It took decades for corporations to figure out that a diverse workforce is good for business.
When equal employment laws and affirmative action surfaced in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights movement, the pace of change was glacial. Sixty years later, along came #MeToo and the murder of George Floyd, to jump start what is known today as Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
In just the last year, the number of women running Fortune 500 companies grew by 18 percent, to 52 from 44 a year ago, according to Fortune. Black CEOs running the largest companies doubled in the last year to eight, up from four. The number of Blacks and women joining boards of directors has also shot up.
My first reaction to conservatives attacking corporate diversity programs, which they define as “woke”, after the June Supreme Court decision gutted academic affirmative action was one of despair and exhaustion. To go backwards now after decades of hard work by so many people is unacceptable. Like many women, I graduated from college (in 1979), expecting fair treatment to be smooth sailing, only to have to fight repeatedly for promotions and equal pay for myself and others.
What century is Will Hild, director of one right-wing advocacy group, living in when he predicts the Supreme Court ruling “will put the wind in the sails of groups like ours, who want to get the woke, racially based hiring and promotion schemes out of corporate America.”
And what about Stephen Miller, former advisor to President Trump, who called such programs “illegal?” His “anti-woke” organization, America First Legal, has targeted McDonald’s, Hershey’s, Alaska Airlines, Anheuser-Busch, and Nordstrom, alleging that diversity initiatives at companies are discriminatory, illegal and symptomatic of “wokeness” run amok.
I took it as a good sign when last week one of the first court rulings in the in the anti-woke campaign validated Starbucks’ DEI program.
“The courts of law have no business involving themselves with legitimate and legal decisions made by the board of directors of public corporations,” wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian of Spokane, Washington. “If the plaintiff doesn’t want to be invested in ‘woke’ corporate America, perhaps it should seek other investment opportunities rather than wasting this court’s time.”
Honestly, it’s hard to understand why conservatives, who are typically pro-business, want to get in the way of progress. Diverse workplaces are a positive force because they deepen the talent pool and bring in far more innovative thinking. McKinsey data show that “the business case for gender equality, diversity, and inclusion is strong and growing.”
In addition, the popularity of the anti-woke crusade is starting to fade. Presidential candidate Ron De Santis, tried to harness the culture wars to drive his campaign, but hasn’t been able to win over Republican voters with it. His support has slipped in the latest Iowa poll to 19% from 40% of republican voters. And only 24% of Republicans in the New York Times/Sienna College poll said they favored a candidate running on law and order over anti woke.
“Woke is where DeSantis’ campaign went to die,” Republican former Rep. Barbara Comstock told the nonprofit independent news organization The 19th.
The Wall Street Journal reports that investment funds that oppose setting standards for Environmental Societal and Governance (ESG) are suffering because investors have little idea what the term “anti woke” means in a practical sense. While relatively new, as of June 30, a group of 27 funds identified by Morningstar as anti-ESG had total assets under management of $2.42 billion. (Three have recently liquidated or announced plans to liquidate.) Meanwhile, funds that go the opposite route—and make ESG a big part of their strategy—control $313.4 billion.
In spite of the evidence supporting DEI, companies and states are bracing for a wave of frivolous litigation attacking their diversity programs.
Conservative attorneys general in 13 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia) have warned CEOs of “serious legal consequences” if companies pursue race-based employment preferences and diversity policies.
On the business side, attorneys general from 21 states (Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, NY, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) called their colleagues’ letter an “intimidation” tactic and “alarming, coming from state attorneys general who should be champions of civil rights and racial progress.”
“We write to reassure you that corporate efforts to recruit diverse workforces and create inclusive work should double-down on diversity-focused programs because there is still much more work to be done,” these attorneys general wrote.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also assured employers that it is legal to implement DEI programs that seek to ensure workers of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunity in the workplace.
There will always be people who complain that they deserved to get a job that went to somebody else. Sometimes justly so. But the solution is not to split the country and turn back the clock against entire groups of talented potential employees based on race and gender. If companies do, outrage from the woke will be undoubtably more powerful than what the anti-woke crowd has had to say.
We’ve just come too far. And we have too far to go.