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5 reasons I’m hopeful about diversity, equity, and inclusion in corporate America

The head of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Belonging at UserTesting senses more willingness by CEOs to show vulnerability and admit their own blind spots in understanding others’ lived experiences, and this is one reason to be optimistic.

5 reasons I’m hopeful about diversity, equity, and inclusion in corporate America
[Source photos: Anthony DELANOIX/Unsplash; Alba N/Unsplash]
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On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes while Floyd cried, “I can’t breathe.”

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Five months ago I was appointed head of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Belonging (IDEB) at a fast-growing software company. I’m one of the hundreds of such hires across corporate America amid the searing national conversation about racial injustice and inequality sparked by the deaths of Floyd and other Black victims such as Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, whose names are often left out of the narrative when reflecting on the atrocities of 2020 that led to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Besides bringing in dedicated executives to lead efforts to increase representation and build more inclusive, equitable workplaces, many companies have donated to civil rights groups, ushered homebound employees onto Zoom for IDEB workshops, and made Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery, a paid company holiday.

While these moves have shown intensified commitment, companies have been talking about and spending billions on IDEB efforts for years, with little progress toward increased representation.

According to a recent report in MIT Sloan Management Review, only about 3% of the leaders at large U.S. companies are Black, and “studies now indicate that IDEB training rarely improves an organization’s record of hiring or promoting Black people.”

As the first anniversary of George Floyd’s killing nears, it’s a good time to ask if this time is different, if we’re finally reaching a turning point where conversation and good intentions are giving way to tangible action that will yield concrete IDEB results in the workplace.

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While it’s too soon to really know, several signs lead me to believe we’re on the right track. Here are five reasons I’m optimistic (on most days) about the future of IDEB in the workplace.

More CEOs appear personally committed

According to Fortune/Deloitte’s 2021 CEO Survey, 90% of CEOs reported that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a strategic and personal priority. Moreover, 90% also said their company aspires to be an industry leader in DEI practices. Half said their companies are falling particularly short in the area of professional development and advancement.

I also sense more willingness by CEOs to show vulnerability and admit their own blind spots in understanding others’ lived experiences, and that it is okay to ask for help in furthering that understanding. When coaching leaders, I encourage vulnerability, as it helps more junior team members see them as real people with problems, insecurities, challenges, hopes, and dreams.

It all starts at the top, so it’s a good sign that DEI is receiving an unprecedented amount of CEO attention and transparency about the work ahead.

People are starting to see everything through an inclusive lens

Many companies traditionally viewed workforce diversity through a hiring lens. To put it bluntly: How can we recruit and hire more “diverse” people? But that’s a short-sighted outlook on what IDEB truly should mean in an organization.

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A holistic approach addresses the extent to which women, Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and people from other marginalized groups are represented throughout all levels and roles, including leadership and executive roles.

I’m starting to see more companies and IDEB leaders think about this work through the lens of the entire employee life cycle. It’s much more than hiring. A holistic approach also includes calling out racism even in its most subtle forms. Think microaggressions and out-grouping behaviors. Anti-racism IDEB education, training, and workshops are also part of a holistic approach. Even assessing opportunities or gaps in a company’s marketing messages or other customer-facing activities is important. A recent article on LinkedIn found that only 29% of American women feel they are accurately represented in advertising, while only 6% believe their portrayal is “very accurate.”

In many companies, a philosophy is emerging that IDEB cannot exist in a silo but must be woven into every aspect of the organization’s culture and be part of the organization’s customer marketing and brand strategy.

More programs are taking shape

There has been encouraging progress inside many organizations in developing specific programs for improving IDEB.

For example, sponsorship initiatives enable senior executives to create opportunities for others by leveraging their networks and influence to advocate for talented people from underrepresented groups. Sponsorship literally opens doors and is effective when leaders use their access, privilege, power, and networks to create opportunities for advancement and recommend women and minorities for these opportunities.

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Reverse mentoring pairs younger employees, typically women and those from underrepresented groups with executives to help them better understand culturally relevant matters. This helps leaders understand different lived experiences, build empathy, and provides increased access and exposure to senior leaders.

These strategies and others are valuable because they provide a repeatable structured way to advance IDEB goals and demonstrate leadership commitment to this work.

Accountability is on the rise

Businesses love to measure just about everything, but their discipline in applying metrics hasn’t always applied to diversity. That may be changing.

In the Fortune/Deloitte CEO survey, when asked whether they are or will be disclosing IDEB metrics to the public, nearly 75% replied yes. According to a recent report by recruiting firm Built In, 51% of tech companies report on IDEB metrics, compared to 31% before 2020. Moreover, 66% of tech companies plan to implement reporting in 2021.

This is the sort of accountability IDEB has long lacked. Setting goals and holding leaders and managers responsible for meeting them is a huge step. Recently, Chipotle announced that it will tie executive compensation to annual targets aimed at improving the company’s internal diversity and sustainability. Starting in 2021, 10% of Chipotle executives’ annual incentives will be tied to their progress toward achieving company goals.

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I am increasingly seeing companies hold their leaders accountable for IDEB in the same way they hold leaders accountable for other important business priorities and outcomes.

IDEB leaders will make a difference

Many or most of the companies that brought in IDEB leaders in recent months were doing so for the first time. The very presence of so many new advocates being paid to drive this work and influence leaders should ensure that these issues remain a high priority for organizations for years to come.

According to LinkedIn data, the number of people who globally hold the position of head of diversity more than doubled over the last five years. The number of directors of diversity grew 75%, and chief diversity officer, 68%.

Last year’s atrocities and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have put IDEB at center stage inside many organizations. As long as companies are taking a multipronged approach and leaders are demonstrating a commitment to this work, I’m hopeful we will see the difference in the workplace, and organizations will create lasting, impactful change.


Glenn E. Newman Jr. is the head of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Belonging at UserTesting, a human insights platform providing on-demand feedback, to help companies empathize with their customers and build amazing experiences.