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The Evolution of DE&I and the Role of the CDO

A Q&A with diversity pioneer Dani Monroe on the birth of the diversity movement and how today's chief diversity officers can chart a path toward true inclusion.

A woman in a pink suit posing for a photo.

​Today's diversity programs have come a long way from their genesis as federally regulated initiatives. The shift from affirmative action to true diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging has been a decades-long process. However, most organizations "are still operating at the visual level of inclusion and not at the practice level," says Dani Monroe, a veteran DE&I leader and founder of the Martha's Vineyard Chief Diversity Officer Summit. 

Monroe has spent 40 years consulting and working in numerous global corporations and was the inaugural chief diversity officer for Mass General Brigham, the largest private employer in Massachusetts. Adam Bryant, People + Strategy articles editor, sat down with Monroe to discuss the evolution of DE&I and the big questions facing CDOs today. 

People + Strategy: How did you get into the DE&I field?

DANI MONROE: I'll start by sharing some background about my family and where I grew up because that helped prepare me for the work in diversity, equity and inclusion. I was the youngest of eight and my father was biracial—from a white Jewish mother and Black father—and my mother was Creole. They migrated from New Orleans to California in 1942. 

I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula of California in the small town of Seaside. The community was predominantly Black, working-class homeowners, but many Filipinos, Mexicans and Japanese lived in our community. There was also a sizeable biracial population because Seaside bordered the third-largest Army base in the country at the time, Fort Ord. Many of the soldiers married women from countries where they were stationed (Japan, Germany, France) and were transferred to Fort Ord because of its diverse community. 

As in most small towns, all the families knew each other. We went to school, played, dated and frequently visited each other's homes. My early life experiences were about embracing and living with people from different backgrounds. It was accepted and expected that everyone was different in some way. During my childhood, the notion of race was not in my consciousness, and I hadn't learned how to distinguish racial infractions. 

That changed when I started my career and found myself challenged to obtain jobs I qualified for. After frustrating attempts to enter corporate America, I discovered an article in Black Enterprise about the work of Dr. Price Cobbs, a psychiatrist in San Francisco and CEO of Pacific Management Systems. He was focused on assisting Black and brown leaders in navigating corporate cultures. A cold call to Dr. Cobbs completely changed my career plans. After our 30-minute conversation, I agreed to meet Price in San Francisco. Six months later, I was hired by Pacific Management Systems. 

P+S: You saw the rise of DE&I firsthand. Can you share a quick history lesson?

MONROE: Diversity, equity, inclusion, and now belonging has evolved from a federally regulated social intervention to a business imperative with social justice implications. 

In the 1980s, the body of work we call diversity, equity and inclusion did not exist. The focus was compliance and affirmative action because we were emerging from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which required corporations to open their doors and provide employment opportunities to diverse (predominately Black) people. Many companies had affirmative action or compliance officers, typically Black, during this time. Corporations or the people leading them were resistant to the change, as you might expect, because this was legislated mandates and behavior.

There needed to be a blueprint for how to execute this social-political change. Corporations didn't understand what they were required to do or how to implement the change before them. Because of corporate leaders' lack of skills and abilities in executing affirmative action mandates, the myth of Blacks not being qualified for their positions emerged and still exists today. So many of our conversations during the affirmative-action era addressed those misconceptions about Black people's credentials and qualifications. Corporate success was measured by whether you could obtain a management position. Rarely if at all, did you encounter a Black person at a director or vice president level. 

Organizational interventions were based on an education format. It is why training in diversity is an essential ingredient to organizational change today. 

Pacific Management Systems' technology consisted of a five-day learning experience for Black and brown leaders to empower them and assist them in navigating corporate culture. Many of these leaders were first-generation corporate executives and didn't have the luxury of legacy experience to grow from. To balance and integrate the learning experience, a two-day program for white leaders on managing across differences was delivered. Over time, we witnessed growing recognition by some companies that the focus should be on managing and valuing differences, thereby moving us from affirmative action to the next phase of the work.

Due to the changing demographics of increased Black, brown and Asian populations in this country, the conversation started shifting to diversity. The landmark study of the Hudson Institute report predicted that by 2000, America would be over 50 percent diverse. This frightened many corporations, but others saw the business opportunities that could exist. The business case for DE&I began to slowly enter the lexicon of the work. Companies became more interested as product lines became more apparent. People may have understood that creating fair hiring and development opportunities for diverse people was the right thing to do. Still, there was also a powerful business case for doing the right thing.  

