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.

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

The rise of seminars, trainings, and articles about the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), may make DEI seem like just another "trendy" topic, but the reality is that these efforts have been around for longer than many of us may think. Across the decades, DEI initiatives have broken new ground to transform workplace culture.

With roots in the 1960s and the civil rights movement, DEI has broadened its reach over time to include different groups and identities. Intersectionality is at the core of modern DEI and takes into account more of the unique things that shape our identities including gender, sexual orientation, religion, 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.

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 its 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 the work.

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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.

Many of the first strategies fell short of actionable steps, however, 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.

Without much evidence and research into DEI efforts prior to the 90s, however, 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.

Where we are today

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

Though newer DEI strategies 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 inclusivity; today, more than 78% of employees believe DEI is a driver of competitive advantage in the workplace.

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

Looking ahead…

While the numbers certainly show progress, there’s still a ways 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 an article from the 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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