Corporate diversity roles fraught with retention issues, emotional toll

·5 min read

TORONTO — When Steph Rebello took her first job spearheading equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts, she was excited to make change in the corporate world — but less than two years later, she was burned out.

In the new and "under-resourced" position, Rebello was expected to influence EDI efforts in every part of her employer's business while also reacting to emerging challenges in times of "uncertainty, crisis and trauma." The dual responsibilities left her feeling "stretched."

"I wasn't playing to my strengths," the Toronto woman said. "I wasn't actually fulfilling some of my design research skills and practices that I was hoping to hone as a professional."

She soon left, in line with a pattern of EDI practitioners who have exited such jobs not long after taking them.

About 52 per cent of S&P 500 companies in 2021 had a chief diversity officer or equivalent, up from 47 per cent in 2018, consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates found.

But nearly 60 per cent of the chief diversity officers working in 2018 have since left the job, with the majority pursuing other roles. The average tenure of a chief diversity officer similarly fell from 3.1 years in 2018 to 1.8 years in 2021.

The firm found some had left for other, similar roles, but many more could no longer tolerate what the report calls "unrealistic and misaligned expectations (that) pull the chief diversity officer in too many directions at once."

EDI practitioners emphasize that they don't leave because the work is unnecessary or unimportant. Some, like Rebello, continue with it at companies such as external consulting firms, but others lament how many factors hamper their work and leave them feeling undersupported.

Many feel driven out by a corporate culture that is "tokenizing" them and offering little more than lip service to EDI efforts, said Tomee Elizabeth Sojourner-Campbell, who runs a consulting firm specializing in anti-racism work.

"I certainly have heard that folks feel like they will just be put out for show," she said.

"Their credentials and ... some of the small things that they're being allowed to do externally are put out for show and then, the deeper work never gets done because there's either a breakaway, they're fired or they leave."

Many also leave because their positions are underfunded and come with unrealistic deadlines from companies eager to show change or progress immediately, she added.

For example, while companies poured money into EDI programs after George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed in police custody in 2020, EDI practitioners agree those initiatives and funding have since slowed.

Those in the field also notice burnout is common. Being the lone expert on a complicated topic meant to transform every corner of a company is difficult, and can be even more emotionally taxing for marginalized practitioners.

"People are struggling with compassion fatigue ... You are really holding space for a lot of pain and frustration and challenging conversations while dealing with it yourself," said Rebello, who now works for EDI firm Feminuity.

"The emotional labour you're taking on when you're facilitating panels, when you're managing a room of leaders, when you're holding space for individual stories and challenges, it can be tiring."

An increasing number of EDI practitioners are pushed out during layoffs.

They're the first to be cut and when they depart, companies lose momentum or EDI initiatives altogether, said Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity.

But it's those "volatile" times that highlight why EDI practitioners are so necessary.

"Organizations end up realizing, 'oh shoot, we do need to continue these efforts,'" Saska said.

"They end up bringing them back a few months later because of pressure or because there's a clear need."

That need has been building for decades, EDI practitioners argue.

Chief diversity officer roles existed in the U.S. since the 1960s — a product of the civil rights movement — but such jobs only cropped up in Canada about 10 years ago, the majority of them in the last three years, said Saska.

Many times the roles are created in the wake of big news like Floyd's death or the #MeToo movement, so they don't involve longer term plans or treat EDI efforts as seriously as a product launch.

"Often they're just putting a huge amount of money into something or making this giant promise to the world of donating this and funding this and so forth,' said Saska.

"If they use that budget and spread that out, these efforts can be more sustained and not underfunded during more difficult times."

She's noticed they also tend to centre on the business case for diversity — the idea that staff from a wider array of genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations boost profitability and other outcomes for the company.

A 2019 analysis from McKinsey & Co. found companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. Companies with more than 30 per cent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where women made up between 10 and 30 per cent of such roles.

But Saska said, "if you're still on the business case, you're not ready to be doing this work."

Instead, she wants companies to hire EDI professionals because it's the right thing to do and rely on a "decentralized framework," where EDI work is distributed among several staff, preventing cases of burnout.

Sojourner-Campbell agrees. She feels every inch of an organization needs to take responsibility for EDI, especially executives.

"They need to ... not just put it on the shoulders of the individual who has now been hired ... because that one person cannot hold and change the organization," she said.

"It is a collective journey and it will require the very leaders who say they want to do something, to recognize that they need to move into that space, admit where there is failure, apologize for where there are limitations, and demonstrate it time after time with actual actions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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