Advancing Inclusion Amid Resistance

Resistance to DEI initiatives manifests in many forms and occurs for numerous reasons. While vocal opposition, the most obvious form of resistance, is currently increasing in many countries and companies, more subtle obstacles have long slowed efforts to advance inclusion in the business world and within individual organizations. The causes of these less apparent forms of resistance are often misunderstood, complicating efforts to overcome them.

This article examines three barriers that merit particular attention in designing and implementing effective DEI strategies. By addressing unawareness of systemic advantage, measuring individual experiences of organizational culture, and recognizing the needs of DEI leaders, organizations can make meaningful progress towards greater inclusion.

When Gatekeepers Deny Systemic Exclusion

A first significant challenge to advancing inclusion is simply getting DEI past the organization’s gate. Even today, one still encounters workplaces with no initiatives in place to promote inclusion (without counting legally required programs that seldom have transformative impact). Too often, decision-makers reject DEI initiatives ab initio because they are unable to comprehend the humane need for investing in workplace inclusion. Unlike activists who block all DEI based on regressive visions of society, these decision-makers are potentially persuadable with “evidence” of inequity. Their perception may, however, be affected by one or more hot cognitive processes that prevent them from recognizing the effects of systemic exclusion in their workforce.

One set of such hot cognitive blockers relates to identity threat, the fear of being viewed unfavorably because of one’s social identity. Research indicates people from dominant groups typically place little to no importance on those aspects of their identity that are the implicit norm in society, such as maleness, heterosexuality, ability, and, in Western societies, whiteness. Yet, in situations where a dominant identity dimension is associated with bigotry or other socially unacceptable qualities, individuals are often acutely aware of this negative association and use various strategies to manage the impact of the group stereotype on their self-image.

A form of threat that commonly derails efforts to introduce DEI in organizations is what researchers have termed “meritocratic threat.” In societies and organizations that place a high value on merit as the sole legitimate basis for professional rewards, the perception that an aspect of one’s identity confers a systemic advantage is abhorrent. One strategy to avoid this negative association is simply to deny the existence of an unfair system. DEI professionals encounter this denial in many forms. Leaders may demand proof of systemic inequality and cherry-pick data that appear to disprove its existence. They may emphasize the organization’s core values as evidence that these ideals reflect the current reality. They may point to narratives of individual success as indicators of opportunity and inclusion.

Overcoming resistance at this level requires helping decision-makers to understand that there is a systemic problem. Data collection may be difficult without access to the organization or adequate DEI resources. A focus on awareness education, including using industry case studies, peer benchmarking especially where competitors are making progress on DEI metrics, and employee or exit interview narratives can help to counter denial, creating the possibility for foundational work.

When Strategy Discounts Organizational Culture

A second significant challenge to advancing inclusion in organizations occurs because of strategy design. “D” (i.e., numeric representation) is too often the sole or predominant focus of early DEI efforts. The organization becomes deliberate about increasing demographic diversity but neglects the imperative to create an inclusive culture in which all members of this diverse workforce can thrive. Two interrelated factors often underlie resistance to building inclusion into DEI initiatives: underestimating the importance of organizational culture change and overestimating the difficulty of measuring inclusion.

An organization’s existing culture often acts as a barrier to inclusion. Leaders construct and maintain organizational culture, at its most tangible level, both through formal policies and procedures and through informal norms. These rules and norms block inclusion when they consecrate ways of doing or being that are relatively effortless for (most) people with a dominant identity but that are more effortful, and sometimes unachievable, for a disproportionately high number of people with a historically marginalized identity. For example, “professionalism” norms have long elevated straight, “tamed” hair, requiring investments of time and money, sometimes in physically hazardous processes, for those whose natural hair is textured.

 Without deliberate attention to shifting organizational culture, exclusionary norms persist even as the workforce becomes more diverse.” 

A constellation of exclusionary norms occurs in masculinity contest cultures (MCCs), in which the organization promotes and rewards stereotypically masculine behaviors and traits. Masculinity contest culture is rife in certain “tough” industries, but traits of MCC appear to varying degrees in a wide range of workplaces. Without deliberate attention to shifting organizational culture, exclusionary norms persist even as the workforce becomes more diverse. Resistance flares up as incumbents remark on the “inability” of newcomers to “adapt to our culture” or question the need to change “the way we’ve always done things.”

