Workday Podcast: Real Talk From a DEI Trailblazer
Carin Taylor: Those of us who have been committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion work for many years know it can be incredibly rewarding and very frustrating all at the same time. We've made great progress in some areas, with more and more organizations focusing on improving their belonging and diversity efforts. But sometimes, it can feel like our collective momentum is stalling. To give us their perspective on the progress and challenges in today's workplace, Lily Zheng has joined me today on the Workday podcast. Lily is a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and consultant who works with business leaders to turn their positive intentions into positive impact. Lily is dedicated to change and advocacy, and Forbes named them one of its D&I trailblazers. Lily's writing and opinions have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, and NPR. Welcome Lily.
Lily Zheng: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Taylor: Thank you so much. Well, let's go ahead and get started. So your day-to-day work is to help organizations with their DEI or diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. A lot has been happening in the last two years, as you know. And one change you've talked about is that employees are speaking up more and holding organizations accountable for making real and lasting change.
Can you give us just a brief overview of what you're seeing within the DEI landscape from today's organizations?
Zheng: Absolutely, and what a great question to kick things off. So right now, when we're looking at DEI in organizations, we are seeing, or at the very least I am seeing, across the board, workforces really grappling with larger ideas of structural racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., not just within their organizations, but within society writ large. One way we can think about this is that folks' expectations for their own workplaces have dramatically increased. Now, employees want their employers to take stances publicly on major issues like racism, sexism, gun control, and also to make their commitments—to make the commitment of leadership really tangible within the workplace.
So folks don't just want their CEOs to share tweets saying, "We care about Black communities," or, "We care about Asian communities." But they want them to actually walk the talk outside of the company in terms of their political donations, in terms of how they give back to communities, and also inside of their companies in how they promote, in how they reward, in how they retain and hire different groups, in how they minimize discrimination, support wellbeing, and really make those promises real. And that higher bar that workforces are expecting is something that we are seeing across multiple industries, multiple sectors. This really relates to the moment, the sort of cultural zeitgeist. It's now impossible for employers to avoid these issues because workforces everywhere are so focused on the need to move on these big topics of our time.
Taylor: Great points. And so, you know, there's so much complexity out there, Lily. As you think about this, is there one thing that organizations are really struggling with today? And how do they focus on that one thing and get it right as they move forward?
Zheng: One thing? Well, that's a tough one. I would say that the hardest challenge that the organizations I work with struggle with is the tension between what they say and what they do.
And by that I mean that every leader in the last two or three years has gotten a crash course on how not to put their foot in their mouth when they communicate on DEI. We've seen so many examples in the news of companies that have done it wrong, of leaders that have said the wrong thing, callous, racist, or sexist comments. The harder thing is that even for the leaders that have really watched their corporate communications and have really tried to stay on top of things, they are now being pushed to act. And the vast majority of leaders, even if they have great PR teams who can help them communicate effectively, have no idea how to start taking action on things.
So imagine if you are a leader, and you know that your workforce wants you to take action on DEI. And so in front of you, you have this enormous slate of issues you can work on. You could work on raising your retention for racialized communities. You can work on increasing your hiring of queer and trans people or of women or of women of color or disabled people. You can work on increasing the reliability of your conflict resolution process in addressing sexual harassment claims better. There are so many things on the plate of leaders to make progress on, and they're very aware that all of these are high priority. All of these are things that folks want now. In fact, folks wanted yesterday.
And so they know that there's a lot of progress they need to make, but they have no idea how to make that progress. They have no idea how to prioritize. And all they can do, really, is to keep promising to their workforce that they'll do something while on the back end being terrified that they have no idea what they're doing. It's certainly tough.
Taylor: Good points. There certainly is a lot that we need to be thinking about and continuing to do in this space. Let me switch topics just a little bit. Because as you know, as someone who's been doing this work, and I've been doing this work for quite some time as well, there's this notion that marginalized groups really take on a lot of the weight, and they carry a lot of the weight to ensure that education actually happens to those who have not been doing this work for some time. So how do we think about the education that marginalized groups have to do for others and what it means for those marginalized people in terms of having to wait until those others catch up so that they can make more progress? How can we accelerate the learning process for those who aren't quite there? And how do we do that while continuing to still make progress for the folks who have been there for quite some time? Any thoughts on this?
