Diversity, equity and inclusion policies have become the norm at many companies. As some notable corporate leaders reject the approach, is a DEI backlash brewing?
Elon Musk used his social media platform X, formerly Twitter, on 3 January to tell his 168 million followers that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was “just another word for racism”. Musk added his comments in a retweet of American hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, who had posted a long criticism of DEI policies, following his successful calls for the resignation of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s first black and female president.
In the same week, Chip Wilson, founder of activewear brand Lululemon, made headlines in a Forbes profile when he spoke out about the “whole diversity and inclusion thing”. The former CEO (Wilson left the company in 2013 but still remains a major shareholder), criticised Lululemon for wanting to be “everything to everybody”, and called the brand’s inclusive advertising imagery “unhealthy”, “sickly” and “not inspirational”.
For the past several decades, corporate DEI policies have become an increasing priority, embraced by leaders of major businesses. Katleen De Stobbeleir, professor of leadership at Vlerick Business School, Belgium, says DEI has been a prominent theme since the 1960s, but the focus has amplified in the past decade. “It used to be a ‘nice to have’, and something for the more advanced companies. But today it has become a qualifying minimum and a topic that has received more attention from the C-suite.”
Yet some of the same kinds of high-profile leaders who embraced the inclusive policies are now publicly critical of them.
Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership, and associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at London’s Imperial College Business School, says extensive research has shown “when gender, ethnicity or any form of the diversity are on the table, quality of discussions and decision-making is better, creativity is improved and the performance of the organisation and its culture is stronger”.
Yet despite this, these programmes are increasingly landing in corporate crosshairs.
Chaturvedi says the current public pushback is