How diversity in the workplace is evolving with “the business”

Diversity and inclusion, now with the addition of equity, (D&I or DEI) has morphed, grown and changed significantly over time. It’s been a true evolution, and a long-time focus for most large US companies, yet we still see only 25% of women in C-suite positions among the top 1,000 US companies (by revenue)1, and there are only three (3) black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies2. Beyond representation, the even more critical factor, in terms of business impact, is inclusion and the effect it can have on generating business results.

Having been in the trenches within organizations focused on DEI, I honestly don’t think anyone has “figured this out” in a way that’s comprehensive, impactful, and sustainable. Why? Because this work is very complex – demographics continue to shift around all of us, as do organizational cultures, business needs, and talent. As soon as you have solved one piece of the puzzle, the rest of the board has shifted, and other pieces are no longer aligned.

Given the constant changes, the only way to really evaluate anything concrete is to look back at how we got to where we are. From a diversity practitioner’s perspective, here’s my interpretation of the evolution of diversity in the workplace:


The field of DEI in Corporate America has its roots in the 1960s, beginning as a result of the anti-discrimination legislation of that decade – the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Efforts were focused on Affirmative Action and non-discrimination. Diversity (representation) in the workplace started to become part of the conversation, at least for large US companies.


Many Fortune 500 companies began concerted efforts in diversity hiring, although still with a compliance focus. It was about casting a wide net to attract a broader pool of talent. Part of that new talent pool now included Gen X, as they began entering the workforce in the mid-1980s, impacting organizational cultures.


Consumer brands start to realize the value of a diverse workforce that mirrors their customer base. This internal diversity can have business impact, providing people with a voice and input into the organization’s products and services. As diverse hiring ramps up, often times, so does turnover. Academic research begins on inclusion. Why is diverse talent choosing to leave? Could it be that the organizational culture wasn’t a “fit” and what does that mean? By the mid-1990s, there’s research and findings on emotional intelligence, a foundational element of an inclusive culture.


Inclusion becomes the focus. Organizational efforts center around advancement of a diverse workforce (promotion and development opportunities), as well as diversity among leadership and Boards of Directors. By the early 2000s, Gen Y (Millennials) enter the workforce with new and different expectations of work. There’s research and preliminary findings on unconscious bias and its impact on inclusion. The large majority (approximately 90%) of Fortune 500 companies have employee resource groups (ERGs), often as a result of employees coming together in a grassroots fashion.        


Equity is added to “Diversity & Inclusion,” originating from a gender-based equal pay impetus. Given the political climate in the US, the DEI pendulum has swung back a bit, again being focused on anti-discrimination. Gen Z is entering the workforce – 50%+ non-white and idealistic – they are looking for an employer who has a positive impact on society.

Where do we go from here?

With five generations now in the workforce and the increased racial diversity of the US population, I’m excited to see what’s next for this discipline. I’m hopeful that real sustainable change can be made in all facets – diversity, equity, and inclusion. For that to happen, and be sustainable from a business perspective, it is critical for organizations to define their philosophy on DEI and to do the “heavy lifting” to weave DEI into the fabric and culture of the organization by integrating and building accountability, while still focusing on shifting representation, especially at the leadership level.

DEI cannot be a program or an HR initiative. It has to be top of mind for everyone, at every organizational level, and a lens through which business decisions are made. When that happens, DEI stays visible, adapts in alignment with the business, and shifts as the organizational culture morphs over time. This is where we focus our efforts to ensure that DEI becomes not only about being and belonging, but also about translating diverse perspectives into innovation that advances the business in new ways.  


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