Posted on May 15, 2023

Why Some Companies Are Saying ‘Diversity and Belonging’ Instead of ‘Diversity and Inclusion’

Jennifer Miller, New York Times, May 13, 2023

Woodward is a 153-year-old aerospace company that required its male employees to wear bow ties into the 1990s.

So Paul Benson, the company’s chief human resources officer, knew that creating a companywide diversity, equity and inclusion program would require a seismic shift. “Look at our org chart online, and we’re a lily-white leadership team of old males,” he said. But employees were eager for a more inclusive culture.

“People want to feel like they belong,” Mr. Benson said. “They want to come to work and not feel like they have to check themselves at the door.”

Last summer, Mr. Benson started searching for a diversity consultant who was up to the task. He hoped to find a relatable former executive “who had seen the light.”

Instead, a Google search led him to a Black comedian and former media personality named Karith Foster. She is the chief executive of Inversity Solutions, a consultancy that rethinks traditional diversity programming.

Ms. Foster said companies must address racism, sexism, homophobia and antisemitism in the workplace. But she believes that an overemphasis on identity groups and a tendency to reduce people to “victim or villain” can strip agency from and alienate everyone — including employees of color. She says her approach allows everyone “to make mistakes, say the wrong thing sometimes and be able to correct it.”


The question of belonging has become the latest focus in the evolving world of corporate diversity, equity and inclusion programming.

Interest in creating more inclusive workplaces exploded after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Many corporations turned their attention to addressing systemic racism and power imbalances — the things that had kept boardrooms white and employees of color feeling excluded from office life.

Now, nearly three years since that moment, some companies are amending their approach to D.E.I., even renaming their departments to include “belonging.” It’s the age of D.E.I.-B.

Some critics worry it’s about making white people comfortable rather than addressing systemic inequality, or that it simply allows companies to prioritize getting along over necessary change.

“Belonging is a way to help people who aren’t marginalized feel like they’re part of the conversation,” said Stephanie Creary, assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of Business who studies corporate strategies for diversity and inclusion.

She believes an abstract focus on belonging allows companies to avoid the tough conversations about power — and the resistance those conversations often generate. {snip}

Ms. Foster contends that as a practical matter, there will be no equity if the people in power — “the straight white male”— feel excluded from the conversation. The people traditional D.E.I. practitioners “most want to enroll are the people they’re isolating and honestly ostracizing,” she said.

The nonpartisan nonprofit Business for America recently interviewed more than two dozen executives at 18 companies and found this to be a common theme. “The way they’ve rolled out D.E.I. has exacerbated divides even while addressing valuable issues,” said Sarah Bonk, BFA’s founder and chief executive. “It has created some hostility, resentment.”

It’s why companies like Woodward are now hiring consultants who specialize in “belonging” and “bridge building.” They are coming to the aid of executives who fear that national divisions are penetrating the workplace, threatening to drive a wedge between colleagues and making everyone feel anxious and defensive.


The belonging obsession is the result of a now-widespread corporate standard: Bring your whole self to work. If you have the flexibility to work wherever you want, and the freedom to discuss the social and political issues that matter to you, then ideally, you’ll feel that you belong at your company.

Bring your whole self to work emerged before the pandemic but became something of a mandate at its height, as companies tried to stanch a wave of resignations. They were also responding to concerns that many people felt excluded in the workplace. According to a 2022 report by the think tank Coqual, roughly half of Black and Asian professionals with a bachelor’s or more advanced degree don’t feel a sense of belonging at work.

Last year, the Society for Human Resource Management conducted its first survey on corporate belonging. Seventy-six percent of respondents said their organization prioritized belonging as part of its D.E.I. strategy and 64 percent said they planned to invest more in belonging initiatives this year. Respondents said that identity-based communities, like employee resource groups, helped foster belonging, while mandatory diversity training did not.


Irshad Manji, founder of the consultancy Moral Courage College, says an “almost offensive focus on group labels” is a big problem with mainstream diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “It all but compels people to stereotype each other. I happen to be Muslim and a faithful Muslim,” she said. “But that does not mean I interpret Islam like every other Muslim out there.”

Ms. Manji believes that people now use “belonging” as a “tacit acknowledgment that traditional D.E.I. hasn’t worked well.”