Business and Markets

The Future of DEI Is Still Unwritten

February 26, 2024  • Business and Society Program

2024 has already brought intense scrutiny to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs in both business and higher education. Within weeks of last year’s Supreme Court ruling that colleges and universities may not consider race in college admissions, 13 State Attorney Generals issued a letter threatening legal action against corporate activities associated with “diversity, equity and inclusion.” Since then, a steady cadence of headlines about high-profile corporate pullbacks from DEI programs have led practitioners and advocates to wonder about the future of their efforts. But do such headline-making news stories accurately reflect the real picture?

To answer this question, the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program joined with PolicyLink to convene a panel discussion, “The Future of DEI in Corporate America,” on February 20th.

Moderated by Deepa Purushothaman, Aspen Institute First Mover Fellow, Founder of the re.write, and author of The First, The Few, The Only, the panel brought together Lisa Fairfax, Presidential professor and legal scholar at University of Pennsylvania, Megan Hogan, Global Head of Talent and Chief Diversity Officer at Goldman Sachs, award-winning journalist Ellen McGirt, and Dr. Asif Sadiq, Global Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for Warner Bros. Discovery.

The key takeaway? Contrary to the impression of media headlines, the future of DEI has not been written. Here’s what we learned:

1. The legal case for a DEI pullback in business hasn’t been written:

As one panelist reminded the audience: on its face, the SCOTUS college admissions decision meant nothing for corporations. This panelist urged companies not to curtail DEI initiatives in anticipation of legal rulings that have not yet been written. The panelist added that even though 13 Attorney Generals threatening action against corporate DEI programs got a lot of media buzz, there were 21 state Attorney Generals who wrote a letter reminding corporations that DEI efforts are in fact legal.

2. Headlines about DEI rollbacks don’t reflect what’s happening inside most companies:

Panelists acknowledged the real impacts of major DEI program rollbacks (especially in the tech sector) both in terms of resource cuts and in terms of what it signals to DEI practitioners, and to employees and investors. But, by one panelist’s estimate, such high-profile pullbacks represent only 5-10% of activity in the field of DEI today. Paying too much attention to negative external media narratives can distract leaders from where their focus should be – on internal developments and meeting customer and employee expectations.

3. Companies are in the process of rethinking and retooling DEI:

There are stark divides in how companies are charting the future of DEI. Some companies are renaming DEI or removing references to race or diversity in their programs, seeking more “palatable” language and framing. Our panelists criticized this response. One questioned how achieving equity, particularly in the United States, could ever be possible without discussing race. Another cautioned that DEI initiatives are so new in many countries outside the U.S. that rebranding them now would create confusion and stifle progress made in recent years. Nonetheless, the panelists noted a possible silver lining: Companies can treat heightened scrutiny as an opportunity to design more effective programs and achieve greater impact.

4. Companies must plan for future demand for DEI initiatives:

In 2024, it’s hard to ignore the existence of a committed anti-DEI constituency. But the panelists cautioned business leaders against ignoring the constituencies calling for greater support for diversity – and not just those who are in positions of power today. One panelist noted that the next generation of talent is “intolerant” of corporate wobbling on DEI commitments. A long-term view of business success demands continued attention to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

5. Individuals’ choices remain decisive:

Time and again, panelists stressed the importance of individuals’ choices, even when media reports can give the impression of systemic anti-DEI headwinds. CEOs showing up for staff internally can make a huge difference. Internal DEI advocates can find allies and build momentum for change. And in companies where leadership won’t get onboard with DEI efforts? “You don’t have to go down with the ship. Protect your energy,” urged one panelist. Exit is always a choice.

The future of DEI in corporate America is yet unwritten, and we all have a role to play in its future. If you’re interested in further conversation on this topic, fill out our short form as we consider next steps for supporting practitioners and advocates across the field.