- Aarti Shyamsunder
So…you think DEI is a fad? Let’s explore that!
Recently, I heard a very senior executive in a global organization ask a question that has launched a lot of reactions within me – at first, I was angry and defensive, and then I started using it to question my own assumptions and now I’m energized and my resolve is strengthened more than before, so I thought I would share some insights with you all today.
First – the question! Very simply, he asked “Is DEI a fad? Are we spending too much energy on this – why can’t we just go about our business manufacturing X and carry on as we were before?”
This is not the first time someone has posed such a question - and in fact, such questions often come from those in positions of power or privilege, for whom the system already works as designed. Privilege blinds us to inequality - and makes us question whether something that does not affect us (positively at least!) is actually necessary, or merely a fad.
So to start with – what makes something a fad?
The Cambridge dictionary defines a fad as “a style, activity, or interest that is very popular for a short period of time”, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal”. These definitions have some ideas in common – a fad is something that’s short-lived and doesn’t stand the test of time; something that is popular and widespread; and something that is arbitrary and easily replaced with something else.
Let us examine DEI from the lens of each of these common themes:
Short-lived or Transitory
Over time, the approach has widened to include a focus on ‘inclusion’ (i.e. the employee experience) and more recently, a focus on equity and fairness (i.e. balancing power structures and systems). If it’s a ‘fad’, DEI has certainly lasted longer than any other fads known to humankind! The cringe-inducing 'business case' is well-established and those who have been at it long enough, have realized that those who are not convinced about the importance of DEI by now are potentially either complacent or threatened by change.
We often hear this, but it’s worth repeating – ‘diversity is not a choice, but inclusion (and equity) is!’
Popularity or Zeal
For something to be popular or widespread, it has to be well-liked, win the approval of influencers and be seen as something worth having or using. Ask any DEI practitioner – there are few things that distance them more from business leaders than being introduced as a DEI practitioner! This work is hard, it is effortful and carries an emotional burden unlike many others – for true change in the composition, opportunities and experiences of people at work to take place, one has to make sacrifices, make hard choices, practice difficult behaviors, ask uncomfortable questions and keep making mistakes and growing from them. None of this makes us popular or liked! Yet, we strive because it is important work and NOT doing it is NOT an option! We are not doing DEI work because it is popular. We are doing it because status quo is no longer an option.
As Ibram X Kendi put it, “While many people are fearful of what could happen if they resist, I am fearful of what could happen if I don’t resist.”
Superficiality or Arbitrariness
Of all three points, this is the one that concerns me the most – because there is some truth to this accusation of DEI as a performance that is arbitrary. Too many DEI efforts are superficial and take the form of empty, temporary, politically correct, symbolic gestures to make it seem like there is commitment to a ‘good cause’. However, only a few leaders and organizations are committed enough to take the bold steps required to truly change the workforce from a DEI perspective – because those steps call for changing the most foundational assumptions on which work itself is based. Current work norms are not sustainable, not inclusive and not healthy for anybody, except those who benefit from them (i.e. the few individuals at the top of the hierarchy). To change the ways in which we work and live calls for absolute commitment and courage – and most leaders do not have that, nor do they have the long-term vision and persistence to stay the course and see this through.
So for those who see DEI as a fad – perhaps because they are impatient with the performative allyship aspects of it, the tokenistic actions and empty symbolism – I hear you and I agree with you. This is frustrating and not productive. Let’s also remember that organizations are made of people - and to the extent that people realize that this performative, tokenistic approach is not getting us anywhere, we can create wider consciousness around more impactful DEI efforts.
Until then, I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater! I would urge you to not give up on DEI efforts as a whole, because you’re tired of one aspect. We are in it for the long haul – and it is uncomfortable, difficult, time-consuming work which demands sacrifices and relentless emotional labour. But the journey is enlightening, the rewards will be plenty and it will all be worth it.
I’m quite grateful to the leader who asked if DEI was a fad - he nudged me unknowingly towards this path and helped me articulate this for myself. For some of you, this may further your musing or even muddy the waters a bit so that you may need to seek your own clarity. For now, I’m embracing this ‘fad’ of DEI and jumping on the bandwagon – together we’re turning it into a chariot of fire!