Affirmative Action Reversal: The Future of Corporate Inclusion Efforts

November 20, 2023
6 minutes

In today's corporate world, especially tech-driven spaces, it's crucial to emphasize that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are key drivers of business success, even if not all leaders fully acknowledge its significance. As we find ourselves at the crossroads of the post-affirmative action era, many organizations are contemplating their next steps in their pursuit of workplaces that represent the broader society in an authentic manner.

Over time, affirmative action in the workplace has faced opposition, with critics advocating for prioritizing hiring based on 'merit' while denouncing what they view as companies merely fulfilling 'racial quotas.' We'll revisit the concept of ‘meritocracy’ later and its associated challenges. 

What we’ll explore—

In our exploration of strategies for employers to uphold their DEI commitments within the confines of legal boundaries, it's crucial to grasp why the recent overturning of affirmative action in the education sector, which took place in June 2023, has sparked concerns regarding its potential ramifications on corporate institutions. 

As we explore this complex landscape, our aim is to shed light on the uncertainties organizations face, especially the question: “What are the rules right now for building a diverse workforce?” 

To gain a comprehensive view, let's set the stage and explore the current state of the evolving DEI ecosystem—

Why are DEI roles and initiatives disappearing?

The wave of layoffs that began in late 2022 and extended into 2023 sent shockwaves of uncertainty through various industries. Inflation, supply chain disruptions, geopolitical issues, and economic instability played significant roles in slowing down revenue growth for tech companies, particularly those that experienced substantial hiring surges during global lockdown periods. Amid ongoing layoffs and rising competition within industries, tech employees and job seekers remain watchful.

Globally we witnessed a sharp decline in DEI roles, which were among the first to be significantly impacted in the tech job market. This has raised doubts among observers about whether the commitment demonstrated by corporate leaders nearly three years ago during the George Floyd era to enhance workforce diversity was sincere or merely a reactive measure for reputation management.

A stark shift in corporate priorities has DEI experts contemplating whether certain organizations, seemingly oblivious to the long-term effects on their bottom line, have downgraded DEI initiatives to a status of mere "nice-to-haves." For organizations opting to defund or discontinue these departments or programs, there may be challenges in recruiting candidates from socially marginalized groups and understanding the needs of a diverse customer base. 

In some instances, companies have gone to the extent of completely dismantling these causes, effectively deprioritizing accessibility, equity, and inclusion efforts! This highlights the potential recruitment challenges and underscores the importance of careful consideration to prevent unaddressed bias in the workplace.

Christie Lindor, a diversity strategist and CEO of Tessi Consulting, stated, "In 2020 a lot of organizations reacted to the market, reacted to social events taking place without really having a clear understanding of what DEI is and how it should be enabled in business." Source: ABC News 
According to Khorri Atkinson, Senior Labor & Employment Reporter at Bloomberg, "Workplace diversity and inclusion efforts adopted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and ensuing protests are fading as sweeping layoffs blunt companies’ bold commitments to boost underrepresented groups in their C-suites and ranks." Source: Bloomberg Law
Brit Levy, a former DEI employee who was laid off from Meta, emphasized, "If we don't have employees that understand people of different cultures, different backgrounds – companies are going to find themselves losing good employees to discriminatory practices." Source: ABC News

Who remains in DEI roles and why does it matter? 

The demographic makeup of the individuals still holding DEI positions has raised red flags, with specific groups being disproportionately affected in these managerial roles. Curtis Bunn, a journalist at NBC News, reported in February 2023, that "Diversity officers hired in 2020 are losing their jobs, and the ones who remain are mostly white." 

In line with this, Kelsey Butler, an Equality Reporter at Bloomberg, highlighted that "Companies that made promises to hire more underrepresented groups are dismantling departments meant to achieve those goals." Notably, diversity statistics frequently consolidate all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) into a single category, making it challenging to discern precise distinctions among different sub-identities.

To move forward successfully, it's imperative to conduct a thorough re-evaluation of talent acquisition procedures, with a specific focus on eradicating internal biases, particularly addressing affinity and likeability bias. In a Harvard Business Review article, author N. Chloé Nwangwu points out, "Whether or not it is consciously done, individuals in positions of privilege are still conditioned not to acknowledge or reciprocate the contributions of people of color and women."

Circling back to the concept of 'meritocracy,’ it's important that we approach it with caution! As often pointed out by Blair Imani in her work "Read This To Get Smarter: Race, Class, Gender, Disability, and more,” the idea of meritocracy can inadvertently heighten societal inequities and inequalities. It's critical to recognize that true meritocracy should be based on a level playing field that prevents the perpetuation of systemic prejudices like racism, ableism, sexism, or classism and other “systems of oppression.”

