Rising backlash against "woke" policies and ideologies has spread into corporate America over recent months, as a subset of right-wing politicians and pundits set their sights on environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations in business.
Adding more confusion to the discourse, no one really knows what "woke" means in the context of these critiques — not even the critics. For example, the author of a new "anti-woke" book, focused on how LGBTQ and gender equity policies are poisoning America's youth, went viral earlier this month when she couldn't define the term on a live broadcast with Briahna Joy Gray of The Hill.
With no clear agreement on what characterizes an idea or position as "woke" or "anti-woke," the term is fast becoming a catch-all that can include everything and anything, provided it's something a given speaker doesn't like. In finance, for example, critics have used the term to decry ESG screens like climate risk being used in investment decisions, saying they unfairly disadvantage fossil fuel interests. On the social side of things, some have criticized corporate efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The most recent examples include anti-woke crusaders erroneously blaming DEI "distractions" for everything from the Ohio train derailment to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.
With critics growing louder and the "woke" target constantly on the move, some business leaders are getting nervous, saying they've changed the way they talk about ESG and DEI issues to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
But they may want to rest easy, as recent polling shows the anti-woke campaign isn't really catching on among the public. The latest evidence comes from survey results released this week by the nonpartisan research institute NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding from the Wall Street Journal.
While Wall Street Journal editor Aaron Zitner framed the findings as evidence that Americans have departed from once-cherished values like "patriotism and religion," the dataset has more to say — particularly around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
For example, on “businesses taking steps to promote racial and ethnic diversity,” 70 percent of respondents said U.S. society “has been about right” or “has not gone far enough,” while 28 percent feel it has "gone too far," according to responses gathered earlier this month.
Likewise, less than a third of respondents feel the the U.S. has "gone too far" with respect to schools and universities promoting diversity. Only 12 percent chose the "gone too far" option with respect to promoting equality between men and women, while 29 percent said the same about "accepting people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual" and 43 percent said the same about "accepting people who are transgender."
Zitner of the Journal discussed how these responses break down across party lines, information that is not available in the public dataset, and his reporting does reveal a partisan divide. For example, just over half of Republicans said society has "gone too far" with respect to businesses promoting diversity, compared to 7 percent of Democrats. More than 60 percent of Democrats said diversity efforts haven’t gone far enough, compared to 14 percent of Republicans.
Self-proclaimed Republicans were also more likely to say society has "gone too far" in accepting LGBTQ people and promoting gender equity, compared to 15 percent or less of self-proclaimed Democrats, with Independents falling in between.
While these findings reflect different mindsets across the political aisle, they hardly represent a vast sea change away from DEI issues. Even as right-wing politicians and pundits continue to hammer the "anti-woke" point home, the NORC poll results indicate only about half of Republican voters feel strongly about DEI having gone too far. If the apparent target audience is split on the issues anti-woke campaigners are promoting, while others disapprove or are ambivalent, that's far from a desired outcome.
This information on public sentiment confirms market research released last week by Just Capital, which indicates that companies following best-practice diversity disclosures outperformed those that didn’t by 7.9 percent over the trailing one-year period ending in 2022. In an associated public poll, 92 percent of U.S. adults said it is important for companies to promote racial equity in the workplace.
"It is always unwise to take any single poll as gospel," Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson pointed out in his commentary on the research. "That said, the NORC survey is worth paying attention to because it appears to confirm what we see and hear all around us: Attitudes and language evolve. Americans my age remember a time, for example, when the LGBTQ community was widely shunned and closeted. My grandchildren, when they reach voting age, will wonder why people ever thought sexual orientation or gender identity was such a big deal."
The NORC findings also build on another effort to assess if and how companies should align with social and environmental issues given anti-woke and anti-ESG pushback.
Conducted by Just Capital in partnership with Omidyar Network, the Ford Foundation and the Harris Poll, the qualitative research included eight U.S. focus group discussions broken into Republican, Democrat, Independent and young Americans (ages 18 to 24).
Across the board, respondents supported businesses serving all of their stakeholders, including employees, customers, communities and the environment, rather than solely their shareholders, according to the findings released last month. Respondents across party lines also indicated they support ESG screens to reduce investment risk, even if they don't call it ESG or aren't familiar with the term.
The findings are compelling, but the focus groups were conducted in December 2022. That seems like a world away in the context of the 24-hour news cycle and rising political noise ahead of the 2024 presidential election, leaving many who read the results in February to question whether people still felt that way or if the steady anti-woke drumbeat was starting to change their minds.
NORC's more recent research points to that not being the case — at least not substantially. And again, it builds on and supports what others have found. In another poll released last month by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership in Virginia, for example, a majority of respondents across party lines said they support public schools teaching how racism impacts American society and oppose a ban on Critical Race Theory, even as CRT has drawn particular ire from the anti-woke set.
"Some commentators, focusing on the poll’s findings about patriotism, religious observance and our national 'character,' have suggested they see a retreat from what defines Americans," wrote Robinson of the Washington Post. "But to me, the NORC poll shows Americans advancing in the right direction, toward inclusion rather than exclusion. It says most Americans don’t believe they’re living in a dystopia of 'wokeism.' They’re just living in the here and now — not in the discriminatory, exclusionary past."
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.