Corporations Grapple With Growing Anti-DEI Pressure

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As legal challenges to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) programming increase across the country, corporations are feeling the pressure to eliminate or reduce diversity-related initiatives. In fact, many have already done so, whether in practice or in name, as conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups push through policies and litigation that challenge any efforts they believe provide advantages to people from marginalized backgrounds.

Though the majority of anti-DEI sentiment over the past two years has targeted higher education, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS) decision to ban race-conscious college admissions last year, some corporate diversity offices are now feeling the heat as well.

One notable case is PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers) — a global accounting and auditing firm — which revised its Start internships program after it was targeted by America First Legal in 2023, an anti-DEI organization led by Stephen Miller, a policy advisor to Donald Trump notorious for his contribution to the former president’s travel ban and brutal immigration policies.

Initially created specifically for third-and fourth-year college students from underrepresented backgrounds, PwC’s Start program — which considered race, disability, and veteran status — was amended to admit applicants from all backgrounds as a result of the suit. The company, however, still affirms that diversity is a priority, both within the specific program and companywide.

“We continue to talk about diversity internally, and we’ll continue to talk about it externally,” Shannon Schuyler, PwC’s U.S. chief purpose and inclusion officer, said. “We believe that it’s connected to our purpose. It’s connected to our values and our people know that it’s something to look at across our portfolio of what we do within the firm, so … it’s nothing that we are shying away from.”

Even in light of continued commitments to DEI, experts like David Lopez, former general counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, argue that these lawsuits and the resulting policy changes could create a chilling effect on diversity initiatives throughout the corporate world. In short, companies want to avoid costly lawsuits.

In a 2023 survey of 375 members of the Association of Corporate Citizenship Professionals (ACCP), who represent 250 major global companies, 86% of respondents said their organizations adjusted their communications related to DEI efforts.— with 60% changing the language used to talk about the work and 26% reducing public mentions. Although only 9% reported an actual decrease in their company’s commitment to DEI, 65% of those surveyed said they were concerned about how the SCOTUS decision would impact their corporate diversity policies and programming.

“Our survey results send a clear message that professionals on the front-lines carrying out social impact work for both public and private companies are concerned about the impact recent events could have on the future of [DEI] commitments,” Carolyn Berkowitz, ACCP president and CEO, said during the association’s annual conference in October.

Similarly to PwC, Pfizer and Comcast have also adjusted race-specific parameters of certain programs over the past year, following legal challenges from conservative activists.

After political advocacy group Do No Harm — which opposes DEI efforts in medicine — filed a lawsuit against Pfizer, which was later dismissed, the company eliminated any race criteria for a fellowship program originally designed for Black, Latino, and Native American college students.

Comcast settled with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, another right-wing legal group, over a grant program meant to support women and people of color who own small businesses. This resulted in the company removing any racial or gender requirements from the program.

Some corporations, however, such as Hines — a Houston-based global real estate investment, development, and property management firm — are holding fast to their DEI principles. Despite legal challenges to similar efforts throughout the corporate world, Hines plans to maintain the standards of its Skyline Scholars program, which launched in 2022. The seven-week internship program is open to first- and second-year college students in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. from diverse, underrepresented backgrounds who want to learn about the commercial real estate industry.

Through mentorship and support from Hines professionals, Skyline Scholars develop industry skills and learn about various market concepts and trends. Participants have access to development sessions, mock interviews, and resume-building resources.

“At Hines, we have integrated our talent and DEI strategies to achieve our vision of a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive company and industry,” said Crystal Castille-Cromedy, Hines’ chief diversity officer and senior vice president for talent. “We emphasize that everyone’s participation is needed to achieve our business, people, and DEI goals.”