DEI: ‘A Year of Reckoning’

Experts say with much of the progress halted last year, DEI leaders need a new plan to reignite the movement in 2024. 

It might have been unrealistic to believe that by the beginning of 2024, corporate America would look far more diverse, equitable, and inclusive than it did in 2020. But after George Floyd’s murder, companies’ commitments of hundreds of millions of dollars—to diversify their talent bases, management pipelines, and supplier bases—made some leaders optimistic.

Talk to most DEI leaders today and they will describe progress in 2023 using words ranging from “challenging” to “bad.” Indeed, one-fifth of companies today offer no diversity programming at all, according to one survey. The challenging economic environment has made some firms cut back on resources dedicated to DEI efforts. Those efforts that remain are often challenged. High-profile debates over the merits of diversity programs can be found on college campuses, state legislatures, social media, and corporate boardrooms. “It was a year of reckoning,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

To be sure, some leaders say they still see progress from the two-plus-year DEI push. There are more female CEOs at Fortune 500 organizations than ever before, and boards are considerably more diverse. One in four directors at the S&P 500 is racially or ethnically diverse, according to the Conference Board. 

Still, inequality remains glaring in many organizations. Across industries, for example, white men are 33% more likely than white women—and 300% more likely than Black men or women—to have a management role.

Experts say a series of economic and political setbacks have put pressure on many DEI efforts. But advocates also blame the programming itself, much of which, they say, hasn’t worked. Too much of it, experts argue, relies on awareness training and good intentions, when DEI efforts need to be structural in nature. Making this change, says Alina Polonskaia, a global leader in Korn Ferry’s DE&I Consulting practice, involves multiple steps, including retooling job roles and requirements so they’re accessible to more people; continuously building teams whose members have diverse backgrounds; and holding managers accountable for finding and developing talent from underrepresented groups. “Running unconscious-bias training is easy,” Polonskaia says, “but transformations aren’t.”

Experts also say it’s important that DEI initiatives encompass every level of an organization. Flo Falayi, a Korn Ferry associate client partner in leadership development, recently helped one client open up their narrowly focused programming, which targeted just a few segments of its employee population, to incorporate everyone. “You have to be intentional with these programs for them to have a chance of succeeding,” Falayi says.

Above all, many experts say, if diversity and inclusion efforts are to survive—and perhaps thrive—their advocates need to frame them as ways to improve the business’ bottom line. “If it’s not business grounded, then CEOs run for the exits,” Tapia says. Too often, he says, DEI efforts have been too solely focused on their social-justice aspects. 


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion capabilities.