Over the past several years, organizations have been placing a greater emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 only heightened the need for employers to improve their efforts, though many received backlash for doing little more than issuing vague statements. Against this backdrop, some workers—from entry-level employees all the way to the C-suite—are eyeing careers in DE&I with great interest.
However, many leaders in this space are quickly finding out that pioneering this emerging field is a tall order and are quickly getting burned out.
Transitioning to DE&I
With employers paying more attention to diversity efforts, workers who were not previously involved in this space have pursued DE&I professionally. Some are undergoing entire career changes while others are absorbing it into their current roles.
Stephanie Storvik, an HR student at Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Wash., has recently begun making a career transition into the DE&I space. She earned her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies at Washington State in Pullman, Wash., in 1999 and has spent the past two decades in the hospitality industry. The events of 2020 and the changing conversation around diversity and inclusion prompted her to make a move. “I really wanted to kind of get back to a place where I could be making real change in organizations,” she said.
Storvik’s goal is to merge her gender studies background, her eventual HR degree and her work experience to change the hospitality industry as a whole. She noted that systemic racism, sexism and classism is rampant across all industries, but she’s seen firsthand how prevalent these problems have been in the hospitality sector. “Not only does that industry need to pivot and change, which we have been over the last year and a half or so, but it needs to continue to change,” she said. “I want to figure out how to really make it a fair and inspirational work environment and try to undo so many of the things that need to change.”
Others have found their way into DE&I directly through their employers. Elizabeth Kepner came to DE&I after making a career transition into proposal analysis at her former employer, BAE Systems in Falls Church, Va. She gradually began incorporating DE&I into her regular duties at the defense and aerospace company, recognizing that encouraging people to be who they truly are at work improves both the company culture and the bottom line.
Over time, Kepner began taking on more DE&I responsibilities and became a leader in BAE’s employee resource groups (ERGs). This enabled her to get out of her typical work silo and work with other employees she never would have met otherwise. For her, the best part of it all was bonding with these co-workers over shared experiences. “I don’t think people realize what a long way that goes in recruitment and retention,” said Kepner, now senior proposal manager at information technology company GDIT (General Dynamics Information Technology) in Falls Church, Va.
Tyece Wilkins, diversity, equity and inclusion manager for BAE, had also been regularly active in ERGs at her current employer and previous ones, and that is what led to her eventually transitioning into the DE&I space. Shortly after joining BAE in 2017 as a senior communications specialist, she joined the African Americans Committed to Excellence ERG. She served on the leadership team of that ERG for several years as communications lead and eventually president.
In 2019, Wilkins took on the full-time role of diversity, equity and inclusion senior advisor, which further merged her DE&I experience with her strategic communications expertise. And just last month, she made the full transition to DE&I when she was named to her current role. She now manages all of BAE’s ERGs, ensuring that they align with the company’s broader DE&I strategy.
“I just always found myself naturally gravitating toward DE&I, based on my own lived experiences and also the chance to learn about other people’s experiences,” Wilkins said. “The things that really connect us as people and the things that make us different and unique have always been interesting to me. I think I’ve always had a natural draw to the space and once the stars aligned to be able to do it full time, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Appointing a CDO
In recent years, there has been a new addition to the C-suite at many companies—the chief diversity officer (CDO). But while more organizations are adding these executives, there hasn’t been a massive hiring surge even after the events of 2020.
Executive recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates analyzed the S&P 500 and found that the number of companies with a CDO has increased only marginally in recent years, going from 47 percent in 2018 to 52 percent as of February 2021. “It hasn’t grown too much,” said Mar Hernandez, executive search and leadership consultant for Russell Reynolds. “I think the most shocking thing about the survey is that, despite all that happened and all the social unrest, companies are still behind.”
Furthermore, the report revealed short tenure, high turnover and minimal experience among CDOs. On average, CDOs hold their office for a little under two years, down from over three years in 2018. Nearly 60 percent leave for other roles, with the majority leaving the CDO path entirely. And just under 18 percent of current CDOs had prior experience in the role, down from 26 percent in 2018.
Much of the turnover comes from the fact that this is still a new area for many companies, and many CDOs burn out quickly. Unclear and unrealistic expectations often have CDOs wearing multiple hats, trying to improve too many areas of the organization at once.
Regardless of how experienced the CDO might be, Hernandez noted that companies need to understand that truly committing to DE&I requires a cultural shift across the organization. “It’s not only about putting a CDO in place,” she said. “You have to start from the board, and you have to have the executive team committed to it—it’s a cultural change.”