The Legacy of Affirmative Action

Let’s delve into the following aspects:

  • Historical context of affirmative action: beneficiaries and criticisms.
  • Overturning of affirmative action: exploring both sides of the coin.
  • Evolving perspectives on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

What is Affirmative Action?

In its simplest definition, Affirmative Action, a policy established in the U.S., is a set of practices and procedures designed to rectify historical and systematic discrimination, particularly against marginalized groups. 

"Affirmative action refers to any set of policies in place to ensure equal opportunity and prevent discrimination based on a broad range of identities, including race, sex, gender, religion, national origin and disability. Originally introduced on a large scale in the 1960s to address racial discrimination, affirmative action policies typically appear in employment and education contexts." Source: CBS News 

It comes in two distinct forms:

1. Mandatory Affirmative Action: These are government-mandated actions, often required of federal contractors, to actively promote diversity and inclusion in their workforce.

2. Voluntary Affirmative Action: Organizations may voluntarily adopt DEI measures to level the playing field in their workplaces.

Why Was Affirmative Action Overturned?

The Supreme Court's decision to terminate race-conscious admissions in higher education through ending affirmative action was rooted in the belief that it was constitutionally questionable within the domain of education, sparking concerns about its potential effects on workplace practices later in the future.

Affirmative Action Beyond Race: A Multifaceted Approach 

Affirmative action expanded beyond the boundaries of race to combat prejudice experienced by historically marginalized groups, considering the intersectional aspects of identity. Its primary goal was to rectify disparities, remove barriers, and promote fairness, all with the objective of establishing an equitable environment for all individuals in the hiring pipeline.

“People often associate affirmative action with efforts to end discrimination for people of color. But scholars say the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action policies are white women, from college campuses to the American workplace”. Reporter, Jessica Guynn, USA Today 

“Advancing racial equity is not about extending special treatment for certain groups; it’s about ending it. Erika Irish Brown, who heads up diversity, equity and inclusion for Citigroup, put it this way: “Very often we can't even see the opportunities, let alone access them to even compete for them. It’s about creating a system based on true meritocracy, not just privilege or access.” - Jared Council Forbes Staff, Forbes 

Three common misconceptions about affirmative action:

Misconception 1 - Reverse Discrimination:

  • Common Misunderstanding: Some people believe that affirmative action constitutes "reverse discrimination," indicating that it discriminates against white individuals.
  • Reality: Affirmative action is designed to promote fairness and equal opportunity without discriminating against any particular group.
  • Myths Debunked: Contrary to a widespread belief that affirmative action was discriminatory against white people, its purpose was to tackle historical imbalances and foster equitable opportunities for individuals of diverse protected characteristics.

Misconception 2 - Lowering Standards: 

  • Common Misconception: Some individuals believe that affirmative action results in a lowering of standards, permitting unqualified individuals to obtain opportunities.
  • Reality: Affirmative action provides opportunities to exceptionally qualified candidates who have been historically excluded due to systemic biases.
  • Myths Debunked: Contrary to the misconception, affirmative action neither compromises nor lowers standards; instead, it aims to create access to a level playing field for well-qualified individuals who have faced barriers and biases in the past.

Misconception 3 - Quotas and Affirmative Action:

  • Common Misconception: Affirmative action is often associated with quotas, implying that it enforces rigid numerical targets.
  • Reality: Affirmative action primarily emphasizes holistic evaluation and the promotion of diversity, focusing on creating inclusive and equitable environments.
  • Myths Debunked: While some may confuse affirmative action with quotas, the key goal of these programs is to consider a wide range of factors and create inclusive environments. It does not solely rely on strict numerical objectives but seeks to foster diversity and inclusion through comprehensive assessment.

Cause for Cautious Concern?

Navigating the aftermath of the decision poses a challenge for employers as there are no clearly defined guidelines to follow for sectors outside academia. In this evolving legal landscape, some lawyers have attempted to weigh in with their speculations and predictions. Industry leaders across the board are closely monitoring the ripple effects of the Supreme Court's ruling, particularly the broader impacts of this decision on workplaces.

A significant focus has been placed on race-based affirmative action, while gender-based affirmative action often remains intentionally overlooked, leaving room for racial privilege to be disregarded. This grey area highlights the importance of addressing both gender and racial disparities in DEI strategies, ensuring that they do not uphold white supremacy. 

Organizational efforts must involve an in-depth analysis of these disparities, emphasizing the significance of tackling unconscious biases, including affinity bias, for fair hiring and promotion practices.

While the challenges of the post-affirmative action era loom on the horizon, maintaining a commitment to fairness and equity in workforce development, including recruitment, career advancement, and retention, will be more essential than ever.

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