While chief diversity officers and other buzzy diversity roles didn’t become mainstream until the mid-aughts, the number of people in diversity leadership positions has grown substantially over the last five years. According to global data from LinkedIn, between 2015 and 2020, the “chief diversity officer” job title has grown 68%, and the “head of diversity” and “director of diversity” titles grew 107% and 75%, respectively.
On a basic level, chief diversity officers work to align companies’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals with business goals. But it’s not just about increasing diversity within an organization—it’s also creating strategies around inclusion initiatives and culture management, communicating internally and externally about DEI efforts, addressing discrimination and harassment, among a plethora of other responsibilities.
Company demand for the role has gone into overdrive:
- In the three months after the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, there were almost a dozen new hires a month for chief diversity officers at S&P 500 companies, which is three times more than normal, per data from Russell Reynolds Associates. Cumulatively, in the year since the protests, more than 60 companies hired their first CDO.
- Major corporations like Bain & Company, Condé Nast, Pizza Hut, AARP very recently made their first chief diversity officer hires, as others like Nike take their diversity goals a step further by tying executive compensation to inclusion goals.
- Diversity efforts have gone beyond the business world: Just this month, the US State Department announced its first chief diversity officer, brought in to make the diplomatic workforce more representative, in response to the nation’s reckoning with racial justice over the last few years.
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However, a boom in demand for chief diversity officers doesn’t mean that the role is a given for every corporation. Russell Reynolds data also shows that only 53% of S&P 500 companies have chief diversity officers, compared to 48% three years ago. Change has been incremental, and often happens only in response to discrimination coming to light.
But are chief diversity officers actually effective? Thorough data on the impacts of chief diversity officers is scant, though an oft-cited paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research on the impact of chief diversity officers on hiring within universities showed no “significant statistical evidence” that CDOs affected hiring of underrepresented groups. That’s not entirely surprising—the institutionalization of diversity in the workforce is still very new. And with companies rushing to fill diversity leadership positions in response to major news events like the Black Lives Matter protests or in the aftermath of social media backlash, CDOs have to contend with problems that are often systemic and very difficult to dismantle.
According to a 2019 Weber Shandwick study, the top three personal challenges of senior-level diversity professionals were making the business case for diversity and inclusion, making DEI values or outcomes visible externally, and budgetary constraints. On a company level, 32% of CDOs said organizational culture is the top obstacle in preventing the achievement of company diversity goals. These challenges ultimately mean that the CDO position is one with extremely high turnover: According to The Wall Street Journal, the average tenure of the CDO is just three years, and many who leave that position cite lack of resources and “unrealistic expectations and inadequate support from senior executives.”
Bottom line: Companies understand, at least in theory, that diversity within organizations is important and helps attract and retain the best talent. There are still major barriers to the successful implementation of diversity and inclusion programs. Companies will need to provide adequate resources and support for their DEI mandates, diversity and inclusion goals must be baked into other senior leadership’s roles, and CDOs need to be empowered to actually enact change.