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How DEI Has Evolved Over 40 years

15 Mar 2021 4:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Lee Gardenswartz, Ph.D. and Anita Rowe, Ph.D.

We’ve been doing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion work in the United States since 1980 and in that time, we've experienced a gradual and significant evolution in the field.

1. From race and gender to a broader, more inclusive definition

In the early days of diversity work, the definition was generally limited to race and gender and sometimes age. Our 4 Layers of Diversity model (1995), built on Loden and Rosener’s two-layer depiction, expanded the definition and discussion to many more dimensions of inclusion and exclusion. Now intersectionality is a common concept that expresses the complexity of our human differences. In addition, new dimensions keep being added such as mental ability and political affiliation as well as more accurate labels such as gender identity replacing gender.

2. It’s not just for them, it’s for everyone and everyone has a role and responsibility

When the conversations began years ago, discussions about inclusion did not encompass everyone and the issue was most often positioned as oppressed vs. oppressor. Now there is more of a sense that all have something to gain from inclusion and also all have responsibility to address inequities and biases. Allyship is front and center in the conversation, calling on those with privilege to use it in removing barriers to equity. There is an attempt to have all groups considered and included in both identifying obstacles and creating solutions.

3. Moving from individual development to systemic action for culture change

Early on, most of the effort and resources in DEI were focused on training as the “fix” for all that was wrong. Ranging from sheep-dipping and check-off-the-box sessions to deeper work on bias, isms and culture, training centered around giving individuals awareness, knowledge and skills. However, it soon became apparent that no matter how effective, training alone was not enough to change organizations. Attention turned to systems changes by focusing on policies and processes that needed to be addressed to remove barriers to equity and inclusion and truly leverage diversity. Now most organizations have detailed action plans that target changes in systems such as recruitment, reward and accountability as well as processes such as promotion and performance management.

4. Greater accountability with emphasis on leaders walking the talk

One of the most formidable and important changes we have seen is a focus on leadership accountability. More and more, leaders are expected to not just say the right things but also match their behaviors to those words. Lip service no longer works, and organizations know that what makes a major difference is leaders who walk the talk. They are held accountable for new norms and behaviors around equity and inclusion.

5. Clear strategic business case for EID

Early pitches for DEI tended to focus on appeals to morality and ethics. It was the right thing to do. However, it soon became clear that a more compelling case rested in the strategic arena. Leveraging diversity and developing inclusion were not an end in themselves but a means to an end. Achieving goals, whether that was reaching new market, closing the achievement gap, reducing health disparities or retaining satisfied customers, became the end and DEI was the means. DEI is now generally seen as increasing both individual effectiveness and the organization’s ROI.

6. Vocabulary has evolved

Before there was diversity there was multiculturalism, the indication that employees and customers did not all have the same background, beliefs, customs and language and that attention to those differences was needed. In the 1970’s, EEO laws focused attention on equality and Affirmative Action until the Hudson Report in the late 80’s moved the focus to diversity. It soon became clear that having differences wasn’t enough, though. Leveraging them through inclusion was required so Diversity and Inclusion became the name for this arena. Most recently, a renewed emphasis on equity has broadened the label and focus to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

7. Greater sensitivity to language

How we talk about differences matters and there has always been a focus on language and terminology in EID work. Though complaints about political correctness continue, the words we use about differences continue to change add to the vocabulary. Moves from Colored to Negro to Black or from Hispanic to Chicano to Mexican-American to Latino in the past have counterparts now in BPOC, LBGTQ and Latinx. Words like microaggressions, microinequities and cisgender are now common concepts and the use of preferred pronouns in introductions to indicate one’s gender identity is becoming more routine. The focus has shifted from knowing the correct label to an increased sensitivity in honoring how people want to be addressed and treated.

8. Understanding of bias as a human condition

Early in the days of Diversity and Inclusion, bias and prejudice were talked about as though they were blots on one’s character that had to be eradicated. People often came to diversity sessions with fear and trepidation thinking they would be shamed, blamed and chastised. Over the years, this work has moved to an understanding that bias is part of the human condition and that all of us need to be aware of it, understand it and then manage it so that it does not result in behaviors and systems that cause inequity and ineffectiveness. Neuroscience and work on unconscious bias has contributed greatly to this more helpful way to deal with prejudice.

9. Greater emphasis on results and evaluation

One of the weakest areas in DEI work has traditionally been measuring results – what works and what doesn’t and what is the impact of changes and interventions. Because of the increase in a strategic mindset, there is a greater emphasis on metrics. It is common for organizations to have DEI dashboards and scorecards where specific measures are monitored, and results quantified. In addition, measures have moved beyond demographics. Employee engagement as an indicator of inclusion, market share, and customer/end user feedback are examples of results that are now part of the evaluation landscape. And evaluation results are often tied to performance objectives.

10. Increasing polarization

As the desire for equity and inclusion has evolved, so has increasing polarization. Politics and religion have increasingly played roles in this division, often attempting to discredit DEI as a liberal and left-wing issue. This polarization has fueled a new level of emotionality that makes it more difficult to create environments of inclusion where all can belong and have a chance to thrive.

Most of these changes have helped create a climate of greater receptivity to DEI that has enabled the work to go deeper and have greater impact. However, increasing polarization in response to the hot buttons of our time - racial injustice, immigration, LBGTQ rights and Covid, has heightened emotionality and stoked the fires of resistance. Not only does dealing with differences often give rise to powerful feelings of fear, anger and frustration, but the challenges due to Covid have brought additional emotions to the work arena. Professionals across the board talk about feeling overwhelmed, isolated and disconnected. Our Emotional Intelligence and Diversity approach has been a way to engage people in the work of inclusion through their feelings, giving them the understanding and tools to remain resilient and effective in dealing with differences and change.


  • 17 Mar 2021 3:11 PM | Anonymous member
    Although I've been in this field fewer years than both of you, I have to agree with your analysis 100%. It's what I've seen happen through the years in higher education.

    As an aside, I wanted to pass on to you that I still use the 4 Layers of Diversity in the vast majority of my classes, even those that are not "DEI focused." (Stealth DEI, I call it.) Congratulations for developing a model that is so well designed that even 25ish years later, and in a field that is continuing to change, it is a valuable tool for us to use.

    I hope SIETARians understand that as we talk about the "shoulders of giants" we all stand on, the two of you are right there. Thank you for what you've contributed and continue to contribute to our field.
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  • 23 Mar 2021 9:39 AM | Anonymous
    Thank you both for this thoughtful overview which is a valuable contribution. Thanks for all you do to make our world more inclusive and equitable.
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