Zheng: Absolutely. That's such a good question. And to your point, I've actually seen the same thing in my own work. One of the most frequent requests that I get is from, let's say, members of DEI councils saying, "When the murder of George Floyd happened in 2020, our company really finally started talking about race, for example. And I volunteered as a person of color into my DEI council to start doing something. I didn't want to do this, but I felt like this was the only opportunity that I had to make change. And so I took it on in addition to my usual workload." This type of story happens everywhere. This should be very common to you as well. I'm sure you've heard similar.
So for folks in that situation, they have a double bind where they feel very, very clearly that they are the people driving the pace of DEI in their company. And so if they take their foot off the gas, then DEI will stall. But at the same time, they're exhausted. They have to be giving Race 101 every other day, Gender 101, Sexuality 101. They're not educators. They're not folks with trained DEI backgrounds. They're engineers. They're artists. They're designers. They're folks with skills in other areas and who are now taking on this extra burden of teaching DEI for free, mind you, because it's either them or nothing. And so what happens in these situations is that companies at the behest of these groups might bring in trainers and facilitators to give that DEI 101. And it is onerous for members of these DEI councils. I've been in that position myself. I know quite a bit about gender and sexuality. And so sitting through a 90-minute session where a trainer's saying, "These are trans people. This is what a trans person is. This is what gender expression is." Feels like I'm being sort of spoon-fed, right? Like, of course I know this stuff. But I have to sit through it because the education's not for me. It's for my colleagues.
Now, that experience has been so common in the last few years. And I've been hearing this tension come out in so many requests to me, essentially saying, "Lily, what do we do? Our people of color are burnt out. They don't want another Race 101. But at the same time, the white folks in our company still need it. They're not at that place yet. So Lily, how can we keep educating the folks who need it without making the folks driving this work just completely give up because of how exhausted they are with the same conversation happening over and over again?"
And the answer that I give in that situation is we need to stop deploying DEI interventions as one-size-fits-all universal trainings and talks and workshops. That's not how the work should happen.
If we've identified that, let's say, people of color need different resources, and white folks need different resources, just as one example using race—then we should be intentional about how we resource those needs. And so some of the folks that I work with, we do decide to go forward with a Race 101 or a Race 201 training, but it's opt-in. And at the same time, we might offer another training, another resource, on how to find community as a person of color; how to organize and advocate for yourself; how to make an effective employee resource group. And so everybody in the organization has something that they can attend that benefits them.
And when you do something like that, when you offer multiple resources to meet multiple different needs, you find that people select what they feel will serve them best. And people then feel like their needs are more met. The people of color don't feel like they have to sit through the same Race 101 lesson. They actually benefit from learning more about how to organize, how to support each other, how to advocate for each other. And the folks who really need that Race 101 can attend that Race 101 and ask all the questions they need to without feeling worried that they'll offend their colleagues. And those sorts of approaches—I'm not saying that's the only way to do this work. But being more intentional about how we offer resources and how we meet training needs is going to be absolutely critical if we want to move past this core tension of the work.
Taylor: You hit on something really important there, Lily. And that is, we all learn differently. We all need this information at different times, right? We're all leveraging it. We're all going through different things, and we all need the information at different times. And meeting someone where they are, but then also being able to do your own education as well, becomes really important. So let me ask you another question. Is DEI a zero-sum game? I hear this a lot, this notion that in order for one group to prosper, another group has to suffer, or another group has to pay. What are your thoughts on is DEI a zero-sum game? Or can both be prosperous at the same time?
Zheng: I feel like we both know the answer to that question. It's not a zero-sum game. But I will answer this question by focusing more on where that fear comes from because you're right. I hear that fear a lot. And I think it stems from members of majority groups or people with privileged identities, so often times men, white folks, non-disabled people, straight people, cisgendered people, these folks worry that by explicitly talking about the bettering of groups other than them that this will come at some sort of cost to them. That they will lose opportunities, that things will be worse for them. And I find that that fear comes from an incomplete understanding of how the workplace actually functions.
When you talk to these folks, it turns out that they tend to overestimate the extent to which their workplace is a meritocracy. So they tend to believe that the workplace as it is is maybe 95% completely fair, completely meritocratic, is completely based on skill, completely based on productivity and whatnot. And so they feel like making any change to that system will take it out of balance, will suddenly make them the marginalized group.
