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The buzz around DEI’s ‘Great Retreat’ is overblown–and data-backed proof of the opposite abounds

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    Media headlines about the creation and then elimination of corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) positions at Big Tech companies have generated plenty of buzz. This kind of coverage can raise doubts about whether companies are committed to DEI in the long term. But these headlines aren’t telling the whole story.

    In 2019, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) launched Expanding Equity to help companies transform into more equitable places of opportunity. Through thousands of hours of work with companies, we have gained a unique perspective, backed by data and results, on how organizations can effectively unlock the benefits of DEI for their business, workers, and communities. Nowhere do we see the Great Retreat from DEI suggested by some media headlines.

    In fact, our recent Expanding Equity retrospective report suggests the opposite. Companies are doubling down on DEI as an essential part of their business strategy. A survey of participating companies found that 80% had internally reiterated their commitment to DEI since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in higher education. Roughly 90% report making measurable progress in advancing DEI.

    Tangible progress

    This pattern extends beyond companies in our equity program. A survey of organizations for McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report shows that 60% of respondents increased their staff and budget for DEI work over the past year, and 34% maintained their staff and budget. Only 4% reported a decrease. LinkedIn’s 2024 Jobs on the Rise list, a data-backed ranking of the 25 fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. over the past five years, ranks VP of diversity and inclusion seventh on the list, a job that is growing faster than recruiter or AI engineer roles.

    Our analysis of what is working among the participants in our equity program has yielded valuable learnings for organizations, including:

    • Best-in-class DEI is embedded throughout and can’t happen without top-down support. Of the five enablers needed to effectively embed DEI across an organization, 92% of companies in the Expanding Equity program credit leadership buy-in as a top reason for their progress.
    • Rather than focusing primarily on attracting more diverse employees, 94% of companies have zeroed in on retention, implementing at least one inclusion and belonging initiative. One report estimates that a high degree of belonging among all workers at a 10,000-person company could translate to $52 million in yearly productivity gains.
    • There’s a variety of DEI archetypes. Understand whether your company’s DEI work is data-driven, senior leadership-driven, best practice-driven, or worker-driven, and then harness what is unique about your people, culture, and way of working to create the approach that best sets your company up for success. At the same time, continue to monitor developments in the legal landscape of the jurisdictions in which you operate.

    Four people talking at a table

    Apart from the high-profile layoffs in some Big Tech companies, there is little evidence that companies are rolling back diversity and inclusion efforts.

    Real obstacles

    Creating a more equitable workplace is materially important to the future of this country. By 2050, more than half of U.S. workers and consumers will be people of color. Over that same period, our country stands to realize an $8 trillion gain in GDP by eliminating racial disparities in health, education, incarceration, and employment, according to calculations from a report by WKKF and Altarum, and in conversations with the researchers, they emphasize these dollars are merely the floor and we could realize more.

    However, the path to closing that racial gap faces real obstacles. There has been a contraction in support for DEI initiatives from some after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action in higher education. Fortune 100 companies became the target of post-ruling threats from 13 attorneys general, warning against making race-based employment decisions after the Students for Fair Admissions decision. On the horizon is the pending ruling on Muldrow v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, which examines whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to workplace transfer decisions that do not result in a reduction of title, salary, or benefits.

    As our findings show, the leaders and companies that are committed to DEI are all around us. In the face of these attempts to roll back advancements in racial equity, they must be unafraid to talk openly about DEI and redouble efforts to make their workplaces more inclusive, equitable, and diverse. In the 60-plus conversations I had with leaders in attendance at Davos, there was an intentionality about racial equity that was palpable. It was an encouraging confirmation of business leaders’ deep commitment to ensuring no population is left behind, despite the headwinds stirred up by those opposed to creating a more equitable world for our children.

    Refusal to back down on DEI can create business environments where companies outperform competitors, find talent more easily, and inspire better performance on the job. Moreover, building more inclusive, fair, and equitable workplaces contributes to stronger communities where all families have opportunities to thrive. It’s time to stop discussing if companies are investing in DEI and instead spread the word about how the leaders bravely moving forward with DEI efforts are succeeding.


    La June Montgomery Tabron is president and CEO at W.K. Kellogg Foundation.