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Culture Builder / DEI / Workplace culture

Will diversity commitments made in 2020 last?

Sixty years ago, the Civil Rights movement brought on lasting change. Here’s how to ensure it happens again.

VP Lyndon B. Johnson, Lockheed Corporation President Courtlandt Gross, President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg sign plans for progress in equal employment in the Oval Office, May 25, 1961. (Photo via

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The phrase “affirmative action” dates to the March 1961 signing of US Executive Order 10925.

Elected with a meager mandate and just 45 days into office, President John F. Kennedy compelled government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated [fairly] during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” That language made its way into hiring manuals across the country — and introduced a polarizing concept for responding to generations of inequality.

Kennedy’s executive order marks the midpoint of how historians today often define the Civil Rights Era, bounded by the landmark 1954 US Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 — which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

That 14-year period is heralded as the most intense period of advancement for Black Americans since post-slavery Reconstruction. Alongside voting rights and housing access, workplace discrimination was among the most prominent priorities of the era, including Kennedy’s influential executive order. Street protests and policymaking in the 1960s called on business leaders to address dismal representation inside corporate offices. A business backlash followed, contributing to the concept of maximizing shareholder value, an idea once again debated today.

Now we are living through a third spirited chapter in our country’s fitful effort to, as James Baldwin famously put it, “achieve our country.”

A spate of high-profile police killings of Black people in the 2010s brought forward the Black Lives Movement. Like 60 years prior, business and economic leaders are taking part. Founded in 2017, the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion was a coalition of 150 corporate executives pledging to do better. By the pandemic summer of 2020, George Floyd’s murder supercharged the Black Lives Matter movement.

As in generations prior, a reasonable next question is whether companies will follow through with the diversity commitments they’ve made.

What progress has been made already

More than 2,000 large company executives have since joined that CEO pledge toward diversity and inclusion, and many watch its progress. Many startups, tech firms and small businesses, too, have made statements and gathered coalitions. For example, Baltimore Tracks is a group of tech employers taking a census of employee demographics, and in Philadelphia, the Most Diverse Tech Hub Initiative, which has helped organize, is backed by that city’s Commerce Department to distribute best practices.

Do these commitments count as mere virtue signaling or real progress?

“The victory is the tone,” Kristin Bonds said. “We’re never going back.”

Bonds, who describes herself as an eternal optimist, is the cofounder of Heristic, a talent management and HR strategy consulting practice.

“The case for diversity is obvious and strong,” she said. Indeed, research suggests that more diverse companies outperform less diverse peers. Stakeholder capitalism argues business has a moral imperative to serve beyond shareholders, and a big majority of Americans think racial discrimination remains a “big problem” in the United States.

If the Civil Rights Era made unequal hiring practices illegal, then the Black Lives Matter movement has made it illogical.

“Jobseekers and job providers have come to expect a level of commitment” on diversity, equity and inclusion, Bonds said. “I don’t see a situation where they go back to where they were.”

Quantifiable has come at the highest level of business, too. A year after George Floyd’s murder, the percentage of new Black directors named to S&P 500 company boards tripled over the year prior, and the share that were Latinx more than doubled, according to an analysis. Nearly 80% of all big public company board seats are white and about 70% are men, but that rate of change has been historic. One of the fastest-growing jobs in the United States is the diversity and inclusion manager, per LinkedIn Research.

Yet race remains an unsettlingly effective predictor of economic outcomes; economic mobility in the United States is declining and advocates are disappointed by the progress of diversity in tech, leadership and other professional roles.

What tactics help?

Tech businesses, with their rapid economic growth and intellectual ideals, have long preached high-minded goals. In 2005, Google hired its first chief of diversity, set its first diversity benchmarks in 2009 and by 2014 spent $114 million on diversity efforts.

Yet, after 15 years of work, just 4.4% of its workforce is Black, and its tech employee total is lower still — though last year marked the fastest year-over-year increase yet, according to its 2021 diversity report.

What took so long? For one, our understanding of what makes lasting change has evolved.

A 2016 analysis of workplace diversity efforts found a real divide in effectiveness. Mandatory actions (like required diversity training) backfire; voluntary efforts (like diversity committees and mentoring programs) stand a better chance. (Find advice on running a better diversity committee here.)

Mercedes Ballard, another Heristic cofounder alongside Bonds, notes that distributing DEI practices to specialists has proven more successful in recent years — rather than it being just another addition to the “first responders” of HR. Smaller companies may not be able to offer such specialized functions but can still ensure these issues are addressed by leadership.

Bonds and Ballard share a few steps they take when guiding clients through the process:

  • Empathy first — Understand your team, your goals and your opportunities.
  • Alignment with leadership — Ensure these are top-level goals.
  • Enforce and evolve — Set clear benchmarks, track and update.
  • Listen to your diversity council — Diversity task forces can work. Listen to them.
  • Measure — Routinely track progress.
  • External counsel — Third-party support can guide and force progress.

Or as Bonds put it succinctly: “Face it, measure it and build it.”

Can diversity diversify without losing its impact?

“Most people in the United States experience diversity at work,” Bonds said, because of our segregation socially and culturally. Your neighborhood, your church and your friend groups may often be less diverse than your workplace. That is an opportunity, and gives this work even greater urgency.

Yet, the optimistic view the Heristic founders take for the lasting impact of today’s racial justice movement isn’t universal. A key component of the criticism is how the word “diversity” is coded.

Today, race is our culture’s most prominent example of diversity. Race is an abhorrent predictor of economic outcomes, and Black and brown Americans are disproportionately behind in wealth and income gains — and much of the tech industry. In contrast, according to Google’s diversity report, people of Asian descent are well-represented in the company’s workforce, relative to American demographics.
Many company diversity commitments, then, focus on Black and brown people in particular. But gender diversity, national origin and neurodivergence are important parts of a diverse world.

“There are so many other populations that we are only beginning to put into hiring strategies, like formerly incarcerated people.” Ballard said. “This table is still expanding.”

This causes tension, though. When does expanding the table pull allow a lack of prioritization? If Black Americans are the least represented among tech employees and economic gains, ought Black Americans remain a focus?

Publisher Sherrell Dorsey, who has a new book called “Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us,” is among them.

“‘Diversity’ is slowly but unequivocally being replaced by ‘ESG,’” she wrote, referring to an influential but far-flung basket of company issues named after their focus on environmental, social and governance factors. “Watch how quickly the diversity initiatives become usurped and lose focus.”

The Heristic cofounders argue it is necessary to follow through with existing goals and set new ones.

“Whether diversity is visible or an invisible kind: All of it requires empathy,” Bonds said.


“The goals are going to evolve. What number are you striving for on something like a feeling of inclusion? How is our organization least represented now?” Ballard said. “There is never going to be an end-point.”

What lessons are company builders of today meant to take from 60 years ago? Did the Civil Rights Era progress the experience of Black Americans? Landmark legislation gave housing and voting rights activists just cause to demand more; the very concept of diversity, equity and inclusion grew from that movement. The federal government workforce grew far more diverse and helped spur new workplace norms. Advocates today note there is far more to be done.

An entire generation of young activists grew into leadership. In her 1969 classic “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou wrote: “The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.”

It couldn’t be undone. Equity is a direction, not a destination.

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