A Decade Of Diversity Highs And Lows
Diversity and inclusion have received heightened attention during the last 10 years, particularly during the latter part of the decade. But while companies have made considerable progress on issues such as gender parity and, more recently, hiring neurodiverse talent, momentum has unfortunately been limited for other underrepresented groups, such as individuals with disabilities and people of color.
At the start of the decade, the U.S. was emerging from the 2008 financial crisis, which forced companies to be more financially conservative about how they invested in talent development and diversity initiatives. “Oftentimes, those are the aspects of the budget that are considered more discretionary or superfluous,” says Laura Morgan Roberts, a professor of practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
Apart from the economic recession’s aftermath, many companies didn’t feel the need to invest in structural diversity and inclusion efforts: The U.S. had just elected its first black president and greater numbers of women were advancing into leadership positions.
But businesses began to link diversity to the bottom line, thanks in good part to a 2009 study by the American Sociological Association, which found that diversity is among the most important predictors of a business’ sales revenue and a 2013 McKinsey report connecting diversity to better financial performance.
“Diversity and inclusion started with more of a corporate social responsibility flavor,” says Cissy Young, a diversity and inclusion co-lead at the management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “Over the course of the last decade, it has clearly established itself to be a business mandate.”
Sweeping social movements also made an impact. As #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter became a big part of the national conversation, the issues they raised bled into corporate life, prompting company leaders to address cultural issues and injustices within the workplace.
On the workforce side, millennials and members of Gen-Z have played a big role in leading the charge for increased diversity, says Ashish Kaushal, cofounder of ConsciouslyUnbiased, an organization that helps companies hire diverse talent. Now comprising a majority of the U.S. labor force, employees from these generations are holding company leaders accountable and demanding cultural transformations that seem truly authentic to them.
“Millennials want to see this woven into your organization’s DNA, and you can’t fake it,” Kaushal says. “You need to have a real push to create the right internal diversity council structure, measure it properly and ensure that it’s being pushed across the organization.”
The rise of the chief diversity officer is perhaps the strongest evidence of the traction gained by diversity and inclusion in the last decade. No longer is diversity and inclusion simply another bullet point for human resources departments. Rather, employers are creating stand-alone C-suite positions to move the needle on diversity, equity and belonging.
Job postings for CDOs have risen 35% in the last two years, according to the employment search engine Indeed. And a 2019 Russell Reynolds report shows that nearly half of all S&P 500 companies have a chief diversity officer. Roughly two thirds of them were appointed or promoted to that role in just the last three years.
“Diversity and inclusion has evolved to be a corporate-level goal and mandate,” Young says. “Appointing a C-level executive to be responsible for driving that change is certainly a new trend, and many businesses in various sectors are following suit.”
Here are the diversity and inclusion highs and lows of the decade:
1. The lasting impact of #MeToo
The impact of the #MeToo movement goes far beyond the toppling of powerful figures in multiple industries. It has also instigated a national conversation on the ubiquity of sexual misconduct and the interplay of gender and power. The #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund, born out of #MeToo, connects low-income survivors of sexual harassment with legal and media assistance, and has worked with more than 4,000 individuals to date.
2. A new tradition: annual diversity reports
The tech sector was one of the first industries to publish regular diversity reports, with other industries later joining what has become an annual rite of passage. Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft all released diversity figures in 2014, which was a step in the right direction. But the bad news is that progress has remained dismal for women and people of color. Still, in the tech world women have fared better in technical and leadership roles than other underrepresented groups, who are still in acutely short supply.
3. The big business of diversity training
Companies in the U.S. spend about $8 billion a year on diversity training, but the efficacy of such programs has yielded mixed results. Some experts claim that diversity training can be effective when done well, while others argue that it doesn’t work and can actually lead to backlash. Most companies provide this kind of training to create awareness of diversity issues, and the trainings are generally conducted as in-person lectures, e-learning courses or interactive games—each with its own particular benefits and drawbacks.
4. Breaking the stranglehold of nondisclosure agreements
R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly all used NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) to effectively silence victims who accused them of sexual misconduct, thus preventing anyone, save for a handful of people, from ever finding out about their alleged misdeeds. Now states such as California, New York and New Jersey are taking action against NDAs, banning confidentiality agreements for sexual misconduct cases.
5. Boardroom diversity mandates
Shareholders and policymakers have put heavy pressure on companies to address the question of diversity in boardrooms. In a public call-to-arms in 2018, Black Rock, the world’s largest asset manager, said that companies in which it invests should have at least two female directors. Later that year, California enacted a law requiring that all companies headquartered in the Golden State have a set number of women on their boards. The mandate has spread to other states, with Illinois, New York, and New Jersey considering similar rules to promote diversity.
6. Consensual romantic relationships in the workplace
Employers of all sizes are clamping down on office romances in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Of note, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich abruptly resigned following revelations that he engaged in a consensual relationship with an Intel employee that began before he became chief executive and ended in 2013; the McDonald’s board fired CEO Steve Easterbrook for having a consensual relationship with an employee; and top BlackRock executive Mark Wiseman was ousted for failing to disclose a consensual relationship with an employee in his reporting line.
7. Social media blowback
No company is safe on social media these days. A number of marketing gaffes that in the past might have gone unnoticed—or, at the very least, died down quickly—have received ongoing scrutiny as a result of social media’s chime-in nature. One ill-conceived ad is enough to leave a company embroiled in a public relations nightmare for months. Just ask Pepsi, Burberry, H&M and Gucci.
8. Removing the stigma of a criminal record
Momentum for policies that boost the job prospects of formerly incarcerated people has grown exponentially over the years. The movement to “ban the box” calls on employers to remove the checkbox on job applications that asks if candidates have a criminal record. About 35 states have complied, adopted a policy that requires employers to consider applicants’ qualifications—and not whether they have an arrest record.
9. Web accessibility for the disabled
People with disabilities are demanding full access to the World Wide Web — and that includes Beyoncé. Approximately 2,285 website accessibility lawsuits were filed in federal courts across the nation in 2018, almost triple the number filed the previous year. In a major win for digital accessibility advocates, the Supreme Court recently rejected a petition from Domino’s Pizza to appeal a lower-court decision ordering the pizza giant to make its website and app accessible to people with disabilities.
10. LGBT rights
As support for LGBT rights grows, so does the incentive for corporations to make sure their brands are in line with public sentiment. Dozens of company leaders have spoken up against anti-LGBT laws in states such as Indiana, Georgia and North Carolina, and some companies have publicly backed bills that would afford civil rights protections to the LGBT community. But the struggle for these rights isn’t over. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to hear several discrimination cases that would determine, on a national level, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers can be fired based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.