What Is DEI? A Closer Look at DEI Strategies Throughout History

What Is DEI? A Closer Look at DEI Strategies Throughout History

We're taking a closer look at the history of corporate DEI to uncover how early initiatives shaped the strategies of today, what the numbers tell us about their success, and where there's still work to be done with diversity programs.

What Is DEI? A Closer Look at DEI Strategies Throughout History

With the rise of seminars, diversity training, and articles about the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), it may seem like just a “hot new topic.” But the truth is that DEI has been around for longer than many of us may think, and has played a pivotal role in transforming workplace culture across decades.

With roots in the 1960s and the civil rights movement, DEI has since expanded, becoming more and more inclusive of different groups over time. Intersectionality is at the core of modern DEI, taking into account more of the things that shape different identities: gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, race, etc.

Today, it is a widely held belief that DEI is an integral part of every organization’s success. Organizations are prioritizing recruiting diverse talent while investments in diversity initiatives are at an all-time high.

In 2017, the number of executives who rated diversity and inclusion an important issue was 69%, up from 59% in 2014. In 2023, 30% of employees reported to Pew Research that DEI is still a priority for their organizations, and 54% reported that their organizations are continuing to emphasize DEI programming in process and practice.

Although we have a long way to go until our organizations are totally representative of every identity, we’ve come a long way since the modern work environment was established.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at the history of corporate DEI to explore how it has taken shape over the years.

We’ll dig into how early initiatives transformed work culture, what the numbers today tell us, and the importance of maintaining this work moving forward to ensure a future of work where everyone’s voice is heard.

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How it all started

Early DEI was mostly informed by affirmative action and equal employment legislation like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

Following this groundbreaking legislation, talent acquisition saw incrementally more diverse hiring but mainly due to compliance. Some human resources included mandatory racial discrimination training, but many organizations relied on the do’s and don’t’s of the workplace.

Without a deeper understanding of emotional labor and unconscious bias, many of the first strategies fell short of actionable steps and were unable to hold over time.  

One early business leader in DEI was the coffee chain, Starbucks.

As early as 1988, Starbucks became one of the first employers to champion a diverse workforce by offering full health benefits to all of its employees, including coverage for same-sex domestic partners. In 1996, the first Starbucks LGBTQ partner group formed, eventually becoming the Starbucks Pride Partner Network which grew globally to include thousands of partners.

However, without much evidence and research into DEI efforts before the 90s, there wasn’t yet much of a business case for its necessity. Then, in the mid-1990s, research into workplace inequity and emotional intelligence began to unravel the importance of inclusive work culture.

How the pandemic shifted DEI

2020 impacted how organizations approach work, especially when it came to DEI.

Due to the pandemic, many organizations shifted to remote work, which increased gender diversity, accessibility, age range, and different backgrounds on teams.

It supported work-life balance for working parents, meaning men and especially women could stay in demanding roles for much longer while being present parents.

A remote team also meant opening roles to a more diverse talent pool, hiring no matter where you live, and creating more cross-cultural teams representing different perspectives and backgrounds.

Remote work is also great for people with disabilities, so individuals can continue to work without needing to commute. This also meant that WFH employees could stay home in a space set up for their needs. Many people with disabilities are age 65+, so teleworking also welcomes older employees to stay and pass their knowledge alongside younger workers entering the workforce.

In 2020, the nation also saw the largest protest demonstration following George Floyd’s death, opening deeper conversations about equity and inclusion between consumers and brands or employees and organizations.

Where we are today

Today, corporate DEI is widely viewed as a legitimate business objective that strengthens every organization’s profitability, supports decision-making, and even aids in employee retention. DEI practices are regarded as essential for employees to feel safe, valued, and seen.

Though newer DEI programs are nowhere near perfect, there's a larger emphasis on the overall impact, importance, and effectiveness of DEI initiatives in the workplace. Research has been done into the myriad benefits of DEI, the effects of DEI on mental health in the workplace, and evidence-based approaches to inclusivity.

At large organizations like LinkedIn, NetHealth, and SalesLoft, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) bring team members together based on shared identities and help promote a company culture of belonging.

"Organizations need to challenge our collective thinking on ERGs. ERG's are not clubs, extra curricular work or hobbies. Fighting the status quo is a choice, a hard choice to make. Providing ERGs prevents feelings of isolation and offers chances to take action by empowering groups to use their voice. It says that we as a company are open to learning and doing something about the lack of equity in society that leaks into the workplace. ERGs are strategic cultural advocates, retention tools, and resources that help educate companies." - Cherie Caldwell, Head of DEI (Salesloft)

Companies like Microsoft release a yearly DE&I report that offers transparency on progress made towards yearly goals and overall inclusion.

The way employees view DEI has also transformed over time. Employee satisfaction is based largely on perceptions of an inclusive culture; today more than 78% of employees believe DEI in the workplace offers a competitive advantage.

While there is still tremendous progress to be made for representation at the executive level and equal opportunity, women now make up 40% of business owners in America, with women in executive-level positions constituting 29% of the workforce.

Looking ahead…

There’s still a way to go until underrepresented groups are totally included. Today, only 4% of organizations are inclusive of people living with disabilities, while an estimated one billion people (~15% of the world's population) experience some form of disability.

DEI strategies may also see a poor return because employees feel strategies are inauthentic, or they lose importance over time. In 2023, NBC reported DEI layoffs increasing with a 30% attrition rate and organizations like Applebees and Amazon leading the way. However, we’re also seeing an increase in senior DEI leadership in 2023, more anti-DEI cases achieve success in the courtroom.

In an article from Harvard Business Review, one expert wrote that “while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.”

Despite the long road ahead of us, widespread research continues to give organizations increasing insight into how to transform their DEI initiatives. Yearly trend reports shed light on key demographic data while offering important insights into which DEI goals companies should set. There’s also the growth of careers like Chief Diversity Officer and Director of DEI, which are solidifying inclusion’s essential role in the workplace.


While DEI strategies everywhere have yet to be perfected, years of analysis and revision have created an expectation of equitable and safe workplaces for every identity. Today, inclusive workplaces are leaders in innovation and employee retention, while people in diverse organizations are happier, healthier, and more productive.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to foster an inclusive workplace, take a look at some of our favorite, free resources for getting started:

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