Breaking The Glass Ceiling Through Visible DEI Leadership

Diversity in senior and C-suite leadership helps to create a culture where more people in the organization can envision their potential trajectories, feel supported, be able to fully contribute and feel free to be themselves. When DEI leadership is weak at the executive level, there’s no backbone to DEI efforts throughout the organization. 

Your leadership team sets the tone for the organization: from character to values to culture. But one DEI survey found that while 68% of businesses had company-wide diversity as a priority in their DEI strategy, only 25% had leadership diversity as a priority. If DEI is not a priority at the leadership level, are you truly committed to DEI? It’s a hard case to make. 

Top Leadership Visibly Lacks Diversity

Among Fortune 500 companies, 86% of CEO seats were composed by white men in 2021. Those at the helm included 430 white men, 2 black men, 17 Latino men, 10 Asian women, 34 white women, 2 black women and 5 Asian women. From data so far released in 2022, some numbers have risen - for example, there are now 44 women CEOs and six black CEOs. Less than 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs publicly identify as LGBTQ.

Ten years ago, less than 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs were female. And Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox, had been the only Black woman leading a Fortune 500 company. So today's representation is a progress from the starting point. The problem is that the starting point is so low, nearly non-existent.

Lorraine Hariton, CEO Catalyst, said in 2021: "We're seeing more intentionality. We're seeing a focus on women of color. And we're seeing a recognition that diversity and women in leadership is even more important.”

Still, diversity in top leadership remains well behind the pace of the ignited conversation around DEI. If the C-Suite of your organization isn’t visibly diverse, how do you shift momentum towards getting there? The short answer: you take direct responsibility for that momentum. 

Commitment Beyond Words


When DEI leadership is weak at the executive level, there’s no backbone to DEI efforts throughout the organization. 

Recent research by Harvard Business Review Analytics classified organizations as DEI Leader, DEI Follower, or DEI Laggard. They found that among companies who are DEI Laggard, 50% of people feel a lack of leadership commitment hinders their DEI efforts and 72% say they are held back by a lack of diversity at senior levels of the organization.

When DEI is visibly important and championed at the top, it gains legs throughout the organization. DEI Leader organizations are more than twice as likely as Laggard organizations (77% relative to 34%) to have visible executive support. Among DEI Leader organizations, 44% say they set goals for diversity among senior executives, compared to only 17% of Laggards. 

The most successful DEI Leader organizations drive the DEI strategic priority from the top, with a senior leader visibly in charge, and make themselves  accountable. In DEI Leader organizations, 71% see the CEO as accountable to the DEI objectives. Further, when the CEO sets and communicates upon the DEI strategy frequently, the company is 6.3 times more likely to have a diverse leadership team and is more likely to be an industry leader. In other words, visible commitment turns into visible diversity in leadership.

Importantly, C-Suite support isn’t just about creating a post. It’s not enough to add a D&I Leader post (CDO, CDIO) only to set the post up with unrealistic expectations, lack of executive team support, lack of budget and lack of resources and reports. The ability of the CDO to drive effective DEI is as strong as the integrated commitment of the C-Suite. Hiring a change agent post that takes on the DEI charge will fail if the rest of the C-Suite abdicates vision and responsibility for the change.

Also, leaders need to mind the gap when it comes to the real impact of their commitment. Research has previously found that leaders were nearly twice as likely as their employees to perceive they were creating empowering environments from a DEI perspective

Beyond consistent and transparent communication, four ways individual leaders can show visible commitment to DEI include: investing time to grow personal competencies in DEI, making time and room in their schedule to support the achievement of DEI goals, allocating financial resource behind their commitment to DEI, and getting behind better data practices to measure DEI gaps and progress in the organization. Above all, it’s finding out how to remove barriers all along the talent pipeline to where you sit.

The Power of Representation in Executive Leadership

When the organizational commitment to DEI does show up visibly as diversity amidst executive leadership, it gains leverage and momentum. Research has shown that companies with executive teams in the first quartile of racial and ethnic diversity have a 36% greater chance of above-average profitability (relative to the fourth quartile), and those with executive teams in the first quartile of gender diversity have a 25% greater chance of above-average profitability.  

Reflecting more diversity in leadership also brings many advantages to leadership: including more depth and breadth of perspective, positive changes that benefit more people, increased awareness of the organizational culture, new ways of thinking, more unique and inclusive decisions, more talent attraction, more psychological safety, a stronger collective outlook and more innovation. 

Diversity in senior and C-suite leadership helps to create a culture where more people in the organization can envision their potential trajectories, feel supported, be able to fully contribute and feel free to be themselves. Also, when a group starts to enter into a space not previously available to them, they are often followed by others on the path, because breaking through a longstanding barrier opens the doors more broadly. 

What isn’t present is as visible and communicates as much as what is, when it comes to representation. It matters for people in underrepresented groups to visibly see leaders who they can relate to and identify with in senior leadership roles and even to know others are seeing them, too. 

It sets a different tone. In a genuinely inclusive organization, the tone is that every single individual has the opportunity to fulfill their potential and be supported in developing it - and there is no ceiling above which your potential cannot go - and when that is true, it becomes visible.

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