“Recently, a large multinational invited me to speak at a week-long event for its international technology team. As is often the case, the webinar allowed participants to ask and upvote questions they wanted speakers to respond to. One of the most upvoted questions was ‘what do I do about all the anti-DEI rhetoric I’m hearing?’”

My instant reaction was that it was somewhat sad this was the question at the forefront of many participants’ minds. It came at the end of a great discussion where we looked at several significant breakthroughs in diversity in the tech space and how a lack of diversity can embed biases and discrimination in new tech innovations.

But it also got me thinking more generally about the issue of what many people are terming the DEI backlash. What is the backlash about? Where did it come from? And is it as prevalent as we think?

Understanding context and origins

 

To understand the supposed DEI backlash, we need a little context. In 2022, anti-DEI rhetoric started to ramp up in the US. This came to a head in 2023, when the US Supreme Court banned affirmative action on race-based selection in college administration. Around 20 states followed up by either considering or approving new laws taking aim at DEI initiatives.

At the same time, DEI practitioners were increasingly coming under fire, as were prominent minority figures. Black women in education had a notoriously hard time. This anti-DEI rhetoric, as well as the legal changes, had serious consequences. We saw the banning of books and certain types of learning on fundamental parts of American history, particularly those concerning race.

As someone who runs a global DEI organisation, I believe the origins of this DEI backlash are located within a very specific geographical and political context. It started in the US. And it comes with US cultural and historical baggage. Unfortunately, US businesses’ cultural and commercial influence means there is a risk we export this baggage elsewhere.

Political and personal driving forces

 

Outside of the US, the DEI backlash is more contained. But we are seeing it slipping into UK politics. In the most recent Spring Budget, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, called for local councils to reduce spending by cutting DEI initiatives. As someone who works with local councils in the UK, I was surprised by these comments.

Most councils spend a relatively small percentage of their budget on DEI and many initiatives are undertaken by staff on a voluntary basis. Research backs this up. Figures from 2022 show that many councils didn’t spend anything on DEI. But even if you look at a larger council with higher DEI spending, Hunt’s comments still don’t add up. Birmingham Council, which represents one of the most diverse regions in the country, only spent 0.02% of its budget on diversity staffing schemes (BBC). With this in mind, citing DEI as a potential source of cuts seems more like political grandstanding than sound economic reasoning.

It begs the question: why are leading politicians and cultural figures targeting DEI? What is the common denominator?

In many cases, the rhetoric comes from people with established privilege.

In the UK, we have seen how effectively politicians can leverage issues surrounding immigration and the fear of the “other”. In many cases, anti-DEI rhetoric is a similar power play. An age-old strategy of divide and conquer. But there is also a personal aspect. Those able to shout loudest about DEI are typically those in positions of power. Those with traditional privilege and a platform to protect it. Some of this rhetoric is purposeful, considered and for personal gain. Some of it is the product of unconscious bias.

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The impact on corporate and commercial spaces

 

However, as I thought more about the anti-DEI rhetoric’s practical impact, I realised that the attack on DEI is almost exclusively taking place in the public and political arenas. It is not infecting the corporate space.

How do I know this is true? Firstly, job posting statistics in the UK show a growing number of professional roles featuring DEI in the title. On LinkedIn, it is not uncommon to see 30 new DEI-related jobs uploaded in a single day. They are posted by all kinds of companies, from billion-dollar multinationals like Meta, right down to smaller businesses with only 100 employees. This tells us that the corporate world is still investing in DEI.

Secondly, Mix Diversity regularly receives enquiries from companies asking us to help them achieve one of their strategic pillars. Today, most companies include ESG issues in one of these, and it will form a core part of their five or ten-year strategy. In other words, we may be seeing a momentary upsurge in anti-DEI rhetoric in public and political spheres. But, because DEI is somewhat insulated by these longer-term strategic plans, positive progress in the commercial sector is protected and ongoing.

Outside of the US, many businesses are also bound by recent or upcoming legislative change, such as the European legislation concerning pay transparency and gender representation on boards. Compliance with this legislation will require intentional effort to tackle DEI concerns.

Responding to anti-DEI rhetoric

 

The fact that the DEI backlash is largely restricted to the political and public realms doesn’t mean professionals are unaware of it, though. Which brings us back to the question posed in our webinar. What do employees and managers do about the anti-DEI rhetoric they encounter?

I find it useful to talk on an individual, personal level. An inclusive environment makes us feel valued, confident and motivated. Feeling excluded has the opposite effects. Essentially, DEI practitioners are trying to help professionals create a working environment that ensures colleagues experience all these positive emotions and limits exposure to the negative ones. Most people respond well to this appeal to human emotion and relate to personal experiences of inclusion and exclusion.

In other instances, people struggle with DEI terms. Diversity is an excellent example. When people think about diversity, they do not typically include themselves in it. They shrink the word so that it only encompasses minorities. The D in DEI suddenly becomes something that doesn’t involve them. 

But diverse communities consist of both the majority and minority. DEI is not a zero-sum game. When we get inclusion right, it benefits everybody. Clarifying the language we use in DEI issues, ensuring people cannot attribute their own meaning to prominent DEI terms, and challenging preconceptions are excellent ways to respond to anti-DEI rhetoric.

Finally, we can also rely on data. It shows that a more diverse and (just as importantly) inclusive workplace culture is good for business. McKinsey’s latest research demonstrates a positive trend between improved representation and performance. The data suggests that companies with the best gender representation at the top management levels are more likely to outperform those companies in the bottom quartile by as much as 39%. The figure is the same when it comes to ethnic diversity and representation. This performance data is invaluable when it comes to proving the value of DEI initiatives.

A bright future and positive progress with DEI

 

Overall, I am positive about the future of DEI. So far, the backlash is largely restricted to public and political rhetoric. And there is a lot of exciting, positive movement in the private sector.

In the commercial space, I see executive board members from traditionally privileged backgrounds being challenged and responding by incorporating DEI principles into their professional values. I see global companies spreading DEI expertise to countries and regions with no previous experience of it. This often poses significant challenges. But, crucially, these companies are willing to invest in overcoming those challenges and are working hard to create a truly diverse and inclusive global working culture.

We can also attribute much of the current DEI backlash to the visible success of DEI initiatives. People see change occurring and are concerned by it. Status quo bias makes many people resistant to it. Part of our role as DEI practitioners is to help organisations overcome that resistance.

Of course, there is a long way to go. And it is important to remember that, though anti-DEI rhetoric may not deter companies from pursuing DEI initiatives, it does have a human impact. One felt most strongly by those whom DEI practitioners and initiatives seek to elevate and provide opportunities for. While DEI work in the private sector is certainly proving beneficial, we also need to ensure we are winning public and political battles, too.

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Hayley Barnard

Hayley is the CEO of Mix, a global DEI expert and highly sought-after IWD Speaker who spoke live to audiences in three countries last 8th March. She is passionate about inspiring business leaders to adopt the principle that diversity isn’t about difference, it’s about excellence, always emphasising practical and applicable strategies for increasing inclusion in the workplace.

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