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Tina Casey headshot

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Are Still Winning Despite Pushback

It may seem that the corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) movement is retrenching, but regathering is a more accurate assessment. A strong DEI profile is essential for businesses to thrive and grow today.
By Tina Casey
A person typing on a laptop.

(Image: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)

Following a wave of high-profile criticism and new state legislation targeting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, it may seem that the corporate DEI movement is retrenching. But regathering would be a more accurate assessment. In this day and age of labor shortages, a strong DEI profile is all the more essential for businesses to thrive and grow. 

DEI is good for business 

So far, much of the media attention has focused on state-based legislation that bans DEI programs from public schools and universities. Florida is the most notorious epicenter of such activity, though bills in Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and both of the Dakotas have also been signed into law, with many more in the pipeline, according to the online education tracker BestColleges.

In contrast, the private sector is relatively untouched, enabling businesses to continue their DEI practices without interference, for the most part.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) provides a good example of private-sector momentum on DEI. The trade organization represents one of the fastest-growing sectors of the United States’ economy. They are keenly aware of the need to attract, cultivate and retain enough workers to keep supporting that growth.

“Prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) programming is the path forward to helping the solar and storage industry achieve its goals,” wrote Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of SEIA, and Erika Symmonds, vice president of equity and workforce development at the association, in a blog post

“It’s how we spread wealth, deliver upward mobility, and ensure that the workplace support systems we put in place are fully embraced and elevated in tandem with our industry’s growth,” they added. “It’s also how we attract and retain the top talent we need to become the dominant energy source in our economy … A company’s workforce is its most powerful asset. As companies seek to increase profit and reduce turnover, well-executed diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are great for business and great for our industry.”

Amplifying the DEI effect

SEIA also demonstrates how trade organizations can educate and support their members, helping to amplify DEI messages about workforce development. The organization launched a DEIJ Certification program three years ago, and so far the program has enlisted 52 participants across the solar industry spectrum, including SEIA itself as well as developers, manufacturers, financiers and service providers.

The program includes an assessment step, a communications plan, a mentorship program and training for hiring managers. Since launching, the program has also expanded in response to emerging needs.

“This includes new modules on mentorship, LGTBQ+ inclusion in the workplace, creating inclusive spaces, and strategies for attracting, hiring, and retaining military veterans and spouses,” Hopper and Symmonds wrote.

“In addition, all 52 organizations report that they are working directly with the frontline communities impacted by energy development and have either created a process or are working on a process to collect feedback from impacted communities,” they reported. “Inclusion assessments, feedback processes, and mentorship programs … help boost retention and generate a more inclusive culture. As these programs expand, participating companies will see the benefits and become more competitive when they’re trying to hire top talent.” 

Vigilance needed to preserve DEI progress

Although private-sector action on DEI has been relatively free from partisan political interference, cracks in the shield have appeared.

In 2020, former U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning DEI programs among federal agencies, a policy that also impacted private sector contractors and grant recipients. The order was later rescinded by President Joe Biden. However, it served as the inspiration for Florida’s new “Stop WOKE” legislation, which prohibits employers from enrolling their workers in DEI programs. The Florida law seems unlikely to survive a First Amendment challenge, though it could nevertheless inspire copycat bills elsewhere.

Another form of attack on corporate DEI initiatives appears in the torrent of state-based legislation aimed at criminalizing transgender existence and reproductive health care, to the extent that they impact corporate health plans and other aspects of employee relations.

Influencers continue to influence against DEI

More broadly, the persistent influence of former President Trump on the U.S. political landscape all but guarantees the anti-DEI movement will continue to wield power over state legislation in the coming years. Trump may or may not survive as a political force past the 2024 election cycle, but the anti-DEI torch was also taken up and amplified by other influential private-sector figures. 

Most notably that includes Tesla investor and CEO Elon Musk, whose views on DEI attracted renewed attention after he purchased the social media site Twitter, now known as X, in 2022. Tesla’s latest 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission omitted all references to minority inclusion, a break with the company’s past practice, according to Bloomberg Law.

Musk also posted anti-DEI statements on social media, such as a December 2023 post in which he stated, “DEI must DIE. The point was to end discrimination, not replace it with different discrimination.”

In other words, programs that support inclusion and diversity are somehow unfair to, well, everyone. If that sounds like a weak argument, it is. And most of corporate America is ignoring it.

The latest example of corporate indifference to the “different discrimination” argument comes from a new national survey of senior executives in companies with more than 1,000 employees by the research organization Public Private Strategies Institute.

The survey reveals “a strong consensus across political affiliations that diversity initiatives are critical for business strategies, create significant value, and will become increasingly important,” according to the institute. “Business leaders across the board see diversity initiatives as very important for their business strategy and expect it will become more important in the coming years.” 

“With 82 percent of executives indicating that diversity initiatives are critical for their business strategies, the connection between business diversity and business success is undeniable,” Tammy Halevy, executive director of the institute’s Reimagine Main Street program, said of the survey. “It’s not just about being on the right side of public opinion, but on the right side of growth, innovation, and performance in a rapidly evolving business landscape.”

Staying the DEI course has been a winning business strategy, partisan politics or not. However, the background chatter against DEI is all but certain to gather steam in the run-up to the 2024 Election Day. Business leaders will need to push back more aggressively in order to ensure that their workforce keeps thriving and growing into the future.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey