Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Leaders Do Not Abandon DEI Initiatives

Photo of 4 diverse people in a business setting
In today's climate of political, cultural, ideological, and legislative pushback on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, what can leaders do to accelerate DEI work rather than retreat? ILA Fellow and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dr. Stella M. Nkomo shares five evidence-based reasons DEI in the workplace is the right decision.


In May 2020, a video of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer went viral and the global response to his unjust death was unprecedented. Corporate leaders across the globe made declarations and pledges to address racial inequality and strengthen their diversity initiatives. As protests spread throughout their countries, leaders jockeyed for headlines about their condemnations of racism and other inequalities. Optimistically, I hoped the world had crossed the Rubicon — a point where there would be no turning back, only moving forwards toward workplace equality.

A little over three years later, we are witnessing a growing pushback on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). There have been other moments of resistance to efforts to advance women, racial/ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups in the workplace, but this one seems more ominous. Today’s pushback is political, cultural, ideological, and legislative. Some politicians are making attacks on DEI central to their campaigns to hold or stay in office. Companies like Disney, who have championed DEI, are being attacked as too WOKE. Pursuing diversity and inclusion in schools and workplaces has been equated to anti-democratic interference, and many anti-DEI proponents argue that it has no place in college education. Teaching about topics like slavery, racism, sexism, or transgender rights is being outlawed in some U.S. states, and many other countries are under pressure from nationalist-right-wing political parties to enact legislation to backtrack on equality rights.

The progress made in diversifying organizational talent is facing a clear and present danger. There are worrisome signs that leaders may be tempted to slow down DEI work. The recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to outlaw race-based admissions in universities is being used by DEI detractors to imply that any effort to pursue equality and inclusion in the workplace is potentially illegal — even though this is inaccurate. DEI staff are being reduced in some companies and silenced in some universities.

 At this critical moment, leaders must not retreat but instead must accelerate DEI work. Culture wars that deepen societal divisions will only exacerbate existing inequalities. Societal inequality is not good for economic growth and human wellbeing. DEI has made a difference in reducing inequality in the workplace. It is hard to imagine where we would be today without past DEI efforts. However, there is still much to be done. Let me share five evidence-based reasons why accelerating, rather than abandoning, DEI in the workplace is the right decision.

First, since the advent of DEI, there have been positive changes in the inclusion of women, racial and ethnic minorities, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and others who have been historically undervalued. Preserving these gains and building upon them makes good business sense. Signaling a permanent rather than fleeting commitment to DEI is critical to retaining the diverse talent companies have already attracted (McKinsey & Co., 2020). A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (Minkin, 2023) found that despite some differences along political and demographic lines and reservations about it in their organizations, most respondents believe focusing on DEI at work is a good thing to do.

Second, substantial research demonstrates a positive relationship between diversity, innovation, and performance (e.g., Creary et al., 2019; Gomez & Bernet, 2019; Richard et al., 2021; Sung & Choi, 2021). DEI opponents choose to ignore research documenting its benefits in the workplace. Instead, they dwell on the downsides that typically accompany strategic change initiatives. Several studies indicate that gains from diversity are maximized when reflected in the profile of top management (Richard et al., 2021) and board composition (Creary et al., 2019; Roberson et al., 2017), and when companies deftly manage the tensions associated with the profound cultural change needed to ensure a favorable climate for inclusion (Holmes et al., 2021)   A review of research on diversity practices by van Knippenberg et al., (2020) concluded a bundle of integrated diversity management initiatives works much better than a stand-alone intervention. A study conducted by the Drucker Institute in conjunction with the Wall Street Journal to compile its annual Management Top 250 in 2022 found firms that had someone in an Executive DEI role scored on average significantly higher in nearly all elements of the ranking criteria (Wartzman & Tang, 2023).

Third, research suggests workplaces remain important sites where people with diverse backgrounds interact, underscoring the vital role organizational leaders have played and must continue to play in advancing equity and equality. For example, a study conducted by Hall et al., (2019) found that Black-White segregation in workplaces is half the level of that in residential settings. Their research supports earlier work that reported more intergroup interaction takes place in work settings than in neighborhoods (Ellis et al., 2004).

Fourth, the growing diversity of the world is a foregone reality, and organizations that embrace it will prosper. Relatedly, research indicates younger employees tend to expect their employers to commit to DEI and broader social responsibility (Deloitte., 2023). Millennials and Gen Z are forecasted to represent the highest percentage of the global workforce by 2030 (Lettink, 2019a, 2019b).

