Hiring of diversity and equity chiefs is on upswing
Every movement has its moment.
And now appears to be the moment for diversity, equity and inclusion officers in C-suites, academia and government.
Black Lives Matters protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 broadened awareness of race-based inequities that exist in the United States, including inequality in hiring and job promotions.
And for many companies, that awakening provided an impetus to hire executives tasked with changing culture and increasing diversity and fairness.
Fostering equity is simply good business practice, says Jon G. Muñoz, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at McLean-based Fortune 500 global management firm Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.
“The business case for diversity is clear,” Muñoz says. “For me, it’s not just the right thing to do. It creates a competitive advantage for the company. A company becomes more innovative; it becomes more creative.”
According to a national LinkedIn survey, chief diversity and inclusion officers led C-suite hires for the second year in a row in 2021. As a share of all hires in the C-suite, the hiring of chief diversity and inclusion officers soared 111% during the 12-month period ending Aug. 31, 2021. That surpassed an 84% increase during the previous year.
Virginia has been part of that trend, starting with its own state government. In 2019, Janice Underwood became the first state Cabinet-level DEI officer, tasked with creating the ONE Virginia Plan, a framework for Virginia government agencies and universities to create more inclusive practices.
DEI officers also are being hired across the commonwealth by large companies, universities and other institutions, with the expectation of ushering their organizations into more modern, equitable practices.
In a 2019 analysis of more than 1,000 companies worldwide, McKinsey & Co. reported that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to see above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. Equally compelling, companies in the top quartile with strong ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36% profitability.
Although there are solid economic reasons for increasing diversity, Underwood, who left her position on Jan. 14, says DEI professionals encounter some obstacles in their work.
“Some of the biggest challenges are that people try to do too much at once, and so some of these places with lofty goals, when they don’t achieve them right away, folks get discouraged or allies get disenchanted with the process,” says Underwood, who previously oversaw diversity initiatives at Old Dominion University. “There’s a battle of managing expectations. Inequity was born 402 years ago in this country, and the fact that it is so baked into our systems, it takes a lot to dismantle the inequities. It’s not going to happen in a year or two.”
Complacency and doubt — especially among employees who are wary of joining internal DEI committees — also are problems. Furthermore, some people “put DEI in a box and believe it to be only the DEI professional’s work,” Underwood says, but “it’s everyone’s work.” That includes white people, who are underrepresented in the field, she says, in part because many white professionals feel they may lack the authority needed to champion historically marginalized people.
Underwood says she hopes that belief will change over time, and that a Virginia university will start a dedicated training program for future DEI executives.
In the meantime, companies and other organizations are searching for their own paths toward increasing equity.
The notion of “belonging” also has become a larger part of the vocabulary in the DEI space. Muñoz pairs the term with “inclusion” to tie it to the creation of an environment where employees can bring their “whole selves to the job; they can bring all their identities.”
“I’m gay and Hispanic,” Muñoz says, “and I can feel comfortable in celebrating that and being comfortable with who I am and not being afraid that I’m going to be judged for that. I can focus my energies instead on giving my discretionary effort and focus on my job and have satisfaction and gratification in doing that.”
In May 2019, Booz Allen received a Business of Pride Corporate Award at the Washington Business Journal’s 2019 Business of Pride awards, which recognizes Greater Washington, D.C., companies and business leaders for outstanding practices in advancing LGBTQ+ leadership and equality.
“For us,” Muñoz says, “it’s about helping [employees] understand that we’re aligned with their personal purpose, with their own difference and how they can find a home and a sense of belonging in the firm so that they can have a voice and exercise their talent in a way that’s productive.”
A primary emphasis of DEI efforts at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business is to prepare students for the workplace, says Janice Branch Hall, who became Pamplin’s assistant dean for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in 2019.
“Look at the news,” she says. “There’s usually an issue or matter that’s impacting a business from a cultural standpoint, a social standpoint. It requires a sense of cultural humility.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines cultural humility as “a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities.” Increasingly, work leaders and employees are being asked to confront unconscious biases that affect life at work.
Virginia Tech’s student body is becoming much more culturally diverse, reflecting society as a whole, and that can bring benefits, Hall and others say.
