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Cutting through the noise: Is it fair to demand a ROI from your DEIB activities?
Neil Gonsalves discusses the potential shift towards the decentralization of DEIB and the factors that have influenced the trend.
“Our world is not divided by race, colour, gender or religion. Our world is divided into wise people and fools. And fools divide themselves by race, colour, gender or religion” - Mohamad Safa (Human Rights Activist & UN Representative)
A Reflection on DEIB and Leadership
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, four words whose origin was noble and well intentioned, whose journey has meandered through boom and bust cycles, and whose meaning and objectives are much harder to define in a social context than in a literal one. This article aims to cut through the noise and provide some social commentary on the different vantage points from which to approach this conversation. I will conclude with a suggested alternative to DEIB for your consideration.
2023 has already seen pushback against what has become mainstream DEIB training. Several prominent scholars, many themselves “people of colour”, have pointed to the divisive tactics that have become common place. Politicians have identified it as a wedge issue that can mobilize their respective parties, and a whole range of entertainers have made DEIB the punchline of their comedy.
Many corporations have begun slashing DEIB budgets and scaling back on hiring dedicated staff to fill these roles. Some academic institutions like Georgia Tech have already begun decentralizing DEI departments.
“President Ángel Cabrera announced a new approach aimed at delivering on the Institute’s diversity and inclusion goals. Under the new model, existing programs will be embedded across the Institute’s academic and administrative units rather than being run out of a separate, central office.”
Georgia Tech’s new approach incorporates what many DEIB advocates have always argued, namely that DEIB is an operating principle rather than an activity performed by a singular department. - As an operating principle it has sound business value; it’s proper incorporation should be expected to demonstrate a ROI from the effective coordination of human assets directed towards specific organizational objectives. - (In all fairness your average DEIB advocate would make a less capitalistic argument and would probably argue that as an operating principle, they should be granted higher budgets, more authority and the ability to consequence detractors - Think Ibram X Kendi’s suggestion that government should create an anti-racism bureaucracy with administrative powers).
The new model at Georgia Tech empowers the various academic, service and administrative units to take ownership of the need to develop inclusive practices directly into their core business, thereby enabling “solutions that are better tailored to the unique challenges and opportunities within each area”
Rather than have one centralized department responsible for DEIB across the institution, Georgia Tech will establish a “Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Leadership Team” with representation from various administrative and academic units to coordinate the work and monitor the Institute’s progress. - Their current DEIB department will be permanently closed once the new process is launched and the function is decentralized.
Whether this trend will become the norm rather than the exception is still to be seen but one predictive measure will be its operational capacity to produce results, minimize liability, and stay within scope, schedule and budget.
In the United States according to a Pew Research survey almost 1 in 5 newly weds under the age of 40 are married to someone of a different race or ethnicity.
In both Canada and the United States mixed marriages occur more frequently in metropolitan areas compared to rural areas and there is a positive correlation between higher educational attainment and increased mixed relationships.
According to a 2021 article by The Vanier Institute of the Family, rates of mixed unions (marriage and common law) have steadily increased in Canada over the past several decades. “Based on differences in country of origin, 16% of all couples are in a mixed union ... Approximately one in eight of these couples (12%) include one partner who was born in Canada, and another 4% of couples include two partners born in different countries outside of Canada”
In social settings we have seen generally greater acceptance of social mixing among various ethnicities.Yet most contemporary mainstream DEIB sessions make everyday interactions sound like a Hobbesian reboot of the War of all against all!
DEIB Gurus Criticized by Scholars:
Despite the popularity of self proclaimed diversity experts like Robin DiAngelo, many scholars who also happen to be “people of colour” find the anti-racism training currently on offer to be infantilizing and condescending to the people it purports to advocate for.
John McWhorter writing for The Atlantic points to the absurdity of Robin DiAngelo’s contradictory claims that white people don’t see their whiteness, yet defend it in a highly organized and systematic way. The book “White Fragility” is in common circulation at Canadian secondary schools and is often paired with Kendi’s book “How to be an Anti-Racist”, much to the chagrin of moderate scholars across the racial and political spectrum.