And I understand where that fear comes from, because if I perceived a workplace to be meritocratic for everyone, and then a certain group looked like it was getting favored, I'd probably feel defensive as well. So I find that helping them change their assumptions about their workplace really helps. And one way we can do that is through good data. There's plenty of studies talking about how DEI data, essentially having more understanding about what a workplace is like, helps shift the mindsets and beliefs of people in positions of power. So if I believed, for example, that my meetings have 50-50 speaking time between men and women—I just believe that intrinsically. And then I do a study where someone actually measures the speaking time in my meetings, and I learn that actually women only speak 15% of the time, and men speak 85% of the time, and here's the data to show it, that sort of information can really go a long way in helping people realize that DEI efforts are not intending to flip the power dynamics and put people of color in the dominant position. They're meant to rectify inequities that exist.
And if we help people recognize the inequities that exist, perhaps that they had no idea existed, we can start to make progress on moving things. Because I think most leaders would agree they want speaking time to be 50-50. They want their company to be representative. They don't want discrimination. We're on the same page there. They just perhaps have overly rose-tinted glasses when they look at their own companies. And what data can do is to help them take those glasses off and really start to see their company for what it is so that we can take it to where it needs to be.
Taylor: Such great nuggets of information there. You’ve said there’s good research that shows that the single biggest anxiety white male leaders have with regard to DEI is not feeling like they have a future in a world that’s being created. Can you talk a little more about that, and how we can actually address it?
Zheng: So a little more context behind this question. I think it's referring to the white men's leadership study which was conducted, gosh, maybe six, seven years ago. Essentially, it was a study surveying white male leaders in the workplace on their perspectives on DEI. And that study found that actually 70%, 70, seven zero, of white male leaders felt like the biggest obstacle to their participation in DEI was feeling like they weren't wanted, was feeling like they didn't have a place. I think the data is sound. I think it's very intriguing. And frankly, I've heard similar comments myself from the white men I've worked with. And this really speaks to another core tension in the DEI space, which is the tension between engaging—needing to engage the current most powerful groups in our workplaces, which in the U.S. and much of the world is white, cisgender, heterosexual men, but also not wanting to make all of DEI work about this one group.
Because as we've talked about, if we only center the learning on this one group, we sort of ironically leave behind people of color that need support, right? So how is it that we bring these folks along and help them feel like they have a place in DEI work while also not making everything about them? It's a challenging question. It's a question that I've tried to answer in my own work and in my own writing. But it's clear that we can't just ignore white folks or men or non-disabled people or cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, etc., people. We can't just ignore this group because if we ignore this group, they feel left out, and rightfully so.
But we also can't put the burden of everything on this group because if we say, "Look, people in position of power, you are the problem. Everything bad that's happened in companies has all happened because of you. And you've really messed everything up. And unless you un-mess it all up, then you will forever be a bad person." I don't know about you, but I don't tend to find that that does anything to change people's opinions. If anything, it tends to piss a lot of people off and make them not want to talk to me anymore. And so we really need to strike a balance between saying, "Look, people in positions of power, white folks, men, etc., we need you. But we don't need you in a sort of broad kumbaya, hold hands sense. We need you to play a very specific role in this work. And that role is you are people in positions of power.
You have power. You are the people that write the policies, that design the processes, that lead by example, and set the company culture. And so we, meaning DEI consultants or junior-level people of color, we can't change any of these things on our own. So if you want to be a part of this movement, it's your job to really recognize the power that you have and to leverage it in service to the same goals that we all share, which is we want to make this organization better. We want to make this organization more equitable, more inclusive, more diverse. And to do that, we all need to be doing our part. Your part is talking to your fellow leaders, is changing policies, is making the decisions that you have the authority to make, which are quite a few of them, and listening, learning, understanding more about how you can leverage your power in service to our shared goals." And I don't hear too many DEI folks explicitly saying that, right? I don't hear too many folks explicitly delineating the role of privileged people in the workplace beyond, you know, "Shut up and listen," which doesn't sound particularly inspiring, right? And I think this is one of the biggest factors to white men not feeling like they have a place, because DEI folks have never articulated what we want that place to be.
So I think that's partially on us. We need to be communicating that better.
Taylor: Yeah. You know, one of the things that you—well, two of the things—you've said a lot that has been poignant, but two things that really stood out for me. One is balance, and the other thing is, it’s about all of us, right? It's going to take all of us to contribute to this work. And when we all contribute, we're all going to benefit from it as well. And so, thank you for sharing those comments. But ensuring that there's a balance and ensuring that we are all a part of how we solution what's going on here is critical to the outcome. So, change needs to happen at all levels of an organization, and we're very well aware of this. But systemic change needs to happen as well. I know from my own work that change never happens quickly or as quickly as we want it to. But what do you recommend as first steps at the organizational level, for organizations to really start out with? And what will it truly take to create systemic change? Not Band-Aids, but things that are going to take the change that we know is going to be lasting, and what's needed for all of us.
Zheng: Yeah. So let's start by defining systemic change because that's everyone's favorite word. It's a lot easier to say what it's not, which is it's not a Band-Aid. It's not a quick fix, etc. Most people have no idea what systemic change actually means, so I'm going to define it. Systemic change refers to changing the policies, the processes, the structure, the culture, and the personnel of an environment, changing all of these different aspects.
And so in an organization, if we're just focusing on, let's say, a corporation, if we want to make systemic change, we need to be changing every single aspect of the workplace, from how decisions are made on the highest level to how people are brought in to how people communicate on their teams to how the work product or service is delivered to what projects get funded to how investors engage, all of these things, right? All of these things are aspects of systemic change. So with that in mind, the question of how do you start making systemic change is daunting. It's challenging. There's a lot there. I tend to tell folks that if we really want to change all aspects of the system, we need to understand the system in no uncertain terms before we get started. You need to be able to describe the problem, to spell out the problem, to really understand why it exists if you want to do anything about it.
So take any of those examples. I'm a big fan of using data, not just quantitative but qualitative data, to learn more about how an environment actually functions. So in workplaces, that means making use of HR data, people data, exit interviews. That means DEI surveys, focus groups, one-on-one interviews. That means reviewing even things like network data, who talks to who in the workplace, and the quality of people's interactions with each other. Everything is data. And you can use all of these things to paint a picture of how your workplace actually functions. You can learn what your culture is like. You can describe the structure of decision-making. You can spell out how it is leaders are selected and how it is people are promoted. And with all of that knowledge, you can then lay out, "This is what we need to do to make a difference.”
So if we've identified that there's something, let's say, very subjective about our promotion process. Let's say despite all of our policies, it's an old boys' club, and you have to be friends with your manager to get promoted. Let's say that's the case. Then you can start saying, "Well, we need to change that. Let's start creating things like hiring rubrics. Let's make sure that there's a dedicated process. Let's make sure that even if the corporation is decentralized, that everyone follows this process, that managers get training on how to use it. And then let's monitor the promotion outcomes of different demographics, of different demographics of people of color, different, gender demographics, to see if inequities persist. If they do persist, OK, then we haven't fixed it yet. Let's keep on working. If they're solved, great, they're solved. Let's keep solving other challenges.
And in this way, we can tackle systemic change in bite-sized chunks based on what we know about the company and keep all of this work manageable. Otherwise, you know what? I'm not going to tell folks to just look at all the ways in which your company is messed up and start fixing them. That's terrifying. No one can do that. But if we can break it down, if we can understand how everything relates to each other, we can make systemic change one action at a time and succeed in doing so.
Taylor: That's great, Lily. One of the things that you really hit on is the fact that it's going to take time and it's going to take effort for us to actually create these changes. And they're not all going to happen overnight, either. But the effort is going to have to be put in for the change to happen. And that's where companies cannot kind of take a step back and say this is too hard, right? It can't be too hard, and that can't be the solution for how we solve for some of this. We are going to have to tackle the hard parts. But your notion of breaking it down so that you can move forward more quickly I think is a great one. So look, what about as we think about the people in a company. You have leaders. You have executives. You have individual contributors. If employees aren't seeing change from the top down, which as we know is a critical part of the puzzle, how can they help to implement change from the bottom up? So can you talk a little bit about the role of maybe employee resource groups or the role of employees when it comes to actually creating that change?
Zheng: I tell folks that I work with that everybody has power to make change at the level they hold responsibility. And so what this means is that everybody in a workplace is responsible for something. You might be responsible for a product. You might be responsible for holding a meeting. You might be responsible for a team of five people. Either way, you are responsible for something. And if you care about DEI, you can really integrate DEI into the level that you hold responsibility for.