Reinforcing this resistance to culture change is an inadequate assessment of the impacts of culture on workplace inclusion. Practitioners frequently encounter skepticism that sentiment can be measured as accurately as headcount. Organizations, particularly those less mature in their approach to DEI, often use one basic inclusion metric – such as employee engagement or net promoter score – and frequently report this metric on an aggregate basis (though there is some progress in disaggregating by gender). In a largely homogenous employee population, high measures of engagement may belie shared expectations for conformity even to toxic norms. As the population becomes more heterogeneous, the overall measure may begin to decline as expectations diverge; conformity feels less mutually agreed upon or less possible. Additionally, social identity factors often create significant variation in the way members of the workforce experience the organizational culture. Without precise survey questions to measure drivers of employee sentiment and a breakdown of this data by meaningful identity dimensions, organizations cannot accurately assess whether and how organizational culture hinders inclusion.

Overcoming resistance at this level requires a DEI strategy that incorporates culture change management principles and uses quantitative and qualitative measures of inclusion to identify and address any identity-linked differences in employees’ sense of belonging, commitment, and organizational fairness.

When DEI Leaders’ Needs Go Unmet

Even organizations with transformative DEI strategies may, nevertheless, encounter an often-neglected challenge to advancing inclusion: failure to anticipate and address the effects of the social identities of those tasked with leading the organization’s DEI work. In some cases, DEI professionals do not recognize how their own growth needs thwart full inclusion, and in others, the organization does not adequately support its DEI professionals or protect them from subtle, but insidious resistance dynamics.

Every individual has multiple social identities, some of which are positioned closer to power than others. Some DEI leaders do not acknowledge the ways that their dominant identities (for example, maleness or whiteness) shape their understanding and lived experiences, while other DEI leaders may consciously or unconsciously seek to position themselves as adjacent to power. In either case, these leaders collude in maintaining rather than transforming organizational culture. Practitioners commonly report instances of female DEI leaders with dominant racial identities who focus resources on advancing women’s equity while minimizing the necessity of intersectional approaches and sidelining anti-racism initiatives. Similarly, DEI leaders – sometimes relying on experience from other contexts – may develop programs without seeking or incorporating the input of those whom the program seeks to benefit, a disempowering rather than inclusive process. Social identity power differences can also affect interpersonal interactions. For example, DEI leaders sometimes fail to recognize how homophily shapes their own people decisions. They may exclude potential internal contributors from key projects or decline external service providers because they “do not feel a fit” without being able to articulate a tangible reason for the “disconnect.”

In contrast, DEI leaders with multiple salient social identities that position them farther from power frequently have destabilizing, demoralizing, and dangerous experiences. Organizational leaders do not always recognize their roles in creating the conditions for DEI leaders to succeed. The way organizational leaders introduce the DEI leader can empower or undermine their future work. A focus on social identity instead of credentials and experience can trigger skepticism about the DEI leader’s motives and reactance against DEI initiatives. Organizational leaders who do not inform themselves about the impacts of biases, especially leadership prototypes, on assessments of the DEI leader’s performance may incorrectly accept negative evaluations as objective, with consequences for funding or future employment. When organizational leaders do not enforce collective responsibility and accountability, the DEI leader can become a lightning rod for hostile behaviors and a scapegoat for any disappointing results in progress toward the organization’s DEI objectives.

Overcoming resistance at this level requires supporting DEI leaders. In some cases, that support may mean continuing professional development requirements, such as association with peers from diverse backgrounds, coaching, and other activities that promote expanded awareness and regular self-reflection. In other cases, organizational support may demand unambiguous institutional statements committing to DEI priorities, active and visible allyship to support and champion DEI leaders, and proactive and sincere concern and care for their well-being.

Note: This article develops ideas the author presented in conversation with Zoe Kinias, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and the John F. Wood Chair in Innovation in Business Learning at Ivey Business School, for International Women’s Day 2024.

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