DEI is under attack. Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary is trying to help save it.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that began during the racial reckoning of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd renewed demands for social justice, are being pulled apart by political and cultural shifts. A Supreme Court ruling last year ended affirmative action in college admissions, more than 30 states have introduced laws banning or limiting DEI initiatives, and many companies are cutting their DEI teams.

“DEI isn’t the problem. Inequality is the problem,” Creary said. “The attacks on DEI are a defensive response because people don’t want to handle the broader issues of inequality. It’s easy to make DEI the scapegoat.”

Searching for solutions, Creary has launched the Relationships Across Differences Roundtable (RADs), a coalition of more than 70 academics and industry leaders committed to advancing inclusivity in all its forms — race, gender, ethnicity, religion, ability, neurodiversity, and age. They are partnering to share science-backed insights and best practices, strategize on common problems, and find ways to engage all stakeholders, even the ones who don’t believe in DEI.

“DEI isn’t the problem. Inequality is the problem.”— Stephanie Creary

Academics and Practitioners Join Forces to Commit to DEI

The roundtable is a partnership between Wharton, Harvard Business School, and INSEAD. The group held its inaugural meeting on May 14 at Wharton, where members spent the day talking candidly and confidentially about some of their biggest and most complex challenges.

“How can we use the work that you are doing to make this country, this world, a better place?” Wharton Dean Erika James said in her opening remarks. “If there is anything that we need now, it’s greater peace and harmony and learning to activate relationships across differences.”

Peer-to-peer groups are nothing new. Neither are coalitions dedicated to DEI. But Creary said her group is different because it combines scholars with people in the field so they can share expertise. Scholars conduct more relevant research when it’s informed by practice, she said, and the practitioners get evidence-based insights they can take back to their organizations.

“I didn’t want to just rehash the problems,” said Creary, who has spent 20 years studying diversity in the workplace. “Instead of going it alone, why don’t we form an alliance and figure out how to use our collective intelligence, resources, and expertise to tackle a problem of interest to all of us? I would like to think of it as an extended team for all the academics and practitioners involved.”

Robin Ely, business administration professor at Harvard Business School and faculty chair of the school’s Race, Gender & Equity Initiative, said organizations have been mounting DEI programs for decades with varying results. “The success of these efforts has been limited, for a variety of reasons, which tells us that we need a deeper understanding and more robust conversation about what’s truly getting in the way of change.”

“These problems don’t go away. There are still many versions of inequality, and the gaps have the potential to widen without any interventions.”— Stephanie Creary

If DEI Isn’t Going Away, What’s Next?

The roundtable members identified several key themes:

  • Self-identification in the workplace is largely voluntary, and disclosure requires trust. How can companies build trust among employees who fear their information may be used against them or shared with other parties?
  • More company- and industry-level data can be used to expand DEI initiatives and measure progress, but there is a global challenge in gathering that data because regulations vary from place to place.
  • Firms need counsel who specialize in employment law to help them navigate the shifting legal landscape of DEI.
  • How can companies recruit employees, interns, and contractors from underrepresented groups if they cannot legally target specific demographics?
  • DEI must be championed by the top level of management, and leaders must learn how to integrate DEI initiatives into the business so they become embedded in the mission, rather than additive.
  • DEI leaders need deep skills to understand the broader needs of the business, such as finance and operations.
  • How can generative artificial intelligence, including large language models, be deployed to help DEI initiatives?
  • A strategy is needed to move the “frozen middle,” a term to describe people afraid to advance DEI because of the current political situation. Can leaders learn to manage their own discomfort and the discomfort of others? Can more simplified language help convey the importance of DEI?
  • Each organization should identify missing stakeholders, such as policymakers or affinity groups, and invite them to the table.

By the end of their first session, RADs members felt a mix of emotions. Some said they were “cautiously optimistic” about the future of DEI, while others were invigorated and encouraged. All said they wanted to continue the work.

“What was unique about the setting was that it was truly a conversation among people. Our discussions were guided by our past experiences and knowledge about the topic, not by titles or affiliations. Just a group of people trying to figure things out,” said Kaisa Snellman, organizational behavior professor and director of the INSEAD Gender Initiative.

Wharton Deputy Dean Nancy Rothbard agreed, saying RADs is a meaningful way to connect scholarship and practice for the maximum benefit of both.

“We were able to inform each other and learn from each other, and that’s always the goal,” she said.

Creary said she believes that cooperation is the key to saving DEI amid backlash. Rapidly changing laws, rising Islamophobia and antisemitism over the conflict in Gaza, and recent celebrity comments against women and the LGBTQ+ community have left many organizations paralyzed over how to handle sensitive and divisive topics. That’s why the work of RADs is so important, she said.

“When we join with other people who have a common interest and commitment to these issues, we can be much more effective not only at keeping the momentum going in our own organizations, but also in society,” the professor said. “These problems don’t go away. There are still many versions of inequality, and the gaps have the potential to widen without any interventions.”

RADs is sponsored by the Wharton School, Harvard Business School, and INSEAD. Other partners include the Wharton Coalition for Equity and Opportunity (CEO); Wharton-INSEAD Alliance; Harvard Business School Race, Gender & Equity Initiative; Harvard Business School Institute for Business in Global Society (BiGS); Wharton McNulty Leadership Program; Wharton Center for Human Resources; and Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management.