United Minds study on DEI function shows deeper investment since 2019, but challenges remain 

A new study conducted by United Minds in partnership with Weber Shandwick and KRC Research details the evolving role of Chief Diversity Officers and corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) leaders over the past two years, notably featuring an increase in resources, responsibilities and optimism for the future despite significant adversity.

United Minds study on DEI function shows deeper investment since 2019, but challenges remain

The global study of 227 of the senior-most professionals responsible for DE&I at their organizations expands upon a 2019 U.S.-focused report and offers a look at the function before and after a period characterized by a global pandemic, racial justice movement and recession. The 2021 study reveals that since 2019, senior DE&I leaders in the U.S. are 2.6X more likely to hold C-Suite positions and oversee 4.5X bigger teams. Globally, 86 percent of senior DE&I leaders are satisfied with the resources invested in DE&I by their organization, with 77 percent reporting budgets of over $10 million. In the U.S., nearly four in 10 (39 percent) senior DE&I leaders report budgets exceeding $50M – a 26 percent increase over 2019.


At the same time, despite an increased focus on societal inequities, senior DE&I leaders continue to have to make the business case for the importance and impact of DE&I: more than three quarters (78 percent) agree that DE&I isn’t prioritized unless there is a visible or public problem and only 45 percent strongly agree that their role is seen as a “must-have” by the organization’s leadership. This is compounded by the fact that more than half of senior DE&I leaders report unfair treatment (discrimination, harassment, and/or microaggressions) within their organizations. And even as companies continue to face the Great Resignation, the report shows priorities shifting away from retaining and recruiting diverse talent.

We are seeing significant momentum in establishing and resourcing the critical role and executive function of office of diversity, However, we also know that change takes time. A critical part of every diversity leader’s job continues to be getting buy-in on the importance of the work even as the business case is strengthened every day.

Tai Wingfield

Executive vice president, diversity, equity & inclusion, United Minds

Senior DE&I leaders are becoming more prominent members of their organizations


Amongst senior DE&I leaders, there is near-universal agreement (94 percent) that the external political and social environment has impacted DE&I efforts. Over the past year, 90 percent of senior DE&I leaders in the U.S. have reported an increase in responsibilities (83 percent globally), including added investment and resources, increased scope of work and/or a change in reporting structure. The median number of people in an organization who focus on DE&I directly in the U.S. is 90, 4.5X higher than in 2019.


In addition to elevated titles and increased resources, senior DE&I leaders, of which more than half strongly agree that internal support is integral to DE&I success, are also experiencing increased allyship from within their organizations, with significant increases in support from IT and finance departments.



Recruiting and retaining diverse talent is especially at risk


As the Great Resignation continues its hold on companies globally, 43 percent of senior DE&I leaders say turn-over is at least in part due to dissatisfaction with the level of support for DE&I. Senior DE&I leaders in the U.S. attribute 39 percent of recent resignations to lack of confidence in organizational commitment to DE&I, a 23 percent increase over 2019. At the same time, recruiting and retaining diverse talent has decreased in priority from #1 on the list in 2019 to #5 in 2021.


“While it is possible that pandemic-related hiring freezes may have negatively affected the prioritization of recruiting and retaining diverse talent, it is more important than ever that this pattern does not continue and companies understand the value that a diverse workforce adds to their organization,” Wingfield said. “Other efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion mean very little if business leaders are not taking the necessary measures to ensure that they are hiring and keeping diverse talent on their teams.”



Optimism is up, but challenges persist


Overall, satisfaction remains high among senior DE&I leaders, with 82 percent approving of efforts to build a diverse, inclusive and equitable culture within their organization. A majority (84 percent) also say that they’re optimistic about the future of DE&I and in the U.S., nearly nine in 10 are optimistic (89 percent); a 10 percent increase over 2019.


However, while nearly eight in 10 senior DE&I leaders say their organization is equitable and inclusive, and three out of four say their organization is diverse, more than half (54 percent) also report that incidents of discrimination and unfair treatment, harassment, and/or microaggressions have occurred at their current organization in the past year.


Top challenges standing in the way of DE&I include company-wide issues such as employee engagement, while role-specific challenges such as lack of integration with other functions and making DE&I outcomes visible externally also pose a threat.



Employee resource groups (ERGs) remain a bright spot for DE&I


Globally, 100 percent of senior DE&I leaders believe that employee resource groups (ERGs) and affinity groups benefit employees, especially when it comes to providing networking opportunities, executive visibility and fostering a sense of inclusion. And employees agree; United Minds’ companion study also showed that employees that are members of ERGs are more satisfied with their organization’s commitment to DE&I and more satisfied with their job overall.


In looking ahead to the next 12-18 months, overseeing ERGs increased the most as a top-three priority for senior DE&I leaders in the U.S., from being at the bottom of the list of most cited priorities (#12) in 2019 to being near the top (#3, behind learning and development and advancing racial equity).


View the report below or download as a PDF here.