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Examining The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Industrial Complex

There’s no doubt that the diversity and inclusion profession has grown exponentially in recent years. In fact, last year alone, organizations made commitments to D&I that totaled $8 billion. But is all of this investment in D&I actually a good thing?

Not necessarily, according to Vijay Pendakur, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at Zynga. Vijay discussed the impact of the D&I industrial complex with our Chief People Officer Tariq Meyers in the latest episode of the “Untapped” podcast—where Tariq has untapped conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion with prominent D&I practitioners each week. 

“I’ll be raw with it; I think there’s some quality control issues right now. This is market capitalism, so there was a whole bunch of money flooding into the D&I space. Nobody should be surprised that a whole bunch of people showed up in the D&I space being like, ‘I can do this. I can do this work,’” Vijay explained. “And there’s a lot of people branding themselves as DEI consultants, and I click on their LinkedIn because they’ve written some posts, oftentimes a screed. To me, it’s a litmus. If you’re out there yelling about you all should do this, and you should do that, I always click and I’m like, ‘Who is this DEI consultant?’ And I look and they actually don’t really have much, or sometimes even any, lived work history of having to make this work within complex organizational structures.”

Vijay gave the following reasons why he believes the influx of new D&I practitioners into the industry can be problematic. 

1. A Gap Between Theory and Practice

Although many people who enter the D&I space understand the theory of the field, they are lacking an understanding of the practice, which Vijay says is a problem because in order to be effective, there needs to be a bridge between the two.

“It’s all theory—and that, to me, is the quality control issue because there is a theory to practice gap,” he said. “As a scholar practitioner, it frustrates me all the time that the DEI work in corporate America is under-informed by the gains of empirical research, but there’s also an operational reality that DEI has to function within for it to be real.”

2. No Understanding of Tactical Realities

When D&I professionals understand the theory and not the practice, they won’t be able to handle real-world situations that need real solutions, says Vijay. As a result of this shortfall in experience, companies may not be able to reach their D&I goals because they’re relying on those without the practical know-how to get the job done. 

“The how do you get it done is really where the magic sauce is, not the what. A lot of the what is pretty evident because most organizations are still in their infancy of this work. So the what is oftentimes easy to pick and assemble into an acting roadmap, a blueprint of ‘Here’s what I’m going to do in my first three years.’ But the how? Holy cow. How to create coalitions to get changed on, how to navigate international law structures that say you can measure this here, but you can’t measure this here,” Vijay said. “Then there’s how to deal with blowback—blowback from your champions who feel like you’re not moving fast enough, blowback from the people who are hesitant who say, ‘You’re trying to make this place ideologically averse to my worldview.’ And those are the tactical realities that make or break the outcomes. Where I see some quality control problems is in people holding roles, either as thought leaders or subject matter experts on social media, who have not earned their chops or earned their stripes in the tactical space. So they’re just talking. I largely just tune them out because if you haven't made this work in complex organizational life, then I don't want to hear it.”

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3. Treating D&I Like a Trend

Vijay points out that all this is not to say newcomers in the industry don't have good intentions. But intention does not expertise make—and true expertise takes time to develop. Now that D&I has become trendy, many people are entering the space without enough experience to make a real impact in helping companies meet their needs.  

“There's this sense of D&I being a flash in the pan of fad moment. It takes a really long time to get good at this. If somebody said, ‘I'm an expert data scientist, and I'm 24,’ I'd be like, ‘Well, I'm not sure I can believe that claim because you have been practicing your craft for two years post-graduation, at best.’ But people will throw that expertise around the DEI space in ways that should be pushed through the same Rigor Matrix of how many years have you been doing this? Not to be ageist, but just to test because if you care about equity, if you care about justice, then expertise needs to be assessed a little bit more rigorously,” Vijay said. “When we put the wrong people in the wrong seats on the bus in our organizational solutions, we underserve the issues. So when you talk about X billion dollars got committed in 2020 in the Great Awakening, if you start to look at outcomes, the inputs and the outcomes don't equate a lot of the time—and that's partially because the tactical reality is brutally difficult and the time horizons need to be extended. This is going to be years of work, not months of work, but also because I still don't think we have the right people in the right seats on the bus.”

The solution to all this, says Vijay, is for companies to focus on substance and measurable results when hiring a D&I practitioner or working with a consultant.

“I want to humanize this,” said Vijay. “I'm not trying to call out the field, but I do want to cast a spotlight on where we all probably need to focus on rigor, on substance, on operational and tactical proof of concept and proof of output, rather than flashy LinkedIn posts using all the right terminology, but not being able to actually put up numbers.”

To hear more about Vijay’s views on D&I practice and the future of work, listen to this week's "Untapped" podcast

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