In the aftermath of the national racial reckoning launched by the George Floyd killing, the number of chief diversity officer positions in the US grew by nearly 170 percent. Yet the subsequent political backlash, coupled with a lack of clear understanding of how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs can be integrated into an organization’s structure, has led to a drop off nearly as steep as the original rise.

A recent survey from Revelio Lab found that, in the tech industry, one in three diversity programs were cut by the end of December 2022. Thousands of additional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) executives across corporate America have been laid off or left their jobs this year, including chief diversity and inclusion officers at major corporations such as Disney and Netflix. That pace may have only accelerated after the US Supreme Court handed down their decision striking down affirmative action this past June and casting many other diversity programs into doubt.

Despite this ebb and flow, those of us committed to bringing about lasting change must recognize that diversity, equity, and inclusion are much more than a passing fad. They are a framework for engaging an organization’s full strength and range of views, experiences, and capabilities. DEI offers a shared language that organizations can use to talk about people and culture and to explore issues of implicit bias, felt safety, and power differentials. A strong DEI program encourages and develops adaptive leaders, who consider ideas that represent a range of views and options, with an understanding that this broader knowledge base can be a positive when making important decisions. Adaptive leaders are better able to address complex challenges because they are taking into account multifaceted solutions.

Simply put, organizational diversity is a strength, not a weakness. Organizations who grasp that will ultimately show impact in their bottom line, organizational goals, and mission.

Why do some DEI efforts fail? There are a number of internal and external challenges that may stand in the way of fully integrating DEI across all levels of an organization. Internally, these include the rise of telework due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of buy-in across all levels of the organization, employees who may view diversity hiring as a zero-sum game, limited staff capacity, leadership transitions, and the intractability of organizational culture. Externally, the largest roadblock to effective DEI programs is the current political environment which is creating backlash and pressure among organizational leaders to reject and move away from equity as a core value.

To overcome all of these challenges, employers must frame DEI efforts as a means to fixing systemic issues rather than personnel issues. It is not just about numbers or setting diversity hiring goals but rather about changing the processes and policies within the organization that lead to bias and/or a lack of diversity in recruitment. It’s also about demonstrating intentionality in diversity practices with the ultimate goal of building and sustaining an organization that is fair and diverse in knowledge and experience.

Read the full article about the benefits of DEI by Undraye Howard at Stanford Social Innovation Review.