As we enter 2024, diversity and inclusion practitioners are bracing ourselves for tough times ahead.
Waves of unease from the last few months are showing no sign of abating following three major government diversity and inclusion related news stories, and DE&I leads around the globe are faced with heightened pressure to deliver results in an increasingly polarised society.
The US and UK governments set out new agendas in the second half of 2023, creating an urgent need for Inclusion Leaders to demonstrate the tangible positive impact of their initiatives more efficiently now, in order to prove the business case for their work moving forward as well as retrospectively.
What were the three news stories?
- A US Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action (June 2023)
- The UK Government announcement of headcount caps for the civil service, with DE&I personnel being the first to be counted and reviewed. (October 2023)
- The UK PM announcing and reiterating his belief that there are two genders, and two genders only. (October 2023)
Let’s start at the beginning:
News Story 1: The US Supreme Court Ruling.
The Supreme Court ruled in June 2023 that colleges and universities in the US can no longer consider race as a factor in course admissions, overturning 20 years of progression towards a more diverse student community in America.
‘Affirmative Action’ began 20 years ago and was a tool to help remedy decades of discrimination. The move permitted colleges and universities to factor in applicants’ racial backgrounds in addition to academic merit, athletics and extra curricular achievements during the admissions process.
Why was the decision to make Affirmative Action unlawful made?
The overturn was based on the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution; the principle that “all of us are created equal” and that race should therefore not be used as one of the deciding factors.
The background of the decision has spanned over the last 45 years, with a key landmark case filed by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard University.
The recent Supreme Court decision led by Chief Justice John Roberts has now banned the use of affirmative action policies leading to widespread concern that a practice which welcomed those of an ethnic minority background to apply, has now been dissolved.
Opposing Justice Sotomayer, appointed by Barack Obama, voiced her disagreement and disappointment clearly, saying that she herself was ‘a product of affirmative action’, stating:
“Ignoring race will not equalise a society that is racially unequal. What was true in the 1860s, and again in 1954, is true today: Equality requires acknowledgment of inequality.”
She added that the decision was, “grounded in the illusion that racial inequality was a problem of a different generation”.
Many key figures voiced opinions disappointment after the announcement, and statements opposing the Supreme Court’s decision from Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and President and CEO of the NAACP Derrick Johnson were released soon afterwards.
Why is this ruling important for other countries and for commercial businesses?
The ruling was based on an assumption that considering race is grounds for positive discrimination, and may cause organisations worldwide to u-turn on their diversity agendas which exist to create equity, not advantage, to people from an ethnic minority background.
A decision from such a high authority could be seen as a benchmark to set visions and strategies for the future, not just for organisations based in America, but also those using US legislative change for guidance on how to set strategies for inclusion… for all characteristics, not just race.
Lifting the pressure on Universities to ensure they are creating equitable admissions processes could cause other public sector organisations, and privately owned businesses to cite the Supreme Court’s decision as justification for re-focusing budgets, resources, targets and initiatives.
News Story 2: UK Chancellor announces head count caps and EDI personnel reviews for the whole civil service.
DE&I practitioners bracing themselves for a ‘trickle-down effect’ saw what they’d been fearing a few months later.
On 2nd October, Jeremy Hunt announced a sudden cap on civil service headcount with the aim of creating a ‘leaner and more efficient workforce’, and specifically mentioned ED&I personnel as the first to have their workforce size and the ROI of their work reviewed.
The news revealed that the Cabinet Office has written to over 100 departments in the civil service to confirm how many people work in DE&I related roles, and how that work supports government priorities. Results will lead to a ‘full audit of effectiveness’.
Like all other organisations in these less than buoyant economic times, government departments are of course feeling the need to review expenditure, headcount and key focuses.
Whilst there was no indication when the announcements were made that employees focusing on diversity and inclusion are actually facing job losses, it is of course indicative of an ultimate objective of streamlining.
We are yet to see how this review of DE&I employees has taken place and how much influence the tax paying public will get in the decision about the headcount of the people who make the ultimate decisions on policy, legislation, protection, education and all matters which create the fabric of our society.
