Stop Expecting Marginalized Groups to Lead Diversity Efforts. It's Time For Allies to Step Up and Put in the Work.
Marginalized groups are being overtasked with leading diversity work, which is driving them away from their jobs — and the No. 1 reason for leaving is burnout. It's time to engage more allies for positive change.
While many organizations scrambled to make public statements and donations to show a deeper commitment to diversity following the events of the summer of 2020, very few have capitalized on the investment of the time and resources put into diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Despite the intense focus on DEI, few organizations have been happy with the results they have achieved on their DEI goals and plans. Representation numbers, inclusion indexes and attrition rates of diverse folks remain stagnant at best. Representation in DEI matters — but it's not right to expect marginalized groups to lead these efforts — allies can amplify their voices and do the work.
So why isn't DEI working?
- Organizations have overtaxed those from marginalized groups to lead DEI work
- DEI leaders rarely have the resources, positional power and influence to lead real change
- DEI leader tenure is low and burnout is the number one reason for attrition
Marginalized groups cover a variety of dimensions of diversity. Marginalized groups include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, disability, LGBTQ+, age, socioeconomic background and more. These groups are often under-represented in organizations, especially at the leadership levels. The majority group in contrast is often over-represented in organizations and is more prominent in leadership representation. These tend to be white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled and of the native culture or ethnicity of the organization's headquarters.
Marginalized groups are being overtasked with leading DEI
Organizations have tried to recruit, hire, promote and retain marginalized groups through DEI programming, recruiting and hiring strategies, and creating DEI roles. Women of color are twice as likely to be tasked with leading DEI efforts because they have the dual lived experiences of race and gender. Yet, they are the ones that have been adversely affected by the diversity problem.
Marginalized groups are more likely to experience microaggressions or non-inclusive behaviors like being interrupted, not getting credit for ideas or people making assumptions about them that are inaccurate and harmful. Asking them to take on the brunt of the DEI work is not fair. Don't ask them to solve a problem they didn't create.
DEI leaders rarely have the resources, power and influence to lead real change
When the DEI work is undervalued compared to short-term profit-generating work, the message is clear — diversity is nice-to-have, not a must-have. Anything important in business would be prioritized, and DEI is no different.
Think about a new product launch or a strategic initiative it's important for future growth. How do you resource it appropriately? Would you equip the leader with the full support they need to succeed? Would you look at the long-term vs. short-term success?
DEI needs resources just like any other business imperative. That means a budget for which the DEI leader is 100% accountable with specific goals and measurements to ensure resources continue to be directed to DEI. When organizations experience an economic downturn or short-term business pains, the temptation is to divert resources from DEI to the business. Yet, progress on DEI requires a long-term, consistent and intentional commitment. Redirecting efforts when things get hard suggests it is not really important.
Many DEI leaders do not report to the CEO or to the C-suite which makes them ill-equipped to manage the systemic change and to be taken seriously. Without the positional authority to drive diversity and embed it in the organization's culture, they are unable to drive systemic change. DEI leaders are often chosen due to their passion, yet the ability to influence others is a primary driver of success. Those that are able to leverage relationships, get people to buy in to change and garner allies are often the most successful.
DEI leader tenure is low and burnout is the No. 1 reason why
Employee burnout is a global concern. In a survey of over 1,000 respondents by Deloitte, 77% say they have experienced burnout at their current job. The data skews higher for marginalized folks according to McKinsey & Company's latest Women in the Workplace report. McKinsey found that "compared with men at their level, women leaders are up to twice as likely to spend substantial time on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities — such as supporting employee resource groups, organizing events and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups."
The average tenure of a DEI leader is less than two years. Compare that to other senior leadership positions, and the difference is stark. Many DEI leaders leave because they don't feel that they're in a position to truly be successful. Leadership waffles with the news cycle, leaders don't prioritize DEI in their daily schedules and they're left feeling like their efforts are futile.
If you believe in DEI and are committed to it, stop asking those most marginalized to lead the change. Make it a priority for everyone to buy in, commit to DEI long-term and model workplace inclusion.
What do we do now?
1. Engage allies in leading diversity work
Allyship is contagious. Rather than rely solely on marginalized folks, find ways to engage the majority group in the conversation more. When folks in the majority group hear stories about the adversity of diversity, they're more likely to join the conversation and see it as a real problem, even if they themselves have not experienced it.
2. Properly equipt DEI leaders with resources and budgets
Just like with any other business imperatives, properly resource and fund DEI. Have a clear budget set for the year with priorities. Successful organizations are consistent, and intentional and have the full support of the leadership team to drive DEI.
3. Conduct listening sessions to learn about the perceptions of burnout and marginalized groups
If you don't know where to start, listen first. Gather the perceptions of folks from marginalized groups first, then figure out what you can do to address burnout and the systemic issues adversely affecting them.
Remember, DEI is a journey, not a destination. With allies, resources and knowledge, organizations can move more quickly towards positive change. Individual actions matter. Collectively, we are stronger together when we work together as allies. Don't expect those most impacted to solve the issues adversely affecting them alone. Allies do the work and influence positive change.
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