Following the Supreme Court banning affirmative action in the college admissions process, business leaders across the country have been grappling with what this ruling could mean for their diversity efforts going forward.
The decision may make it more challenging for companies to recruit a diverse pool of young employees, as fewer students of color could receive offers at top colleges. And, some companies are already seeing how their corporate diversity initiatives might be on the chopping block, too. Prior to the June 29 ruling, dozens of employers, including Amazon, Starbucks, and Comcast, said they had received letters and lawsuits from legal activists warning them to adhere to laws that prohibit racial quotas and preferences in contracting and employment decisions. Now, many employers are wondering how they should move forward with their diversity initiatives and if any modifications are needed to succeed.
“Whatever [diversity] commitments you had, you need to step up and make sure that you galvanize those and that you follow through on those at all costs,” says Crystal Lynese Walker, Senior Director of Racial Equity at Management Leadership for Tomorrow.
In a conversation with Chief Members, Walker, along with Sally Chen, Education Equity Policy Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action, and Dr. N.J. Akbar, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at American Civil Liberties Union, explains how leaders can reaffirm their diversity efforts today to really move the needle forward on achieving workplace equity.
“DEI should not be a standalone vertical,” says Walker. “It is much harder to tear down progress when that plan is strategic and rigorous and it is everywhere.” To do this, Walker says leaders should re-evaluate their DEI work to ensure that it isn’t a one-off exercise, but rather an ongoing effort that is present at every level and department of their organization. And, she says leaders should partner with organizations such as MLT, ACLU, and CAA that are doing the work in this space to help amplify their diversity initiatives and ensure they are effective.
In 2020, Walker says we saw first-hand how employers were making bold DEI commitments that, over time, they didn’t follow through on. That’s why, she says it’s imperative that this time around, leaders don’t let their commitments fall by the wayside and that they actually back up their talk and intentions with real action.
In addition to following through on your diversity commitments, Dr. Akbar says leaders should also move past merely checking off a box when looking at their DEI progress. To truly advance equity at work, he says leaders should look at their culture and pay close attention to any barriers that make the organization not as welcoming or that cause unintended harm to marginalized employees.
“Some of these barriers are very visible, but many of them are very invisible and the harm is there nonetheless,” he says. To address this, he advises leaders to “utilize the staff that you have and believe them when they share their experiences and honestly take stock of implementing the ideas that they have to cultivate a more inclusive and equitable workplace.”
This means, he adds, “that you have to rebuff and resist the call to eliminate and retreat from this necessary work… and that you have to actually believe individuals of color when they tell you about their experience.”
Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, it’s inevitable that the pipeline of talent entering corporate America will become less diverse if leaders don’t make adjustments to their recruitment strategies. That’s why, Chen says it’s important for HR executives to look beyond the Ivy League and big name schools when seeking new talent. To expand their scope, they should also look at community colleges, public state schools, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities for new hires.
“Even though public narrative or mainstream media focuses on the idea of Asian American students tied up with the Ivy League, close to half of all Asian Americans attending higher education are in community college,” says Chen. “So when you think about where people are actually getting knowledge training, talent is everywhere but opportunities are not. So when you are evaluating your partnerships, or your hiring, or even contracting and things like that, I would really advocate that you look locally and think about where the communities you want to work with are. And what are the assumptions that you're bringing about where you will find that talent, that experience, and that perspective?”
While it’s widely assumed that affirmative action is solely geared towards achieving racial equity, Walker explains that when the term was first coined in the 1950s, it was aimed to ensure that no one could be discriminated against based on race or gender. “And what that means,” she says, “is that [this ruling] is ultimately going to hurt White women as well, and all of us that are in these isms or that have some level of intersectionality.” Therefore, she says, when we talk about the need to step up DEI efforts following the Supreme Court’s ruling, we need to make it clear that the work and progress we make around these efforts will “impact everyone."
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