DEI is under attack. Here’s the real reason it makes many white men uncomfortable

The pushback to DEI is pervasive and highly visible. In the aftermath of the Francis Scott Key bridge collapse, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott was demonized on X as the “DEI Mayor.” Across social media platforms, anti-DEI celebrants declare the acronym stands for “Didn’t Earn It.”

The cultural revolt is evident in efforts from the 500,000-member-strong Heritage Foundation, with its Project 2025 aimed at eliminating all diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in companies, organizations, and universities.  

In response, several global companies including Bank of America Corp, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Tesla Inc., and Zoom Video Communication, Inc. have significantly scaled back their diversity efforts. Claiming reverse discrimination, they will now make their programs formerly aimed at the recruitment, promotion, and retention of women and people of color open to everyone.  

A self-reinforcing problem

Dissension about diversity efforts is not new. There has been historic resistance from many white men in particular, most recently Elon Musk and Bill Ackman.

A recurring theme from my discussions with white men during my tenure as Procter & Gamble’s senior vice president of Global Industry Affairs & Corporate Race Initiatives is how DEI efforts make them bear the brunt of negative comparisons. Because they often comprise the largest employee segment, they are used as the benchmark or standard. Yet, instead of feeling like the benchmark, many feel like they are being left out–or even a target.

The underrepresentation of Black leaders as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is an example of why DEI efforts are needed. In 2023, there were just eight Black CEO’s on this list, or 1.6% of all Fortune 500 CEO’s. This list included two women and six men and the number was even fewer than in 2022.

However, when so few corporations are led by a Black CEO, this contributes to the myth of singularity as “the one and only” representative is meant to quash concerns and questions about diversity. The first Black CEO–or leader from any underrepresented cohort–can be seen as a victory; it can also be viewed as tokenism.

Companies need to demonstrate a full commitment to top-down diversity without the cultural favoritism of a single demographic to avoid the appearance of “one-ism.” Without it, it can lead to internal clashes and, in the case of Google, lawsuits.

A business imperative

As the demographics of the nation evolve, DEI is a necessity for companies to address. By 2045, non-Hispanic white people will no longer be the majority of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

From my time at Procter & Gamble, I have witnessed the factors that determine whether or not an employee will stay with the organization, including related DEI initiatives.

The first three years an employee spends in a company determines if they leave or stay. It is noteworthy that many millennials and Gen Z employees are averse to a lack of diversity and express that they want to be part of a culture that operates ethically and with a mission of fairness. If that is lacking, their commitment to the company weakens.  

The World Economic Forum’s 2020 (WEF) report declares DEI a moral, legal, and economic imperative with profitability up to 36% more likely in organizations that embrace DEI. Innovation is 20% higher and decision-making is affected with up to 30% greater ability to reduce business risks. Companies that fall behind in DEI are 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability, WEF reports.  

The first step is for company management to do a deep analysis of their organization looking for biases in employee practices, internal policies, external services, and products through interviews and a review of data.

Defining where are the biases in a quantifiable audit with numbers and data on the rate of acceptance and advancement for different workers may be revelatory. New hires and mid-career employees can request this internal assessment and can also keep track of their own reviews and upward mobility.

If the bias is that gender, race, and difference mean underrepresented workers with similar experience and tenure get promoted more slowly, the organization needs to help create a more equitable structure. This next step begins with suggestions and discussions from employees at every level putting forth options to remedy the bias in recruiting, retention, and development.

If they dutifully work on the internal components within the organization and identify the barriers to promotion, it would be a huge progression toward changing the culture and making the path to the top accessible to all. As more workers reveal not only the logistics of advancement but also their emotional responses, it is critical to strike the right balance between feeling and doing.

Yes, DEI now has a controversial connotation. But the hard facts show that it can greatly contribute to a corporation’s growth that benefits everyone–not just a select few.

Barron Witherspoon, Sr. is the author of The Black Exec and The Seven Myths, a TEDX speaker, and serves as a Vice Chair on Tuskegee University’s Board of Trustees.

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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