“I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.” John McWhorter
In a 2023 article by Connor Friedersdorf titled “The Paradox of Diversity Training” he highlights that “The Harvard Business Review has been publishing articles that cast doubt on the efficacy of mainstream DEI approaches for years.” - quoting from a 2018 summary of studies by Harvard University professor Frank Dobbin and Tel Aviv University professor Alexandra Kalev indicate “Hundreds of studies dating back to the 1930s suggest that anti-bias training does not reduce bias, alter behavior or change the workplace.” - The article highlights that while diversity training has been around for a long time, they are rarely “subjected to rigorous evaluation, and those that are mostly appear to have little or no positive long-term effects”.
I do feel a level of sympathy for all those consultants and advisors who have found employment in this era or have made a killing over the last several years; they seem to have become the overnight punching bag of choice for moderates and conservatives. The biggest sting to their reputation actually coming from critics otherwise considered liberal who find their firebrand style, simply a bridge too far.
Hedging Their Bets:
After 2020 shareholder capitalism momentarily gave way to stakeholder capitalism and its cousin ESG (short for environmental, social and governance). According to the Fraser Institute stakeholder capitalism posits that “businesses should not purely focus on maximizing returns to owners but rather use the resources of companies to solve social problems, thus maximizing benefits to various “stakeholders” (i.e. their employees, customers, suppliers, communities and countries). ESG remains a subjective concept used for a wide range of causes from climate policies to “diversity” initiatives.”
Major corporations and academic institutions hedged their bets and jumped headfirst into political and social activism. They were sure they were on the right side of history (missing the obvious fact that only the history of the future could adjudicate about that) - Nonetheless they rode that train for a solid three years before the wheels started to come off.
As social problems globally get drawn into the simplistic diversity discourse, the reductive default arguments have begun to falter under the weight of complexity. Social media works really well for outrage that lasts for only a couple of news cycles. The challenge with real world problems however is that they are harder to make pronouncements about and simply move to the next big thing. Unfolding social problems have a way of morphing and changing over time and context, often only increasing in complexity.
As we move into the next phase of this ongoing social debate, corporations and institutions may increasingly seek to decentralize their DEIB infrastructure, develop meaningful performance metrics and demand a reportable return on investment. The pitfalls of responding too quickly to social trends with large infusions of cash and limited accountability are becoming plainly apparent. The days of check box tokenism may actually be coming to an end.
A new way forward - Excellence-Opportunity-Access:
As promised I conclude with a suggested alternate to DEIB for your consideration. The past has undoubtedly been unjust to many and downright abhorrent to millions. But the thing about the past is that it is unchangeable, something we can learn from and whose mistakes we can strive not to repeat ever again. Mistakes like the belief in a hierarchy of humans based solely on a constructed concept of race that has no basis in science or reality.
One option is to take the advice of anointed gurus like DiAngelo who thinks there is no way to ever turn the corner or Ibram X Kendi who forthrightly advocates that the best redress to past negative discrimination is current “positive discrimination”. I opt to take a different path, one that does not type-cast millions of people into reductive groups. One that does not reduce the individual to a cog in a machine with no agency.
To me, barriers are barriers and we need to find the best way to bring out the excellence within people, services and outcomes by making opportunities accessible to as many people as possible. - We need to bring more people into the conversation, we need to commit to progress and optimism for the future.
When all else fails, I leave you with this to ponder; let me share my ‘lived experience’ as a brown man, whose people were colonized by the Portuguese and the British well into the twentieth century;
“I’ve met geniuses and dullards; empaths and sociopaths; optimists and pessimists; philosophers and bullshitters; I’ve met people with character and integrity as well as douchebags that rode in on donkeys… but nature did not discriminate, instead she distributed them equally among every race in every place - My lived experience has shown me that excellence and stupidity are equally distributed across humanity; so you get to choose whether you join the wise people or the fools.” - Neil Gonsalves
About the author: Neil Gonsalves is an Indian-born Canadian immigrant who grew up in Dubai, U.A.E. and moved to Canada in 1995. He is an Ontario college educator, a TEDx speaker, an author and columnist, a recreational dog trainer and an advocate for new immigrant integration and viewpoint diversity.