Opinion: Harvard’s backtracking on DEI highlights a bigger problem

Editor’s Note: Justin Gest (@_Justin Gest) is a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where he directs the Public Policy program. He is the author of six books on the politics of immigration and demographic change, including his newest, “Majority Minority.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

When the 2020 murder of George Floyd inspired a national reassessment of race relations, many companies responded by investing in their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Four years later, these initiatives are facing a two-front battle.

Justin Gest - Ron Aira/Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services/GMU
Justin Gest - Ron Aira/Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services/GMU

On one front, Republican activists have begun eliminating DEI interventions, sweeping them into the vortex of America’s culture wars. In March, House Republicans dissolved their chamber’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion as part of a government spending bill, and Republican legislators have proposed about 50 other bills in 20 state legislatures that would restrict DEI initiatives or require their public disclosure, according to an Associated Press analysis.

On the other front, corporate America is reexamining the efficacy of DEI initiatives. In a recent survey of more than 300 C-suite executives across the US, 59% of respondents agreed that the backlash against DEI programs or initiatives has increased since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action practices in June 2023.  Earlier this month, the largest division of Harvard University — which often sets the standard for the higher education sector — eliminated diversity statements from its hiring requirements. These statements asked job candidates to assert their commitment to a diverse and inclusive campus environment but were ultimately criticized for being perfunctory and an assault on intellectual freedom.

It is not unreasonable to be cynical about conservative and corporate scrutiny of DEI programs. But behind the ideological contestation, the actual results of DEI programs have not been encouraging.

Today’s DEI programming emerged from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred racial, religious and gender discrimination at work. By 2003, DEI programming had become an $8 billion market of trainers, compliance officers, consultants and executives who made a compelling business case for checking organizations and individuals’ biases — not simply in hiring, promotion and development of human capital, but in marketing and corporate strategies, too. Since 2020, many organizations have empowered their DEI programs to address perceived shortcomings related to racial and gender equity.

But today, non-White people — who comprise about 40% of the US population — still occupy disproportionately few positions of power and leadership in American businesses. And voluminous research over the decades about DEI efforts shows further room for improvement.

A 2016 study from the Harvard Business Review discovered that, among all US companies with 100 or more employees between 1985 and 2014, the percentage of Black men in management increased from just 3.0% to 3.3%. While White women saw more advancement from 1985 to 2000, their numbers haven’t moved since. Dozens of large companies also saw no improvement in the proportion of White women, Black men or Latinos in management roles even after five years of required training for managers, according to the 2016 study.

Another study determined that those who attend optional DEI training sessions tend to be people who are already more “competent” in the skills they develop; people with low competence in intergroup relations were unaware of their low competence levels and therefore unmotivated to participate. DEI training sessions may even awaken biases among attendees because discussing stereotypes can unintentionally make people more likely to apply them.

In a 2019 meta-analysis of 30 scientific studies, researchers concluded that training programs are “ineffective; their use at present cannot be described as evidence-based.” A newer analysis admits that “little is known about what strategies yield successful results.”

This record is indefensible, and it’s not helped by the fact that, as time has passed since the Civil Rights era, DEI’s purpose has itself grown opaque. Lately, some Americans — not only White conservatives, but liberals — have come to begrudge DEI programming because they believe it’s patronizing, accusatory or threatening to free speech. Worse, people positioned to champion DEI initiatives sense that America’s meritocracy is weakening.

By all appearances, the right-wing movement seizing upon this resentment is not grounded in research; instead, it is part of a broader ideological reaction to the immigration and civil rights reforms that built America. The DEI critique from the right is merely the continuation of Republicans’ use of divisive social issues to try to split voters in their favor — such as same-sex marriage in 2004, mosque construction in 2010 and undocumented immigration for the better part of this century. Since former President Donald Trump’s foray into politics, Republicans have additionally targeted critical race theory and transgender rights.

This treatment from the right sets up a false choice for those who believe in the enduring purpose of DEI programming: either offer unconditional support because the initiatives are under attack, or join with those who want to erase institutional acknowledgments of sexism and racism.

But as the recent debate over affirmative action shows, Americans are defying this binary. They broadly value diversity and equal opportunity but largely oppose systems that promote people based on their identity.

By focusing so singularly on having the labor force match national demographics, DEI programs are the victims of sweeping expectations they have set that don’t mesh with the nuanced realities of different workplaces.

While many Americans are from non-White backgrounds and about 47% of the workforce is female, those numbers are lower among older people. Racial and gender distributions also vary by region. And industries remain stubbornly segmented across demographic subgroups, like Latinos in construction, African American men in transportation and utilities, Asian American men in professional and business services, and women in education and health services.

Supporters of DEI initiatives should account for today’s demographic and social realities, and reimagine their work in four crucial ways.

First, DEI professionals should reevaluate their devotion to diversity metrics. Meeting certain gender and racial distributions risks future Title VII claims of discrimination and may entail quotas that are not aligned with demographic trends. A narrow focus on race-based metrics also risks ignoring DEI’s immense capacity — when done right — to make workplaces inclusive for people of different physical abilities, sexual orientations and religious backgrounds, too.

Second, businesses should invest in diversifying the pipeline of historically underrepresented candidates specific to their industries. By supporting targeted educational scholarships, internships and loan-forgiveness hiring programs, organizations can improve the pool of job candidates.

Third, public and private sector executives should design mentoring initiatives, job assignment procedures, project management and work-life adjustments to maximize the inclusion and promotion of non-White and women employees — who remain more likely to confront social challenges and domestic commitments. These initiatives should be universal in application but designed to accommodate groups that are more likely to be exposed to discrimination or related disadvantages. For example, corporate America’s recent back-to-office mandates have hit women and members of ethnic minorities disproportionately hard.

And fourth, training programs should be overhauled. Beyond their evidence-backed inefficacy, new research shows that anti-bias messaging tends to provoke resistance among White men who feel unjustly accused of discrimination or worry that their employers’ commitment to equity threatens their career progression. Rather than underscore which demographic groups are deserving of protection, materials can be reoriented to cultivate empathy and pluralism — leveraging the ways most Americans can identify with stories of personal struggle or aspiration independent of their identities.

More innovations await. But without any innovation, DEI programs’ continued decline in the next few years won’t only be because of Republicans’ political maneuvering. It will be because their principled backers have less reason to defend them.

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