The taxpayers who benefit from inclusive practices are of course very diverse, representing a multitude of backgrounds, experiences and characteristics. – This is part of the business imperative for any organisation to make their DE&I focuses meaningful and ensure that their practices represent the people they exist to serve, whether the business is public, private or charitable.
Of course, in reality, we know that the taxpayers will have no say in this headcount decision.
The reported timeframe to measure the effectiveness of the DE&I teams is also clearly short, and as professionals working in diversity and inclusion are fully aware, measuring ROI on DE&I successes is a difficult process.
The benefits of creating an inclusive culture exist in a multitude of ways and places; staff satisfaction, stakeholder representation, retention of diverse talent, organisational de-risking through diversity of thought, a reduction in attrition and therefore savings on recruitment costs, and many others.
The extent to which employees in diversity and inclusion roles across many complex departments and agencies contribute to better external systems and processes for people in minority and marginalised communities is not a sum to be easily calculated.
Jeremy Hunt stated that the cap does not mean a full recruitment freeze; simply that ‘new policies should not always mean new people’, so it seemed unlikely at the time that the review would lead to any immediate reduction in DE&I personnel.
However his statements were followed up with a much more worrying story only days later…
News Story 3: The UK PM reveals his true opinions on gender diversity.
The DE&I world was still reeling from the news of the civil service headcount cap, and making sense of a potential new agenda being set by the Conservative Party, when PM Rishi Sunak made comments later that week which left no doubt about Conservative viewpoints on diversity.
In a speech which was completely devastating for the LGBTQIA community and allies, he stated:
“We shouldn’t be bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t. A man is a man, and a woman is a woman, that’s just common sense.”
This part of his statement was overshadowed by other revelations about the HS2 extension and legislation on the smoking age, meaning that many news websites didn’t even report on Rishi’s comments which cancelled the true identities of hundreds of thousands of trans people in the UK.
His comments about gender were related to the healthcare system and resulted in to thousands of doctors and healthcare practitioners reassuring the trans community via social media that their identity would be fully respected in every area of their power. Pink News, Stonewall and many other diversity related news forums stated their shock and opposition to statement which significantly belittled the importance of fluid and authentic identity.
Marital status titles may seem like just a small part of this gender identity picture, but nevertheless an important one, with GPs still demanding a title from every UK patient, forcing people to state whether they are a ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’, and referring to them in a way which does not represent them in letters, emails and phone calls from healthcare practitioners.
The real risk to businesses and people:
Organisations who do not fully understand the significant and multiple benefits of having a diverse workforce may use the US and UK governments’ distaste for inclusion initiatives as a reason to u-turn on their progress with DE&I initiatives without realising the negative impact on their staff, customers and shareholders.
An article published later in the year revealed that data published by Accenture has estimated that ‘leaving EDI off the table is costing US businesses $1 Trillion’. So there is a real incentive for private companies to continue to make the right decisions when determining their inclusion and belonging approach and practices.
For the people, these news stories are not what the deeply diverse and intersectional society we live in needs to feel safe, heard and valued. – Something which is paramount to a healthy, happy and peaceful world.
How concerned should we be?
There will always be threats to progress in the world of DE&I, and these latest events are indeed huge blows to those seeking a more equitable world for people of all characteristics.
What is likely is that we will see a gap between those organisations who respond to the tones being set by the UK and US governments, by unweaving tokenistic gestures and unworkable targets; and those who remain determined to create meaningful and beneficial change.
We know, and have together proven, that creating equity by removing barriers and fostering positive cultures of allyship leads to increased tenure, improved staff engagement, and a happier workforce which fully represents customers and society.
It’s very likely that these news stories will galvanise some organisations to work better communicate the tangible business benefits they’ve been able to measure internally and externally to try to justify their hard work with all the hard and fast facts available.
And maybe the taxpayers will eventually get their say, with a general election now expected in the second half of this year. There is a possibility that the latter part of 2024 will be a little less ‘blue’ than it is now…
Organisations really do have the power to set their own DE&I bar, and play by their own best practice rules. 2024 will start to reveal which businesses are determined to reap the many benefits of striving for DE&I progress, and organisations who don’t, because they simply don’t see the urgency or importance.
To all of our followers and supporters who are starting the New Year as determined as we are, we are grateful, and we appreciate the solidarity!