“We know a diverse group of students in the classroom really enhances learning, enhances team dynamics,” says Hall.
According to data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, about 20% of Virginia Tech’s students were people of color in 2012, a percentage that grew to 33% in fall 2021.
Pamplin also is working to diversify its faculty. That’s important, Hall says, because when students “see people who look like them in an organization, it enhances their sense of belonging.”
At Virginia Tech, Hall has led efforts to recruit and retain teaching and research faculty in underrepresented minority groups.
Today, about 19% of Pamplin’s faculty are underrepresented minorities, “which is really great for a top-tier business school,” Hall says, adding that more recruitment work is needed.
The market for diverse faculty is highly competitive, and other institutions are after prized candidates as well, says Hall, the first Black woman to reach the level of dean at Virginia Tech.
Universities, both nationally and within Virginia, have nowhere to go but up in terms of hiring more diverse full-time faculty members, who are for the most part white or Asian, according to a report released last year from The Chronicle of Higher Education focusing on 2019 demographics at more than 3,000 higher education institutions.
At Virginia Tech, only 3.3% of all faculty were Black and 3.4% were Hispanic in 2019, the study shows. Percentages of Black and Hispanic faculty at most of the state’s other large, public universities were similarly low.
Notable exceptions are Virginia’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Norfolk State and Virginia Union universities, where Black professors make up more than half of full-time faculty.
A culture shift
One of the biggest revenue producers for state government, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (Virginia ABC) also is trying to up its DEI game.
In 2019, the ABC transitioned from a state agency to an authority, like the Virginia Lottery, enabling it to operate more like a business.
In 2021, the ABC hired Elizabeth Chu as its first chief transformation officer, overseeing project management and business transformation, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion.
“This is the first time we’re standing up a specific office for diversity, equity and inclusion,” Chu says. “We are currently in the process of conducting our first engagement and inclusion survey. We have to create relationships to ensure our projects are successful, [that] change is successful.”
State government relies on Virginia ABC as a major source of revenue, and legislators are likely to keep a close watch on the authority as it evolves. Over the past five years, Virginia ABC has contributed more than $2.6 billion to the general fund.
“The more focus we have on employee engagement and inclusivity and belonging, the more that we’ll be able to attract talent,” says Chu, who’s worked for Deloitte, Global Lead Management Consulting and Thought Logic LLC.
She points to a recent business article on “The Great Resignation.”
“Employers thought people were leaving because they were not getting paid enough. That was part of it,” Chu says. “But for employees, it was really about the culture of the organization. … It was so much more than pay and title.
“Employees and talents are just being much more careful about companies and where they decide to work,” she adds. “I think it’s a generational shift, but I also think it is a broader shift.”
Maria Pia Tamburri, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Richmond-based Fortune 500 utility Dominion Energy Inc., believes that the appointment of DEI officers in corporate America is not just a temporary response to recent societal events.
According to Dominion’s first public DEI report, released in November 2021, Dominion’s workforce grew in racial and gender diversity by 13.4% between 2016 and 2020, with women and nonwhite employees making up 49.6% of all hires in 2020.
“It’s a permanent change that will continue to grow,” Tamburri says. “Companies with strong DE&I cultures will outperform their rivals over time, leading to broader adoption of DE&I programs one way or the other.”
Recognition that increasing equity and diversity is both good business and an ethical obligation is growing among businesses, she adds: “Companies that ignore DE&I will look increasingly out of step with the times, and will suffer for it.”
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority recently named 21-year airport veteran Tanisha Lewis as its first vice president of diversity, inclusion and social impact.
“In the past, diversity was your outside, what you looked like, the color of your skin, how you sounded — your accent — or your gender,” Lewis says. “Now, it includes things like who you love, your LGBTQ status. It also includes your religion. It also includes your background and experience. … Diversity has broadened significantly.”
Lewis says that change typically is accompanied by resistance to change, and she expects that may also be the case as MWAA unrolls its diversity efforts.
“First, we have to acknowledge that the conversation around diversity is a tough conversation,” Lewis says. “It’s about who you are and protecting who you are. But if you have the support of your leadership, you can have that conversation, you’re much more successful.”
Deputy Editor Kate Andrews contributed to this story. See more of Virginia Business’ Black business leaders issue.