Jan 10, 2024 - Business

Executives say they're still committed to DEI, new survey finds

Illustration of a pattern of briefcases in different skintones.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Executives remain committed to DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — despite a rising backlash against it, per a survey released Wednesday.

Why it matters: The survey's results come as the anti-DEI noise is getting louder.

Zoom in: 57% of 322 U.S. execs surveyed in November 2023 by the employment law firm Littler said their organizations have expanded their DEI programs over the past year. And 36% have maintained them.

  • At the same time, 59% of execs, a mix of chief legal officers, chief diversity officers, chief people officers and other c-level folks, said they believe backlash towards these efforts has increased since the Supreme Court's June decision that race couldn't be used as an explicit factor in university admissions.

Catch up fast: The court's ruling wasn't about employers, but in its wake companies grew anxious that any programs that take race into account would be vulnerable to litigation.

  • And since then, activists have filed so-called reverse discrimination lawsuits against law firms for their minority fellowship programs.
  • There's also ongoing litigation — filed by the same group behind the Supreme Court affirmative action case — over the Fearless Fund, a VC firm that focuses on Black women.

What's happening: For the most part, instead of panicking and getting rid of programs, companies are auditing their initiatives to ensure there are no legal risks, said Jeanine Conley Daves, a shareholder at Littler.

Yes, but: 6% of respondents to the Littler survey said they decreased their DEI efforts since 2022.

  • Asked why they cut back, half cited concerns about legal liability and litigation, including reverse discrimination lawsuits. 44% pointed to reduced DEI budgets. 28% cited the Supreme Court decision. (Respondents could cite multiple reasons.)

The bottom line: For now, corporate America still likes DEI. These programs have become an important part of employee relations and talent strategies for companies, Littler points out.

What to watch: The moniker DEI itself. Littler, for its part, uses the term IE&D — inclusion, equity and diversity — to reflect its prioritization of inclusion. We wouldn't be surprised to see more companies move away from the old term, too.

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