I confess. I do not recall many conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) until the past two years. Looking back on my thirty years as an Army officer—during which time I served both overseas and stateside, including stints in the Pentagon, combat zones, and the White House—as well as my following career as a senior executive at the Department of Homeland Security, I only remember having discussions about diversity.
Did I miss anything? I did. I missed the ideas behind DEI and the potential results of adopting a DEI-focused strategy—but I also missed the risks. Not the risks of embracing DEI, but the risks of its commoditization, the risks of turning it into a zero-sum approach, and the risks associated with the watering down of its potential.
Now, as I catch up on these conversations—and hold conversations of my own—one thing has become clear: there is a way to minimize all of those aforementioned risks, but it requires us to ask hard questions, look deep within ourselves, and come to a clear consensus about the exact goals we are all working toward.
Diversity and Data
We are a data-crazed society. I have seen countless statistics and numbers used to demonstrate the lack of diversity in the business world, from entry-level positions all the way to the corporate boardroom. But what are the metrics for success? What will it look like when we have “achieved” diversity? And when we do, what needs to happen then?
When I ask DEI practitioners these questions, I often get a puzzled look. I end up offering the demographic percentages of the nation, and they claim that metric. “Hispanics are 19 percent of the nation, and we will hit the mark when 19 percent of CEOs, board members, senior executives, and the like are Hispanic.”
Does the same metric apply to equity and inclusion? Do we use a similar metric for Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander professionals? What happened to Native Americans? As we define people by their chromosomes, how are we leveraging the cognitive and experiential diversity of people? Furthermore, do we understand the barriers to growth and opportunities for all people across our organizations? Perhaps acknowledging and then removing those barriers would be better indicators of DEI and overall organizational health than tracking the representation of specific demographics or populations.
Of course, there are more data points to consider than just the statistics associated with diversity and representation. In the past two years, we have seen a surge in DEI positions and entities across corporate America. Some reports claim that DEI-related job postings increased by over 120 percent in 2020 alone. But does that in and of itself make 2020 a year of reckoning?
Once again, we must ask ourselves what the goal is, what the true measure of success should be. Is it merely an increase in DEI-related postings and organizations? Or should we also be measuring how many chief diversity officers (if any) have ever been promoted to CEO? What would it signal, if any such promotions did occur?
How does a chief diversity officer position, or that of a vice president of diversity and inclusion, align with vice presidents of finance, operations, or marketing? How deeply—and how organically—does a company’s strategy integrate DEI as an enduring function and business imperative? What metrics can we point to in our evaluations of whether that is the case?
The Problem of “Us” vs. “Them”
One of the ongoing challenges associated with the current DEI narrative are the generalizations of people and demographics that, more often than not, only lead to more division. There are of course many Black Latinos and Asian Latinos, but there are also white Latinos—yet white people are often called out as the “culprit.” Does that include white Latinos?
Those are the kinds of complications that arise when we engage in zero-sum, “us vs. them” narratives. Not all white Americans (of various ethnicities) are the “culprit”—we all have bias, we all subscribe to stereotypes, we all engage in prejudicial feelings, and some of us engage in discrimination. We must stop attributing people to behaviors and instead attribute behaviors to people. Because unfortunately, as my son Daniel reminded me once, “We often judge others by the worst among them.”
We can and must do better. After talking with leaders and employees working in corporate America, within the government, and in school systems, I have become keenly aware that many people are struggling with DEI and, in some cases, its mandates. They are victims of the fact that we have not taken the time to work through the questions I introduce in this article—as well as the many, many other questions not detailed here.
DEI must go beyond quantitative outcomes. There is no “end state” to achieve but rather beliefs to embrace as organic components of our leadership and business strategies. Because that is the essence of DEI—the drive to improve the human condition and build the best teams possible. But whether you agree or disagree with me, we must engage in these conversations—and find clear answers that will carry us all forward, together.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Hispanic Executive or Guerrero Media.
Jeff Marquez, founder of Marquez Leadership, Culture & Strategy LLC, works with business, government, and nonprofit leaders who want to lead as their best selves, build a winning team, and succeed sustainably. A retired Army officer and former senior executive with the federal government, Marquez served on the National Security Council as the director of continuity policy and acting senior director for response policy. He led the team that developed the successful US drawdown from Iraq in 2011. In Hawaii, he led the transformation of United States Army forces in the Pacific. He also served as a chief of staff in the federal government. He has led continuity and infectious disease planning actions across the last two administrations.