Is DEI – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – Dead?

We talked to auto industry leaders Cheryl Thompson of CADIA and Linda Taliaferro of The Extra Effort on the current state of diversity and DEI. They are optimistic.

What Drives Her Podcast
What Drives Her Podcast

Can DEI Survive the Political Crosshairs?

As a woman, a parent, and I imagine, as any person of color, the news lately has been hard to take: Some states, universities, and corporations are dismantling formal programs designed to drive the understanding and practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

But is that possible? To look at the automotive industry is to see a deep heritage of DEI practices that have created some of the greatest opportunities for all people who want to build a long and rewarding career (and work among some really wonderful people, I might add!). And yet, there is still much to do to create truly equal opportunities.

There are solid business cases for DEI. And if companies (as well as states and universities) are to participate globally in growing economies, DEI is a critical component.

So, what’s a girl to do to get past those barriers and achieve the success she knows she can build?

I called Cheryl Thompson, founder of CADIA, the Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement. Cheryl spent more than 30 years at Ford as an engineer and for her second act, founded CADIA to help companies and leaders benefit from all she’s learned.

Cheryl brought Linda Taliaferro to the conversation; Linda is a VP of quality at parts maker ZF and the founder of TEE, the Extra Effort, a career consulting firm that helps people of color to achieve their career dreams.

You can listen to our full conversation here, but I pulled out some of Cheryl and Linda’s ideas that answer the question: Is DEI dead?

Related: What Drives Her: How Diversity—and Equity and Inclusion—Are Changing the Face of the Auto Industry

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What Drives Her Podcast Scotty Reiss, Linda Taliaferro, Cheryl Thompson Discussing Diversity And Dei

What Drives Her Podcast Scotty Reiss, Linda Taliaferro, Cheryl Thompson

How Did Diversity Become Part of Automotive?

Scotty: What did auto companies have to do to bring diversity into their organizations those years ago?

Linda: I started in this in the eighties, and I’ve seen it really grow to what you just described such that Mary Barra (CEO of General Motors) exists, and then her entire team was made up of women leading global operations, leading purchasing, and so forth.

And what it felt like for me on the ground was this intentionality around recognizing the skills that the women brought, the different thought process and approach to issues. Problem-solving, the way we handle conflict, and so forth. And so, really recognizing how that benefited the individual company is what I saw shifting after I started at GM years ago at Delco.

There, I would have never thought that eventually, Mary Barra, a woman, would be the CEO. But I believe that it’s through that learning experience that the leaders who happened to be white males had. And because of people who were willing to say, ‘Yes, I see you, and here’s a door that I will open for you. You’ve raised your hand, and I am actually going to open the door.’

Cheryl: We look at automotive, and it’s so large. We’ve got the supply base, we’ve got the OEMs, and then we’ve got dealerships which are closest to the customer. They should be striving to look like the communities that they serve and operate in.

When we think about workforce diversity, I think we can learn a lot about what has been done in the supplier diversity world. That has been going on for decades and decades. And I remember sitting with a group of supplier diversity professionals, and they were talking about positioning of a company with engineers. The engineers didn’t want to have anything to do with a diverse supplier. But the supplier diversity people were very strategic on how they were positioning that supplier. And I was thinking, wow, you know, the good leaders out there, the advocates, the allies, the sponsors, they do the same thing, right? They position that talent. They’re an advocate for someone you may not even know.

They’re advocating for you behind, you know, behind closed doors. So I think more awareness out there, being able to talk about the experiences that we’re having. I think myself as a woman, I would imagine others who are underrepresented have had the same experience of isolating because you’re trying to self-protect, and you think it’s only you.

In 2020 the racial reckoning helped us be more open to having those conversations, we start to realize, Wow, not everyone’s having the same experience, so what do we need to do? The work Linda is doing is phenomenal with looking at the individual and asking ‘what responsibility do I have in this?’

Related: Diversity in Auto Companies? GM Execs Reveal The Key To Their Future

What Do the Demographics of the Auto Industry Look Like?

Cheryl: [We just completed a] study on demographics that showed improvement in getting women into leadership. But we have a huge gap in getting people of color into leadership. Right. They’re way underrepresented there. So there is still a lot of work to do.

The next generation coming into the workplace – we’re not even talking Gen Z, we’re talking Alpha, the ones born after 2014. Each generation is getting more and more diverse when you look at race, ethnicity, and even sexual orientation. I can’t wait to see what comes out of that Alpha with the things that they’re willing to tolerate or not willing to tolerate.

Scotty: Can you go a little deeper into that in terms of numbers of women and people of color, the changes that have been made, and some of that strata, what that looks like at the entry-level and management and VP level?

Cheryl: When we look for talent who is diverse, often we get the excuse of ‘I can’t find diverse talent,’ or I hear, ‘Women and minorities, they just don’t go into these technical fields.’

So we really wanted to get that data. We looked at transportation and had 20 companies share their demographic data with us and then another 20 with their publicly available information. We were able to see overall representation for females is 24%, which isn’t great. The piece that makes me optimistic is when we get to the executive level, which is two down from CEO, that’s 22%. So, the representation at that senior level is on par with the representation of women overall. That’s a good sign because the things we’re doing are paying off.

