So You’ve Hired a Diversity and Inclusion Expert? Here Are Six Ways You Could Be Undermining Them

Leila Billing
The Startup
Published in
10 min readJan 11, 2021


Credit: Christina Morillo

In the US, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is a multi-billion dollar industry. US universities, corporations and non-profits have been implementing DEI programmes for decades. Yet, many point out that there has been little to show for this investment. Take Google, for example. In 2014 and 2015, it is reported that the tech firm spent $114 million and $150 million respectively on diversity programmes. Yet in 2019, only two percent of its workforce were African Americans. Recent controversies include the firing of Timnit Gebru — a prominent Black expert on artificial intelligence who had criticised the company’s diversity efforts.

Meanwhile, the DEI industrial complex is spreading its tentacles and moving into global development spaces like never before. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, NGOs have been recruiting diversity consultants to conduct audits, develop diversity policies, facilitate workshops and train on unconscious bias. A handful of larger NGOs have started to recruit full or part-time diversity officers. In some cases, these recruitments have been rocky — one large NGO that put out bold anti-racism commitments in the wake of Black Lives Matter has haemorrhaged a number of diversity leads and consultants in the past few months alone.

There is a strong argument that the reasons why so many DEI initiatives fail is because a DEI lens itself is not political or radical enough to bring about transformative change. Angela Davis memorably told us: ‘When people call for diversity and link it to justice and equality, that’s fine. But there’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.’ In this piece, I want to amplify the experiences of DEI practitioners — because what they have to say suggests that the way many NGOs (and institutions in other sectors) are currently engaging with the diversity agenda is failing people of colour. To write this, I spoke to DEI consultants and full-time diversity staff working in different sectors — including academia and non-profits. I also spoke to minoritised groups working in NGOs who have shared experiences of their organisations’ recent efforts to recruit staff to lead diversity efforts. Finally, I got razor-sharp insights by trawling through the brave resignation statements from people who have worked on diversity programmes in universities, corporations and non-profits.

Crises of legitimacy

In some instances, NGO leaders are recruiting those least likely to rock the boat to lead diversity work. I spoke to people of colour working at a large international NGO who complained that recent hires to work on diversity issues did not have the support of minoritised groups in the organisation. One said: ‘Our CEO overlooked more qualified internal candidates who could have taken up the role in favour of someone who will do the CEO’s bidding and cause as little discomfort as possible. When we complained, we were told that other candidates would not have been able to create as much ‘consensus’ as leadership’s preferred candidate. It was clear that this was ‘consensus’ as defined by our white senior management. Not on our terms.’ This is an example of how an institution can use a diversity officer to reinforce the boundaries around a white space, and to strengthen, rather than dismantle existing inequalities. A staff member of another large NGO told me, ‘There was little involvement of our organisation’s BAME network in developing the job description for the new diversity lead, or involving us in the hiring process. We have very little faith that this person can represent us or our interests.’ This was just one of many examples I found underlining how people of colour can be left out of the very conversations they created in the first place.

If NGOs are recruiting diversity practitioners on the basis that they will assimilate into the dominant organisational culture, and that they will align their approach to leadership’s pre-existing analysis of the problem — these practitioners will have little legitimacy with the people whose interests they are supposed to represent. Choosing diversity officers who are palatable to power holders and not those closest to the pain will only buttress the whiteness of an institution rather than transform it. This does pose the question of whether those recruiting diversity practitioners are as committed to change as they might have us believe.

Unrealistic expectations

Incoming diversity officers are often faced with a huge to-do list, encompassing everything from diversifying talent pipelines, ‘detoxifying’ organisational culture, writing policies, conducting audits and last, but certainly not least, leading all the work of educating others, implicitly absolving individuals of having to self-educate. Outsourcing education can be particularly problematic. Audre Lorde eloquently spoke about how common this burden of education is, and how it risks reproducing inequalities — particularly for women of colour.

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of colour to educate white women — in the face of tremendous resistance — as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.”

Consultants face similar, herculean tasks. A recent terms of reference for a diversity expert for an international NGO required the consultant to, within two months of working part-time, conduct an audit of organisational culture, develop a diversity strategy and monitoring and evaluation framework, as well as build the capacity of staff in four regions in DEI. These unrealistic expectations can provide organisations with a convenient scapegoat when targets aren’t met.

Those I spoke to said that it is very common for diversity focal points and consultants not to have access to what they need to make their role a success. One consultant recently told me they turned down a contract after ‘It was clear that the organisation wanted me to do as quick and dirty a job as possible. When I asked to speak to the CEO or at least to people on the senior leadership team as part of the consultancy, I was told that wouldn’t be possible as they were too busy.’ Depending upon the size of the task at hand, whoever leads this work is likely to need headcount, budget, and a reporting line to the CEO. All too often, they lack the level of influence and clout they require — I have seen numerous job descriptions for NGO DEI leads stressing that the candidate must be able to ‘influence without authority’.

Addressing symptoms rather than root causes

There is a tension inherent in many diversity practitioners’ to-do lists. Their assigned tasks and objectives might suggest the organisation is receptive to institutionalising anti-racist practice — but all too often this hides institutional inertia. Diversity practitioners — particularly those working full time in institutions — repeatedly speak about coming up against barrier after barrier, blockage after blockage, excuse after excuse why change cannot happen. (‘We need more data!’, ‘It’s not the right time!’, ‘There’s not enough funding!’ ‘The board won’t go for it!’, ‘Can’t we do something less… drastic?’) They speak about being employed by organisations that are more concerned with creating the perception of transformation, rather than doing the hard work to bring about genuine transformation itself.

In addition, many will find themselves consumed by technocratic tasks, such as writing policies, implementing audits and developing all kinds of systems and procedures to monitor change. Success becomes all about generating the appearance of success through the presence of policies, compliance and monitoring and evaluation frameworks, which often do all too little to surface some of the unspoken norms, practices and structures that reproduce inequalities in the first place.

Diversity as public relations

NGOs should also beware of asking consultants and staff to focus on perception management. Scholar Sara Ahmed, in her research into diversity workers in UK academic institutions, wrote about the tendency for this work to increasingly become about managing external perceptions of the organisation and focused upon generating the ‘right image’. It is deeply disappointing to so many when the root causes of a ‘diversity’ problem are distilled to issues of ‘perception and PR’ rather than the actual composition, structures and culture of an organisation itself. As Ahmed puts it: ‘Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than the whiteness of the organisation itself’.

Often, institutions will hold up the presence of a diversity officer as evidence of its commitment to diversity, and willingness to be transformed. One diversity practitioner told me, ‘I feel at times like I’m part of a branding exercise. My organisation constantly uses me as an example of how they are a diverse institution, committed to inclusion for all.’ In this way, as Sarah Ahmed highlights, diversity officers become a tick in the box:

‘Bodies of colour provide organisations with tools; ways of turning action points into outcomes. We become the tools in their kit. We are the ticks in the boxes; we tick their boxes.’

Instrumentalising people in this way can sometimes be a resigning matter. See this resignation statement from Graci Harkema, former diversity and inclusion director for a large US corporation. She wrote to her employer:

Your actions have explicitly shown you are more interested in the optics of my face, than the impact of my voice.”

Alongside tokenism comes the othering of diversity practitioners, particularly when they are people of colour. Nirmal Puwar wrote about women of colour working on diversity in UK higher education institutions, describing them as ‘space invaders’ — because the spaces in which they move are normally spaces reserved for others. Their presence in institutions is highly contingent and subject to conditions, which may not be at first apparent. I spoke to one diversity consultant who works with NGOs who told me, ‘Since the death of George Floyd, many non-profits are much more willing to speak about race. But mention whiteness, and lips purse, pearls are clutched, people recoil and there is a sense that you have overstepped the mark.’ If those of us working on these issues can talk about race, but not mention whiteness, I’m not sure how far our anti-racism work can go.


The risk of co-option of diversity agendas once they enter an institutional setting is immense, and there must be constant vigilance to prevent this from happening. We have learned much about co-option from the trajectory of gender mainstreaming in international development organisations, which showed us that when a radical agenda — such as the need to embed gender equity into organisational policy and practice — enters an institutional space, it can easily become aligned to the pre-existing objectives and frameworks that already drive that organisation. Likewise, meanings of ‘diversity’ or ‘anti-racism’ risk becoming reappropriated and defanged of their original political intentions, and the hard work to address inequality, marginalisation and shift power relations can easily remain on the sidelines. Former Diversity and Inclusion Manager, Sandra Brown, from Queen Mary’s University in London makes this point in her brave resignation letter to her employers:

‘Whilst there may be much rhetoric about Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) from your “diverse” senior management, your absence from the space has been noted by the very staff whom you claim to support and value. The version of EDI adopted at Queen Mary (QM) is a watered down version whose purpose is to surround itself with accolades achieved as a result of the wellbeing, personal, passionate commitment of the very people they are supposed to support and benefit ,whilst the environment remains toxic and disproportionately affecting the experiences of the diverse community at QM. I was hoping QM would not succumb to the tick box mentality, but it seems I was hoping in vain.’

Through processes of co-option, powerful myths can appear. An emerging myth being: ‘We have a chief diversity officer, so we must be committed to anti-racism’. Such myths are created through acts of power — and they are used to shore up the reputation of the institution.


Working in a space saturated with resistance and tension takes a considerable toll on those who work on diversity and anti-racism.The writers Tina Lopes and Barb Thomas memorably say that addressing racism in organisations is akin to ‘dancing on live embers’. It is what Sara Ahmed calls ‘banging-your-head-against-a-brick-wall-kind-of-work’. She writes, ‘ The feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move, something solid and tangible. The institution becomes that which you come up against.’ Being a diversity practitioner involves answering W.E.B DuBois’ killer question ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ No wonder, then, that high staff turnover can become an issue (remember that large NGO I told you about at the beginning of this article?) and burnout and mental health issues are very real. Absorbing so much emotional exhaustion and trauma should not be the responsibility of a diversity officer, but all too often it is unacknowledged labour.

Senior leaders in non-profits need to critically interrogate the following questions as a priority: does your diversity and inclusion focal point have legitimacy among minoritised groups in your organisation? Be honest — in what ways might you be setting them up to fail rather than succeed? To what extent are you asking staff working on diversity to focus more on PR than systemic change? How will you support your diversity officer to act in the face of resistance? What does institutional transformation mean to you — and how far are you willing to go? How much personal responsibility do you take for this work — or are you really hoping to outsource the problem to your diversity lead? How you will support the mental health and wellbeing of the people you hire to lead diversity and inclusion efforts?

If your answers to the questions above don’t stand up to scrutiny by
the minoritised groups you work with, perhaps it’s time to go back to
the drawing board.

Leila Billing is a freelance consultant and co-founder of We Are Feminist Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @leilabilling



Leila Billing
The Startup

Leila Billing is a freelance gender consultant