2020 was a troublesome year on multiple levels. Beyond the wrath of the coronavirus, other unfortunate realities also surfaced – and seared. The senseless killing of George Floyd sparked activism around Black Lives Matter at a never-before-seen level of intensity. And that spark caught fire around the globe where people came forward, from everywhere, demanding change.
That fire may no longer be a raging inferno, but, make no mistake, it’s still burning hot. Cast your politics aside, it’s about people and it’s about doing what’s right. Each company has their own way of making changes towards equality and, after the tumultuous series of events that unfolded in 2020, we’re finally starting to see diversity with intention. Of course, there’s still a long way to go but companies are taking DE&I seriously and committed to moving beyond “checking the box.”
Andrew Carnegie, the legendary industrialist of the last century, was one of the first prominent figures to publicly “sympathize” (such a dreadful, arcane concept) with African Americans. When he founded the Carnegie School of Technology back in 1900, he did so with the goal to “supplement, broaden and enlarge the existing systems of education, and give their principal aid to those who are at present but partially or not at all provided for.” The magnate was ahead of his time.
Carnegie was particularly interested in supporting the sons – and daughters – of Pittsburgh steel workers, singling out the need to educate the underserved, especially women. Later, he befriended Booker T. Washington and had extensive correspondence for nearly a decade to learn about African American matters of fairness, equality, and educational funding. Their friendship culminated in Carnegie becoming the largest benefactor of Tuskegee Institute.
With respect to diversity training, here, Australia emerges as the pioneer of the field. Upholding Aboriginal rights and protecting tribes from the onslaught of Western ways, the Australian government mandated practices that fostered cultural diversity and belonging. Not a culture known for its shyness, the Aussies pushed an agenda that squarely called out discrimination for what it is and instituted a series of bills, policies, and funded programs to combat racism against Aboriginals and to provide tribes with the support they needed to advance through education and access.
The USA was comparatively slower on the uptake. It wasn’t until the 1960s, catalyzed by Dr. Martin Luther King, whom we honored earlier this week in a national celebration, that military schools and some higher education institutes began offering diversity training. Businesses waited nearly three decades before they began to change hiring policies and practices to encourage diversity.
DE&I as an initiative and a mandate was spurred by the Civil Rights Movement which challenged European White descendants to have open and honest emotional conversations with Blacks about race relations. Two more decades passed before “White privilege” formally entered the lexicon and became a pillar on the path to instill changes in hiring practices. Ditto for “unconscious bias.” Black Lives Matter began in 2013 but it wasn’t until the brutal killing of George Floyd in 2020 that BLM became a global and deafening call to action.
Amongst the luminaries in the field, Dr. Judith Katz is a standout. She was a student activist in the ’60s and expanded Affirmative Action policies to be inclusive of women and Blacks. But she also lobbied to expand rights and opportunities to Latino, Asian, LGBTQ and disabled people to go beyond Black-White racial divisions and sexism. Affirmative Action peaked in the ’80s and was celebrated as a movement to “do the right thing” versus being a business imperative, despite data that was accumulating to show how diversity increased the productivity and innovation levels of companies.
Lewis Griggs was the luminary who coined “Diversity and Inclusion.” Equity wasn’t added to the definition until the early 2000s. Griggs went on to develop one of the first online diversity training courses which were anchored in the philosophy that we must value our differences.
Big gains towards DE&I
Several companies changed their iconic – and grossly outdated – logos and brands. Among them, The Quaker Oats Company who removed Aunt Jemima. Uncle Ben’s rice soon followed suit.
Eskimo Pie, Mrs. Butterworth, Senior Sleepy by P&G and more than 20 others have since updated their messaging and branding. Within the MLB, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians, after decades of pressure, finally agreed to franchise name changes. The NFL was slow to follow but the Washington Redskins have also agreed to enter the 21st century of enlightenment. And the Dixie Chicks dropped “Dixie” from their band name.
PepsiCo invested $400 million in an effort to increase Black representation by 30% at the managerial level. Adidas made a similar pledge. Bank of America revealed a $1 billion four-year program to foster economic growth in communities of color. PayPal committed $530 million to Black-owned businesses. Comcast ponied up $100 million towards DE&I. Nike, Twitter, Square, the NYT and other corporate entities have instituted Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Nascar finally banned the Confederate flag from its races! There’s always room for improvement, but putting DE&I on the national – and global – radar of Fortune 100 enterprises, professional sports and the music industry will spur a ripple of change downstream.
Tips to be more supportive of DE&I principles
Perhaps the toughest obstacle to overcome is acknowledging your own belief system with honesty. It may not be as progressive as you think. Reflecting on your actions in the past can illuminate where and how you may need to make changes going forward. Creating space, as in safe spaces, for those who have limited access to educational opportunities requires coordination between educators, businesses and the government.
A simple but often overlooked effort is to be mindful of religious holidays. Learn about them as they come up on the calendar. Hold yourself accountable for your own behaviors and strive to do more and do better. Diversify your team whenever you can. Make a conscious effort to look for talent that’s different than you are. Some companies have gone so far as to redact all personal information on resumes to avoid hiring bias.
The bottom line? We can all do better with DE&I. It’s more than the right thing to do or an initiative, it is a business imperative that begins with awareness and conscious change.