However, I don’t know if it’s going to be sustainable if we don’t start growing that 24% right now.

The troubling piece of the study is for Black or African American workers, they’re overrepresented, especially at the entry-level.

Overall representation in the workforce is 13% for Black or African American workers. And automotive, it’s 14%. When we look at those entry levels, which is operators, laborers, admin, it is way overrepresented. But when we get to those senior levels, only 6%. So there’s a huge gap there.

Related: A Note About Color and Diversity

What Drives Her Podcast Diversity And Dei

What Drives Her Podcast

What Can Companies Do to Develop a More Diverse Workforce?

What are the career paths that we can start creating to help them advance? There’s a lot of state money out there and workforce development resources that can be used that I don’t think a lot of companies are taking advantage of. I look at a couple of our Tier one suppliers in the Detroit area. Detroit is 80% African-American and I look at some of these Black led companies, they’re doing that.

They are developing career paths for those entry-level workers. And they are having remarkable careers. We need more of that.

Linda: I believe there’s a lot to be learned from those companies, and there’s more of them. But there’s probably a lot more Black-owned companies that aren’t doing what those two or three examples are. So if they would even step forward, take advantage of the grants, take advantage of bringing forward these opportunities, and then the other companies in an allyship position could learn from them, that really would make the difference.

I say this because a lot of times a young black person coming out of school and thinking, I have a technical background, mechanical engineer, I’m interviewing and I’m not seeing anybody that looks like me, right? So I’m a little reluctant, maybe even to consider going there. But if I maybe, you know, cut my chops in the beginning at black-owned firms and really get my confidence level up, what a difference that makes for those young individuals in their careers in the long term.

We have a large conference here in Detroit called One Woman of Color Conference. And I remember the first time when it was back in 2015, and my gosh, my heart just exploded when I saw hundreds of young women coming out of STEM fields or are still in STEM study. And they were interviewing, and they were there, and they were asking all these wonderful questions and showing their interest and influence. And then when I have companies say we can’t find them, I’m thinking, you’re here in Detroit!

How Does It Feel to Have Your Business – DEI – Being Attacked?

Scotty: DEI as a practice is under threat in many sectors. Do you think it will really go away?

Linda: It does very much feel like an attack. And it’s sad to say what I’m about to say, but it’s not a new attack. It’s just a different one, and unfortunate that no matter what is transpiring, no matter what simple gains occur, a movement in a certain direction happens that gives this impression that one group of people is winning and another group of people is losing.

It’s not a win/loss, right? It’s just because that’s trapped in that psyche. Then we have this, and it’s it’s extremely unfortunate. I will say, you know when I saw all the stuff happening after 2020 with the new chief diversity officer announcements everywhere, I thought, okay, how long is this going to last?

I’m still a glass-half-full person. And I know numerous people in my network who believe if that means we have to do the small work that we do within our space, we’re still going to do it.

I mean, if I can [succeed in the automotive industry] as a person born in the sixties, you can definitely do it born in the 2000s and beyond. So we’ve all said, hey, we’re still going to be out here for the fight. We’re still going to do our part, whatever that is, to keep the direction, even if it’s slow and arduous moving where we know it needs to go, where we all are supposed to be created equal, you know, it just where the equity exists and that we can all show up in our in our greatness.

Cheryl: This zero-sum game mentality — if I win, someone else’s losing, and it’s human nature. When I first got into this work, even just advocating for women, when I was still in my corporate role, I was confused about the backlash.

There were people who wanted to push against this and tell me that I was just making up the experience that I was having of feeling left out and underestimated and all of that. So, I’ve come to learn that this is human nature. You know, think about when you were a kid, and if you had a sibling, you’re looking next to you saying your sandwich is bigger than mine, or she’s got more cookies than me. How do we rise above that?

I look at the [DEI] movement as a continuum. You’ve got the anti-DEI people who are on this side, then you’ve got people who are just confused. They hadn’t thought much about it, but they’re starting to hear all this stuff in the political environment and in the news, and they’re maybe believing some of these misconceptions. Then you’ve got the person in the middle who’s like, Take it or leave it. I’m just trying to get my job done.

Then you’ve got people who think this is important, but they just don’t know what to do. They’re like, ‘Tell me what to do.’ And then you’ve got the people who actually do know what to do, and they’re using their power and influence.

And then we’ve got the inclusion piece, which we’ve been talking about for a while. This piece is a little bit new, and I think it’s the most powerful piece of it because this is, in my view, what is changing or retooling the systems and the structures that we have in the workplace.

I am optimistic. We [CADIA] have a CEO Coalition for Change, and we talk about the political environment quite a bit. And the last meeting we just had, one of the CEOs spoke up and said, listen, you have to block out that noise because it is our job as CEOs to be responsible for the sustainability of our workforce, and that means diversifying our workforce.

Bridge Partners just put a barometer survey out, and what they said is that 70% of companies are expanding their [DEI] efforts. Only 2% are cutting back. And then 82% of C-Suites feel that this is more important than it was even five years ago. So, I am seeing some bright spots. I think we have to meet people where they are sometimes; that means taking a few steps back to pick up some people, but also realize there’s going to be some people that were never going to change their mind.

You can find the full conversation here, and please tell us what you think?

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Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss