Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: How to Make the Case?

An expert practitioner shares how to advocate for DEI in national security.

Silence is Violence.”

Black Lives Matter.”

These are slogans millions of Americans chanted in 2020 from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Washington, DC. Police brutality, systemic racism, white supremacy, and social inequities — to name a few — were at the forefront of this social upheaval. In turn, organizations across the US in various industries realized the potential implications of this social reckoning for their work. CEOs and industry leaders across the globe gathered their staff in virtual meetings to process what was occurring across US cities. Many asked the question: “What does that mean for us?” or “What is our responsibility here?”

Subsequently, the job market saw an influx of positions focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and belonging. From museums to corporations to academic institutions to government agencies, everyone was hiring the next “Chief Diversity Officer.” I, myself, was brought on during the same time period at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to put together the first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategic plan.

The reality is that our national security and foreign policy institutions have historically lagged in reflecting the diversity of American society. Some of the main priorities in this particular space include: recruiting and hiring professionals from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences at all levels of institutions, retaining talent through an investment in an inclusive work culture, and incorporating DEI into all aspects of policy research.

We should be in spaces where the value of our diverse perspectives is not only given, but central to the mission. While I understand some might be frustrated with the extra legwork required especially for individuals from historically marginalized backgrounds, as a DEI expert and professional, I am also realistic that we have a long way to go. We need the right tools to move this work forward. Throughout the past few years, I attended countless meetings, roundtables, events, and conferences discussing the WHY behind investing in DEI. I have been asked to consult numerous organizations on their DEI journey. I have had these conversations with high school students, interns, government officials, industry leaders, and CEOs. Through each conversation, I learn something new about my approach and how I can get individuals on board depending on my target audience.

Through my research and expertise, I have identified four ways individuals or organizations can make the case for DEI.

1. DEI IS A NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE

“China poses great national security for the US”

“The US needs to protect itself from global terrorism.”

“Is climate change the next national security challenge?”

These titles are familiar in media and in discussions across the political spectrum. But where do the challenges about racism and socioeconomic inequities fit in?

I argue that DEI is a pressing national security imperative. This framework has not been adopted amongst policy institutions, but it is critical to the advancement of a shared vision rooted in inclusion and equity. Not investing in DEI can lead to national security threats. How?

The makeup of the workforce is critical to ensuring diverse perspectives, voices, and lived experiences are included in the response to complex policy challenges. A homogeneous workforce can lead to decisions and policies that disproportionately impact certain communities, which in turn can have a detrimental effect on our national security. Systemic barriers to entry (based on biased recruiting and hiring practices) for certain groups can also reduce the collective brainpower of policy organizations to make strategic decisions.

We should be in spaces where the value of our diverse perspectives is not only given, but central to the mission.

From an inclusion standpoint, if certain groups do not feel heard and seen at all levels of decision-making, employees will experience a lack of psychological safety, a key determinant of high-performing teams. When segments of the workforce are disenfranchised, trust can erode within teams and impact the work quality. When employees do not feel a sense of belonging, they are more likely to turn over causing retention challenges. As policy leaders, we cannot afford a monolithic group think and its inimical/harmful impact on our nation’s security interests at home and abroad.

2. DEI IS A MORAL AND ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY 

There is no doubt that investing in DEI is the right thing to do. It is the responsibility of every individual working at any organization regardless of their title and position. DEI should be connected to the organization’s collective mission and values. The moral case signals that this work is rooted in values created and held in the organization. Research has shown that companies that have achieved significant progress toward DEI leverage the Values/Principles Model focusing on four values: representation, participation, application, and appreciation. This argument is often neglected or underestimated — there is an implicit assumption that everyone is on the same page without outwardly stating why and how DEI is a moral responsibility in any given organization. Organizational cultural change happens when people feel personally and emotionally invested in this work.

3. DEI MAKES GOOD BUSINESS SENSE AND BUILDS WORKFORCE RESILIENCE

Arguing for DEI as a way to strengthen business has often been criticized because it makes a human issue connected to money and financial outcomes. Yet, for many years, hundreds of global studies have linked better outcomes with diverse teams. There is an abundance of research connecting diverse teams with high productivity, innovation, and adaptability. A global analysis conducted by Credit Suisse Research Institute showed that companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed — in terms of share price — companies with no women on the board.

Based on the aforementioned critiques of the business case, I suggest two ways the business case can be ameliorated.

First, if done right, the business case should be connected to the moral case because an organization’s business goals should act in conjunction with its moral compass. This explicit distinction should be made by leadership for its employees and external stakeholders.

Second, we should begin to use the language “workforce resilience,” rather than the business case. The core components of workforce resilience are: 1) a sense of security at work; 2) a strong sense of belonging with the employer; and 3) the adaptability and motivation employees need to reach their full potential. Companies need to invest in DEI to allow them to build a workforce and thus an organization that is more resilient and adaptable in times of crisis.

4. DEI ENHANCES INSTITUTIONAL CREDIBILITY

Millennials and Gen Z-ers, who already make up 46% of the workforce, are projected to become the largest group in the next 10 years. More than any other generation, younger millennials and Gen Z-ers prioritize holistic well-being, ethical leadership, and DEI for their workplace of choice. This trend will only increase as younger generations come into the workforce.

Based on this context, what does this mean for policy organizations? Will organizations remain credible if DEI is not only a priority, but what drives their work and overall strategic goals?

I argue that policy organizations will not stay relevant if this priority is not implemented both internally and externally. Younger generations are holding organizations accountable internally, but externally, more accountability is a must.

Incredible organizations like OrgsinSolidarity and Gender Champions have done critical work to raise accountability in the national security and larger policy space. But more needs to happen. Funders, board members, and other powerful entities need to be at the forefront of this movement. Policy organizations’ institutional credibility is dependent on DEI. Getting ahead of it can only benefit these organizations in the long-run.

The DEI work is challenging, but ultimately necessary to build effective and forward-thinking organizational infrastructure. Your DEI leaders need you. Your colleagues from historically marginalized backgrounds need your authentic allyship. As you approach your next meeting or conversation about DEI, remember you have an abundance of tools. Think strategically about the who, how, and why. Remember you have a serious responsibility in this salient issue. Each one of us has a role to build a more equitable and just society for all.

Hadeil Ali is deputy director of the Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Project. She is responsible for leading all diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ms. Ali is the chair of the Think Tank Diversity Consortium. She is the events and programming lead with the Race Across the Pond Initiative at Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security, and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS) and a facilitator with the Anti-Racism Project. She holds an MA in contemporary Arab studies with highest honors from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in international relations and communications summa cum laude from Drury University. She speaks French, Arabic, and Spanish. To view more of her publications: Hadeil Ali – Medium