The death of DEI? Why 2024 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for diversity and inclusion in the tech sector

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett January 22, 2024
The number of entry-level female professionals joining the data industry nosedived last year. The question is, is it to do with the sector losing its appeal to women or is it part of a wider trend across the tech industry as a whole?

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The proportion of entry-level female professionals joining the data industry plummeted last year.

Despite numbers having been on the rise for several years previously, 2023 saw new recruit levels drop in the US by two thirds from 36% in 2022 to 12% in 2023. The figures were no better in the UK, where the number of women entering the profession fell from 35% to 11%, according to research by Rockborne, a company owned by specialist data and analytics recruiter, Harnham Group. 

Amy Foster, a Partner and Director of Talent at Rockborne, believes that one reason for the decline may be that younger generations have been “disproportionately” affected by “COVID hiring cutbacks”. She explains:

There does appear to be a trend of diversity worsening in entry-level positions, and not just in terms of gender. In the UK, the proportion of entry-level Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic professionals plummeted from 42% in 2022 to 12% in 2023. As was the case with gender, this marks a break in the trend of improvement since 2020, where it sat at 31% before rising to 34% in 2021. In the US too, the percentage of Black, Indigenous and professionals of color at entry-level has dropped sharply at entry-level from 70% in 2022 to 11% in 2023.

Another driver is likely to have been last year’s challenging investment environment, says Nicole Seredenko, Head of AI Product and Insight at talent advisory firm Green Park. This scenario resulted in mass layoffs across the tech sector, particularly in the case of diversity, equity and inclusion-based (DEI) roles, which had mushroomed following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. As Seredenko says:

Last year, the balloon burst and a lot of companies had to scale back on their investments. This meant that if senior leaders [in large companies] weren’t invested in DEI, it was an easy thing to cut as it’s not necessarily revenue-generating and is often seen as a nice-to-have. For many start-ups and scale-ups, it was about being in survival mode, so DEI went down the agenda across the board. There’s a direct correlation in my mind between the drop and cutting DEI programmes as it affects recruitment and up-skilling.

Exploring DEI pushback

At the same time though, she believes such an approach is short-sighted, not least in the US where demographics are likely to change significantly over the next 20 years:

Over the next decade or two, the US and UK will become more diverse. By the 2050s, the US population will be less than 50% white, and the UK will see a significant hike in diversity too. So, making severe cuts in DEI may be a short-term winner in uncertain economic times, but it’s a long-term loser as DEI ultimately affects the bottom line.

But it is not just economic circumstances that are leading to DEI pushback, believes Chandra Robinson, Vice President and Team Manager of Gartner’s HR practice. For instance, she says:

Following heightened attention in 2020, DEI initiatives have been plagued by a sense of disillusionment and, as many leaders have historically feared getting things wrong here, it’s caused reluctance to pursue meaningful actions. However, DEI is still on the corporate agenda. In a polling webinar in August, 71% of HR leaders reported their organization’s commitment to DEI had not changed. 

Another common reason for pushback is miscommunication, which tends to lead to misunderstandings. Robinson explains:

Employees from traditionally dominant social groups may resist DEI if they perceive it to be a threat to their positive self-views, when they feel blamed or shamed for DEI challenges, or when they misinterpret it as a threat to their existing positions.

DEI at the center of political discourse

Another huge challenge, meanwhile, is that “DEI remains at the center of the political and ‘anti-woke’ discourse, and that’s not likely to disappear”, Robinson believes. As an example, Elon Musk, one of the poster boys of the US ‘anti-woke’ movement, wrote on his X (formerly known as Twitter) platform late last year that "DEI must DIE".

A key problem in this context, says Sheree Atcheson, Group Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion at digital transformation company Valtech, is that:

When diversity and inclusion is attached to politics, it can be very divisive. It becomes a for or against argument, which isn’t useful and doesn’t benefit anyone. It just fuels anger in people that doesn’t need to be there. Diversity and inclusion are about access to opportunity and trying to create environments that create equal access for everyone, based on data. It’s about levelling the playing field. Could things be done better? Yes, but that’s not an excuse to denigrate it using lofty statements.

But this already difficult situation has not been made any easier by the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban affirmative action in higher education. As Robinson points out, the impact of the ruling is already being felt in the boardroom and is causing many leaders to downplay their public commitment to DEI:

With many companies facing economic and cost pressures, some companies and employees can see DEI initiatives as risky endeavours, which has fuelled pushback and uncertainty. Research indicates a rise in legislation targeting DEI and underrepresented populations, coupled with a surge in anti-DEI sentiment. This is prompting business leaders to avoid engaging in public discourse on DEI-related matters, opting for a quieter approach.

It is also changing how they articulate their DEI initiatives internally, particularly in terms of emphasising the benefits to employees and the business. 

What lies ahead for DEI in 2024?

But despite this shift in focus, things are unlikely to get easier for DEI any time soon, believes Johnny Taylor, president of the US's largest HR body, Society of Human Resource Management. In fact, before Christmas he said that he believed DEI policies at US companies will "come under full-out attack in 2024"

While this may be true, Robinson sees no evidence that employers will respond accordingly. In fact, she points out, those that are still investing in DEI actually plan to increase their expenditure here over the next two years:

In 2024, while we can expect further pushback on DEI initiatives within organizations, we should also expect business and HR leaders to continue on their current course. The most successful will improve their communication about DEI among employees and be transparent in their activities to build understanding and buy-in across the organization. 

On the one hand, Robinson explains, business executives must be willing to articulate why they believe inclusion is important for overall organizational success. On the other:

HR leaders should pivot from DEI existing in a silo to bringing DEI into the wider organizational fold. This new approach will change how leaders interact with DEI, positioning it not as ‘what’ they do but ‘how’ they achieve high performance.

An increased reliance on data and metrics is also likely to come to the fore:

DEI leaders are re-assessing metrics with a nuanced approach. Many organizations are exploring a well-rounded approach to evaluating and reporting on demographics and inclusion metrics – innovative measures that have yet to be put into practice, with the aim of gaining a comprehensive understanding of where their challenges actually lie. This is a positive response as it ensures leaders are working towards DEI metrics and using actionable insights to decipher any issues. 

My take

This would appear to be a pivotal year for DEI in the tech industry. As the vultures circle, it is up to those leaders who understand the benefits of this approach to the business to start embedding it in ways of everyday working rather than just treating it as a nice-to-have or a necessary evil due to legislative pressures.

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