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Reflections on 2023: The Impact of World Events on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

As 2023 draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on all that has happened this year, and its reverberations in homes and workplaces across the globe.

I have to say that the reflections, for the most part, have been painful ones. And yet, we must remind ourselves that as we gear up for the holiday season, it is time to take stock and recalibrate our diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts so they remain relevant and are salvaged from the scalpel of the many threatening external forces. We must remain hopeful and resilient, so we do not lose ground! 

Economic Pressures

During times of economic downturn, DEI budgets are among the most likely to be cut. Recent tech layoffs have reduced DEI and HR teams, with one study estimating that 28% of layoffs were HR employees where DEI often resides. One in three DEI professionals lost their roles over a one-year period. And the CDO position was the only C suite position that experienced a hiring decline.

In addition to DEI roles, research also shows that underrepresented groups are historically the first to be let go and the last to be rehired.  In one study, 56% of those laid off were women, despite the overall workforce being majority male. Permanent employees are being replaced with part-time and contract workers, who may not enjoy the same access to health care and other benefits, risking a two-tier system that no longer nurtures underrepresented high potential talent.  

Between 2021 and 2023, there was an 18% decline in C-suite support for company-wide DEI efforts. Companies are quietly dropping DEI pledges made immediately following the murder of George Floyd. With the decline in commitment to DEI, there is a very real danger that the progress made over the past 30 years in diversifying talent pipelines and building inclusive organizational cultures, will be lost. 

With budget cuts and layoffs looming, what should DEI practitioners and allies be doing to protect precious gains made over the past few decades? How do we keep DEI front and center in the face of competing priorities?

One way is to make DEI Indispensable to the Business – to ensure that DEI drives business outcomes. The more our DEI strategies are aligned with the business and mission, the more central DEI will be to business growth and brand. DEI allies need to stay attuned to organizational priorities and find opportunities to communicate DEI’s relevance through measurable outcomes tied to business outcomes.

Economic challenges are stressful.  It is a time of uncertainty and disruption.  But it can also be an opportunity to strengthen our work, to trim away what is less effective, and to further demonstrate, through clear metrics, the impact of DEI on the mission and on business outcomes.

External Forces working to dilute DEI

Identity politics and backlash against what is seen as a “woke” agenda, are threatening to dismantle the DEI progress we have made not only in the US but globally. Employees bring these divisions and competing world views and values into the workplace, and it can create a headwinds against DEI efforts.

Political divisions have taken on global proportions, with inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation fuelling discord and, in some instances, instigating violence. In Europe, nationalist or far-right wing parties are growing in Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia, among others. Even Portugal, Spain and Romania now have nationalist parties. In Latin America, right-wing populists have made inroads in Chile, Paraguay and El Salvador. Polls are suggesting a backlash against immigration and  LGBTQ rights unfolding globally.

The biggest blow to DEI in the U.S. came from the US Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling decreeing that race could no longer be considered in admissions in higher education. This has not only struck a blow to diversity in higher education and to the pipeline of diverse talent into the workplace, but it is also creating a ripple of anxiety that reaches far beyond the education sector with corporations concerned about possible litigation should they pursue their DEI efforts.

Throughout the US, organizations are taking a wait and watch stand and some are stalling their DEI efforts. Those organizations that have experienced the benefit of DEI to business outcomes are continuing their DEI commitment unabated, however.


Though the ruling does not directly impact employment laws, it is an opportunity for organizations to take a hard look at their DEI approaches and ensure that they are getting it right. What does that mean? It means being holistic, approaching the entire ecosystem and taking a systems approach. 

It is an opportunity to use data to scrutinize the talent lifecycle and with that understanding to implement initiatives to remove bias for all employees. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the impact of DEI on business outcomes. It is an opportunity to evaluate DEI incentives to ensure they consider both the numeric results and, as importantly, the processes and actions that will get you those results. By including behaviors and systems in your metrics, you are incentivising managers for inclusive leadership practices.

Stay the course - you have made some hard-won gains, now is not the time to let them slip away or you risk losing credibility with your employees as well as their commitment and engagement.

Surge in Hate Crimes

Hate crimes continue to rise against LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities and ethnic minorities. This year has seen a massive increase in Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crimes globally as the conflict between Israel and Hamas rages. Not only have our communities seen a spike in hate crimes but these have spilled into colleges and universities where protests have turned violent. 

Organizations need to be aware of the impact of the rhetoric and these hate crimes on their employees and on their sense of safety. How organizations and colleagues respond directly effects employees’ and students’ sense of belonging and connection to their workplace and place of study.

The times we live in are challenging us to step up and step out more boldly, with a clarity of leadership and vision. How can we not only improve our organizational work environments, but also help to build a more inclusive world?

AI Implications for DEI

This year has seen a heightened focus on AI in all areas of our life. AI clearly has the potential to enhance DEI outcomes with its speed, creativity and potential for scalability. AI applications are creative enough to compose music, write text and create art. They can process massive and varied data sets and do so at an incredible speed. A recent McKinsey study predicts that Generative AI could add the equivalent of $2.6 to $4.4 trillion annually across just the 63 cases they analyzed. It has the potential to automate work activities that absorb 60-70 percent of an employee’s time freeing them to do more value-added work. The potential for the future of work and for the economy are exciting! But there are definitely risks to DEI that need to be carefully managed.

One big risk is perpetuating bias. We need to remember that AI is a mirror of society as it exists.  We have created it, and so embedded in it are our own possibilities and our own limitations. 

We live in a world of systemic bias and this often biases data feeds AI algorithms. For example, Amazon got rid of their AI resume screening tool when they found that candidates whose resumes had the word “women” were being given lower scores. In this case AI was learning from past data from Amazon where most of the company hires had been men. Human supervision is critical to ensure that AI tools used in recruiting don’t perpetuate biases and eliminate resumes of underrepresented candidates.

AI can be a tool to enhance, support and scale organizational DEI efforts in an efficient, scalable, creative and cost-effective way. If we are to make progress in DEI, we need to be diligent and not allow AI to perpetuate or amplify historic discrimination. In order to do that, DEI professionals need to educate themselves about AI and ask the right questions in order to manage the risk- questions  such as: What data are being used to train AI? How are we auditing the AI applications?

Ultimately by combining human experience and expertise and AI support, we can have a positive impact on DEI progress.


It is almost certain that many of these geo-political, economic and societal trends will continue into 2024. We need to remember that what we do within our own workforce has a ripple effect in society. Likewise, the stands we take publicly and our contributions to our communities have reverberations throughout our workforce and our business. 93% of consumers say companies have a responsibility to look beyond profit to positively impact society. 87% of consumers believe companies should advocate for human rights- and these data points remain even more relevant today.

Now, more than ever, the world needs organizations to step up and take bold stands- to stand up publicly for their values, and to lead the way. We need to recognize that what we say- or choose not to say- out in the world impacts our employees: it affects how safe they feel at work, their sense of belonging, their engagement and their loyalty to their organization.

Is your organization ready to take bold public stands to advance DEI in our communities, society and world? Let 2024 be the year when we truly rise to these challenges and seek out the opportunities they are offering us to be courageous, inspiring and responsible inhabitants of this planet we all call home.

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