report provides a blueprint to develop multi-pronged, research-based change efforts to create lasting change.
The ACT Report has four major recommendations that form the acronym M.O.S.T. ²
I will provide an overview of each of the recommendations to enable the pockets of excellence to become genuinely transformative. We believe that tech and other industries can turn collective intention into action.
In our next post, we will go into detail about the ACT Report’s recommended actions to “Model and Incentivize Inclusive Leadership.” ³
Contact us for a complimentary conversation to determine what you can do for short and long-term impact.