Fifth, we have learned much more from research about what types of diversity training and programs work. For example, in Dobbin and Kalev (2022), empowering managers to make their work units more inclusive was more effective than sending them to general DEI training. Training where employees learn the benefits of understanding the perspectives of others may work better than teaching about bias directly (Ragins & Ehrhardt, 2021).

This is not the time to abandon the progress and accumulated knowledge about effective DEI practices. Yes, leading DEI is hard work. The Minkin (2023) survey reveals the ongoing challenges of creating inclusion for everyone. However, given the current poly-crisis facing the world — climate change, environmental disasters, growing economic inequality, possible new pandemics, and regional wars with the potential to spread — organizations will need the talents of all of humanity if they want to do more than survive. Accelerating, rather than abandoning, DEI efforts is the best path to more significant progress toward genuinely inclusive workplaces and equality.


Creary, S. J., McDonnell, M. H., Ghai, S., & Scruggs, J. (2019, March 27). When and Why Diversity Improves Your Board’s Performance. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/03/when-and-why-diversity-improves-your-boards-performance

Deloitte. (2023). 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey Waves of Change: Acknowledging Progress, Confronting Setbacks. Deloitte Global. https://www.deloitte.com/content/dam/assets-shared/legacy/docs/deloitte-2023-genz-millennial-survey.pdf?dl=1  

Dobbin, F., & Kalev, A. (2022). Getting to Diversity: What Works and What Doesn’t. Harvard University Press.

Ellis, M., Wright, R., & Parks, V. (2004). Work Together, Live Apart? Geographies of Racial and Ethnic Segregation at Home and at Work. Annals of the Association of American Geographers94(3), 620–637. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3693933

Gomez, L. E., & Bernet, P. (2019). Diversity Improves Performance and Outcomes. Journal of the National Medical Association111(4), 383-392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnma.2019.01.006

Hall, M., Iceland, J., & Yi, Y. (2019). Racial Separation at Home and Work: Segregation in Residential and Workplace Settings. Population Research and Policy Review, 38, 671–694. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-019-09510-9

Holmes, O., IV, Jiang, K., Avery, D. R., McKay, P. F., Oh, I.-S., & Tillman, C. J. (2021). A Meta-Analysis Integrating 25 Years of Diversity Climate Research. Journal of Management, 47(6), 1357-1382. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206320934547

Lettink, A. (2019a September 17). No, Millennials Will NOT Be 75% of the Wworkforce in 2025 (or Ever)! Future of Work Blog. https://anitalettink.com/futureofwork/no-millennials-will-not-be-75-of-the-workforce-in-2025-or-ever/

Lettink, A. (2019b September 19). No, Millennials Will NOT Be 75% of the Workforce in 2025 (or Ever)! – The Data. Future of Work Blog. https://anitalettink.com/futureofwork/no-millennials-will-not-be-75-of-the-workforce-in-2025-or-ever-the-data/

McKinsey & Co. (May 2020). Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/diversity%20and%20inclusion/diversity%20wins%20how%20inclusion%20matters/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters-vf.pdf 

Minkin, R. (2023, May 17). Diversity Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/05/17/diversity-equity-and-inclusion-in-the-workplace/

Ragins, B. R., & Ehrhardt, K. 2021. Gaining perspective: The Impact of Close Cross-Race Friendships on Diversity Training and Education. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106: 856–881. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000807.

Richard, O. C., Triana, M. D. C., & Li, M. (2021). The Effects of Racial Diversity Congruence Between Upper Management and Lower Management on Firm Productivity. Academy of Management Journal64(5), 1355–1382. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2019.0468

Roberson, Q., Holmes, O., IV, & Perry, J. L. (2017). Transforming Research on Diversity and Firm Performance: A Dynamic Capabilities Perspective. Academy of Management Annals11(1), 189–216. https://doi.org/10.5465/annals.2014.0019

Sung, S. Y., & Choi, J. N. (2021). Contingent Effects of Workforce Diversity on Firm Innovation: High-Tech Industry and Market Turbulence as Critical Environmental Contingencies. The International Journal of Human Resource Management32(9), 1986-2012. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2019.1579243

van Knippenberg, D., Nishii, L. H., & Dwertmann, D. J.G. (2020). Synergy From Diversity: Managing Team Diversity to Enhance Performance. Behavioral Science & Policy, 6(1): 75–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/237946152000600108

Wartzman, R. & Tang, K. (2023, September 17). Maybe Hold Off on Getting Rid of the DEI Leader. The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/business/c-suite/dei-executives-managers-companies-5e7709f3 

Stella M. Nkomo

Dr. Stella M. Nkomo is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Human Resource Management at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Stella has published extensively on DEI and race and gender in organizations. She is co-author of the critically acclaimed Harvard Business School Press book, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity.

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