If you're someone who's making products, you can be more intentional about making sure that your products are accessible, about making sure that you test your products with different groups, different racial groups, different genders to make sure that you don't miss anything. That's on you. If you lead a team, if you facilitate meetings, it's on you to make sure that those meetings are inclusive, that everyone's speaking up or sharing their opinion, that there are no harmful comments happening, and if there are, they're quickly rectified. That's on you. That's your responsibility. And every single person in a company, in any org, has that responsibility as an individual to do DEI to make things better on the level that they are responsible for as individuals. So that's one thing.
But what you asked me about is about things like employee resource groups. Those are organized groups of employees, usually with many junior employees, some with many senior, senior employees and senior leaders as well, that are brought together to make progress on DEI. And these are really effective places for people to organize, to discuss, to communicate. But the mechanism by which groups like these create change is in their ability to start movements. And I say movements because movements, campaigns, groups of people sort of coming together to coalesce around a series of asks or recommendations or changes or demands, movements are the way in which most organizations change from the bottom up. Usually, you see a groundswell of support from employees, perhaps organized around an employee resource group, that say, "This problem is unacceptable. It's unacceptable that we keep turning down candidates of color on the basis of culture fit and not giving any explanation for it. Unacceptable. We demand, as a group of, I don't know, 100, 200, 500 employees, that as soon as possible, we implement hiring rubrics and train all of our hiring managers on how to make sure that their biases aren't affecting the hiring process.”
That is an example of something you can do from the bottom up. And frankly, we could have an entire podcast on how to organize a successful movement. But groups like employee resource groups, and many others—you can have DEI task forces, DEI committees, employee unions—all of these groups are ways in which employees can organize and rally for change from the bottom up. These are all communities that people can find, communities that people can build, and places where folks can talk to each other, discuss problems, and find solutions. So, if there's anything specific you want to know about movement building, let me know. But, it's a big topic, so I'll stop there for now.
Taylor: That's great. So one thing you touched on, is we can all play a part. So my final question to you is how does allyship and the idea that we are stronger together play a role in this work that we're all trying to get done here?
Zheng: Yeah. It's a good question. Allyship is a fluffy term. And by that I mean that it sounds good, it's hard to define, and it's difficult to follow through on. And so when I hear allyship, I operationalize it in my head to essentially refer to how people without marginalized identities or without a given dimension of marginalized identity can use their privilege and their specific role to enact change that members of that marginalized group cannot on their own.
So without the jargon, right, ways in which men can use their privilege and their opportunities that they get from being men to help women and non-binary folks; ways in which cisgender people and heterosexual people can use the power that they have that queer and trans people may not have access to to make a difference for queer and trans people; the ways in which white people can do the same for racialized groups; the ways in which non-disabled people can do the same for disabled groups; and so on and so forth for all dimensions of difference. And this really goes back to what we were talking about much earlier in this podcast about the role of white men in making change. It's not a kumbaya thing. We don't need everybody to all do the same thing and buy into that all be "stronger together." No. We need everybody to play the part that they're most able to play. And there are parts that people with privilege can play that people without those privileges simply cannot.
For example, let's say a VP in your company is running their department in a way that perhaps is not very inclusive. It's going to be very, very difficult for a junior employee in that department to speak up. But if you're a fellow VP, or if you're someone that's friends with that VP, or you talk to them every other day, or, I don't know, you play golf with them on the weekends. Well, you have a very specific ability to influence that person in a way that no one else can. And so allyship for you doesn't mean attending our protests, or it doesn't mean signing on to our petitions. It means identifying that you have a very specific role to play that only you can play and then playing that role to the fullest extent of your ability.
That's allyship. Not just saying, "Oh, people of color, what cool thing are you doing that I can sign on to?" Instead, saying, "What can I do as an individual? Where am I uniquely situated? What can I do that no one else can do that can make the biggest difference?" If you can do that, that's allyship. That is allyship in action. That is allyship without the fluff. That is allyship that makes a difference.
Taylor: That's fantastic. This has been a fascinating conversation, Lily. Thanks so much for your time and for all of your wisdom and nuggets of information that you've given this audience today. We've been talking about DEI with Lily Zheng, a DEI strategist and consultant.
Don't forget to follow us or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. And remember, you can find all of our episodes at workday.com/podcasts. I'm your host, Carin Taylor, and I hope you have a great workday.