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The role of the DEI executive is struggling: What’s caused this?

By Jack Campbell | |7 minute read

Head diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) jobs were going strong just a few years ago. In the current workforce, however, many positions are unable to be filled as a variety of factors are turning people off these important jobs.

It wasn’t always this way

Just a few years ago, there was a boom in DEI leadership roles, with LinkedIn describing them as “the job of the moment”.

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In fact, between 2015 and 2020, head of diversity roles grew by a staggering 107 per cent. Meanwhile, director of diversity roles grew by 75 per cent and chief diversity officer by 68 per cent.

Australia excelled in this space, with 1.04 DEI employees per 10,000 employees recorded. This was second only to the UK, which recorded 1.93.

“The LinkedIn report that was done a couple of years ago shows that significant increase in diversity-manager-type role hires over a five-year period, 2015 to 2020. And Australia being one of the leaders, only second to the UK,” said Luli Adeyemo, executive director at the Tech Diversity Foundation.

Even on the ground floor, there were increases, with DEI roles increasing by 71 per cent worldwide.

So, what happened? Well, according to the experts, there are a variety of reasons for the sharp decrease in attention for this position.

Struggles with retention

People who took on the role of the head of DEI seem to be dropping off like flies. According to Ms Adeyemo, the great progress made between 2015 and 2020 has fallen short in the last few years.

“[The LinkedIn report highlights] a good indicator in regards to the business commitment and the value they see in this particular position. But the caveat to that is the length of time that people stay in these roles. And the research there says they’re only staying in roles between 18 months to two years,” said Ms Adeyemo.

“And the reason for that being the business is not truly supporting the roles. They know they’ve got to do something in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space beyond having a policy, so what they do [is] they hire someone and make it their responsibility. But they don’t then support that person.”

This lack of support and immense responsibility is driving people away, making way for a work environment that lets DEI policies take a step back.

Ms Adeyemo commented: “They see it as the beginning and the end. That’s our budget, we’ve hired somebody. That misunderstanding around what’s truly needed, that person ends up getting frustrated, they’re constantly battling that, banging their head against a brick wall, and they leave.”

Lisa Annese, Diversity Council Australia chief executive, agreed: “Organisations tend to underestimate how much work is involved in DEI, and so they don’t resource it properly. It becomes set-and-forget or gets grouped in with HR, but in reality, it takes a companywide approach. D&I isn’t an add-on; it requires transformational cultural change.”

“When this doesn’t happen, it’s extremely hard to make progress, and as a result, DEI professionals are facing things like diversity fatigue and burnout because the change they’ve been hired to create just isn’t happening. That lack of progress can be really demoralising, especially for people from marginalised groups.”

The impact if this goes on

If these problems persist, organisations may struggle to attract and retain skilled workers.

Ms Annese commented: “We know that the next generation of employees are seeking out companies that perform well in terms of DEI. Companies that perform poorly in this space will struggle to attract and retain talent, as well as [put] themselves at risk of discrimination, harassment and bullying complaints.”

“DEI needs to be more than just a set-and-forget policy that sits on the shelf and is never reviewed because this space is constantly evolving, and workplaces will need to put in the work and the proper resourcing if they want to see tangible change. As the research clearly shows, the alternative is less innovation, poor talent attraction and retention, falling behind your competition, and even potential legal risks,” she explained.

Organisational responsibility

There’s no denying that it’s up to leaders to enact change. While it also needs to be upheld by employees, the higher-ups must begin integrating these themes into workplace culture.

Ms Adeyemo said: “It’s an organisation’s responsibility around the culture that’s created to make sure that people feel that they’re represented, people feel like they’ve got a voice, people feel like they’re safe, people feel like they belong, and they’re included. The whole business needs to take responsibility for the role that they play in that, and then not be one individual’s responsibility.”

What needs to be done

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion at the moment. It’s somebody’s role, but nobody understands what it really means. Once they really understand that, then it becomes everybody’s responsibility. It’s a strategic priority rather than a task or a role. And then there’s a shared responsibility in regards to delivering it, but we’re not there yet,” said Ms Adeyemo.

“I come from IT. So, when you think about the technology sector back in the 90s, that people didn’t really understand. The tech was something the business knew they needed, kept the lights on, and somehow my computer would work. But they didn’t really understand the value of it.”

She continued: “So, it wasn’t part of their enablement to achieve their goals as an organisation. Fast forward to now, where everything is digital, the whole business understands the role that technology plays in achieving their goals and their outcomes. Now, we need to get to that same level of DEI. The whole business should understand that the role that a diverse workforce plays in them achieving their goals and getting their outcomes. We’re not there because they just think it’s an HR thing.”

Ms Annese shared the same views: “Employers need to recognise that diversity and inclusion are actually really good for business, so it’s in their best interest to take it seriously and resource it properly.”

“[DCA] data shows that workers in inclusive teams are 10 times more likely to be innovative, four times more likely to work extra hard, 11 times more likely to be highly effective, and four times less likely to leave their job.”

“Organisations with a strong focus on inclusion build really productive, high-impact teams, but for some reason, many employers don’t join the dots on that. If you treat people with dignity and respect, have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment, create some agility and flexibility and have a supportive management environment, people flourish,” Ms Annese added.

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