David Heinemeier Hansson

November 21, 2022

The waning days of DEI's dominance

The acronym for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion entered the common corporate lexicon with overwhelming force in 2020. Executives everywhere quickly learned they needed a passable position on DEI to stay employed, and a cottage industry of consultants sprung up to provide it. There were endless proclamations of "doing the work", some employees were told to "be less white", and sympathy statements for public protests abounded. It was a near total victory over existing corporate culture in America.

The rout turned traditional concepts of meritocracy, color blindness, and equality of opportunity into something "problematic" and "toxic". It spawned a constant churn of denunciations and cancelations. Both for transgressions against the new orthodoxy committed in the moment and for those in the distant past. An ideological inferno had been lit.

This stunning cultural conquest was enabled and accelerated by so many influences it's difficult to list them all. The aftershock of Trump, the riots in the wake of George Floyd, the grand isolation experiment of the pandemic, the writings of D'Angelo and X. Kendi. To name just a few. All winds for a moment seemingly blowing in the same righteous direction.

Not many dared speak up back then, whatever their misgivings about the ideology or the actions it bred. Most wisely chose to hold their breath rather than waste it against a hurricane.

But since those heady days of 2020, things have changed. The DEI hegemony has gone from virtually unchallenged to come under severe stress. Let's look at four reasons why.

First, the Supreme Court is poised to repeal affirmative action at American universities next year. This thanks to a lawsuit brought on by Asian-American students who've been discriminated against at Harvard in the service of preferential treatment for other races. It's a case that goes to the heart of DEI ideology: That to correct wrongs of discrimination in the past, we must apply reverse discrimination today.

That's not an ideology that holds sway with the majority of Americans. Most do not want college admission to be preferential on the basis of race, even if they support efforts to help minorities get a fair shot. Or said differently, Americans still support equality of opportunity, and they still reject equality of outcomes.

If the Supreme Court votes with the majority of Americans on this issue of college admissions, it'll be more than a little difficult for major American corporations to continue to run a hiring strategy based on affirmative action.

Second, many of the ideological allies of the DEI movement, like the official Black Lives Matter organization, have been swallowed by scandals. It's hard to lend public legitimacy to the HR offshoot if the main ideology is taking such large steps backward in public opinion.

This doesn't just involve the disintegration of organizations like BLM, but also the discrediting of policy goals like "Defund The Police". The DEI movement used the broad societal energy that propelled BLM, including "Defund The Police", to gain prominence and power in 2020. Now that energy has all but evaporated as we close out 2022.

Third, the DEI movement has lost control of Twitter, which served as the main instrument to run ideological enforcement in the corporate sphere. The threat of Twitter mobs ensured quick compliance from corporate executives, and other figures of power, lest the pitchforks be aimed at their necks.

But now Twitter is owned by Elon Musk. A fact that has fundamentally altered the balance of power on the platform. And whose proposals, like ending elite bluecheck privileges and ideological censorship, run counter to the needs of The Message.

Fourth, and finally, is that tech workers – from whom the DEI movement drew its most active and engaged disciples – no longer hold as much power over their place of employment as they once did. Gone are the days where elite tech worker could easily threaten their employer with a jump to a competitor for another plum position making $200K+. All the major tech companies are now either doing layoffs in mass numbers or have instituted hiring freezes.

With potentially hundreds of thousands of tech workers soon to be out of a job – perhaps for quite a while! – I suspect many of the most fervent ideologues among them will find it more difficult to convince companies to hire them elsewhere. The idea of bringing Your Whole Self to Twitter may suddenly seem a fair bit less appealing as the job market turns.

If these four factors do indeed bring forth the waning days of DEI dominance, I think it's important to try to extract some good from the worthwhile aspirations of a misguided movement. Divorce the specific tactics, and especially the ideology, from the valiant drive to promote equal opportunities for all. You can sign on to that mission without even accepting the premise of DEI.

Give everyone a fair chance to advance in the world on the merit of their talent and content of their character. Regardless of their identity. That's the creed of equality of opportunity. One that was passed by as the DEI train chased the outcomes-based, ratio-obsessed equality of outcomes.

Furthermore, while we refocus on equality of opportunity, we can't put the failure to correct, say, early childhood education, or wherever things diverge for different groups, at the feet of companies looking to hire the best candidate for the job down the line. There really is a pipeline problem, and booing that acknowledgement helps nobody.

The central premise of DEI, that discrepancies between demography statistics and employment reality, is defacto proof of discrimination is simply false. The sooner this erroneous analysis fade from prominence, the better for all.

It's been a crazy couple of years in the throes of zealotry. Most companies and executives could well be excused for ducking their heads during that time, as previous principles of equality were being torched by a radical rebellion raging. But it's now due for them to raise their heads again and simply say "I don't believe that's true, we're not doing that".

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.