Employee resource groups began to form, bringing attention to what was needed in organizations to support the growth and development of diverse employees. Fast-forward a few years, women's issues began to be part of the conversation. But as the conversation and definition of diversity broadened and expanded to focus on several groups and different identities, race began to lose its sense of importance in the conversation. 


P+S: There's been an increasing move toward inclusion. How did that begin?

MONROE: The shift to inclusion made the conversation more palatable for many, partly because it wasn't as uncomfortable for whites as dealing with race and resisting the fact that people were excluded based on their identities. 

The reality was lost to many that it is challenging to adequately discuss inclusion without talking about exclusionary behaviors and who's not at the table. Inclusion was and is necessary. But it sometimes becomes the default position for corporations when they don't want to take a stance on race or other topics that make them feel uncomfortable or guilty for past injustices. White guilt runs deep in America and when considering an organization's intervention, it has to be taken into consideration. 

To be inclusive requires discipline and consciousness of what's missing. Corporations seldom exercise the rigor of saying, "What are the different perspectives we will need at the table to solve this issue? Do we have all the diversity— including diversity of perspective, thought, skills etc.—that we need at this table? If we have diversity at the table, do they have a voice? Are we taking advantage of their knowledge? Do they feel that they have the agency or influence to speak up? Have they been given the signals that they are encouraged to speak up? Do they have the same ability as others to influence and change an organization?" 

If you're saying "yes" to all of this, you're a very inclusive organization. But most organizations are operating at the visual level of inclusion and not at the practice level, which means ensuring that your leaders at that table have influence, agency, power and resources to do their jobs.

In 2020, America faced a tragedy that shook us to our core: the killing of George Floyd. That horrific incident was a catalyst for all of us to ask, "Why are we still dealing with race?" The concepts of equity and social justice entered the field of DE&I, and although they were part of the field before, the focus in 2020 forever altered our understanding of equity. Equity is about assessing and improving an organization's structures, processes, practices and policies. It examines things like pay, hiring, retention, interviewing and policies in an organization. Without equitable systems, it is challenging to have a diverse, inclusive environment where everyone feels like they belong.

P+S: What is your take on the growing number of chief diversity officers across corporate America? 

MONROE: One of the remedies corporations applied after the murder of George Floyd was to appoint a CDO. Unfortunately, many CDOs were not hired based on qualifications but on their life experience as diverse people. It was assumed they understood DE&I because they were diverse. That assumption is biased and fraught with misconceptions about a CDO's qualifications that take years to develop. 

To be a good CDO, you need change-management skills and to understand analytics and statistics. You must learn the body of work around psychology, social behavior, organization development, race, gender, and other identities, including working globally where the work manifests differently. It is very complex work; you must understand multiple perspectives and how systems operate to do it well. 

Another critical point to consider is when you enter the field of DE&I, because timing shapes your frame of reference. The younger CDOs who came in after George Floyd have a social justice lens. That's the focus of work in their organizations, and they may not understand that organizations are these living systems and that you have to tap all parts of the system for the change to occur. Provocative conversation and language are insufficient tools on their own.

Critical to a CDO's success is their reporting relationship. Reporting directly to a CEO provides the positioning, influence and power to implement change effectively. It provides respect for the discipline and work. In my last assignment, I reported to the CFO, essentially because DE&I was perceived as a business issue, as my manager was responsible for about 70 percent of the organization. 

Reporting relationships are critical, and so are resources. Does the CDO have the headcount and budget to accomplish the work? Do they regularly present to the board so there is a corporate director-level dialogue? Are they at the table with other C-suite leaders? Do those other leaders understand that diversity is a strategic priority and that it can assist in their success? 

One of the positive ways that the CDO role has changed is that we have seats at tables that we would have never been invited to before, especially with boards being so focused on environmental, social responsibility and governance issues now.

P+S: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about long-term change?

MONROE: I am more optimistic than most because I understand the evolution of the history of DE&I and I can see the arc of progress. Diverse people who are mid-career are being promoted into very senior roles. You have many more, but you need more SVPs, EVPs and CEOs of companies.

That said, when I look across corporate America, there's still a lack of diversity at all levels of the organization. And bias and racism still exist. In some hospital systems, for example, you rarely see Asian physicians in leadership roles. Yes, they are skilled and knowledgeable physicians, but seldom are they in a significant administrative role. Why is that? 

But there is a window of opportunity now, and so you use that window to push as many things and people across the line as you can. There will be some inevitable weariness around the race/diversity conversation that emerged from 2020. This is emotionally challenging work, and the sustainability of it on all sides is difficult. 

For those of us who have been doing this work for a while, we've experienced eras when the window has been open, work has progressed, and it's receded. It is a natural ebb and flow, and much of it depends on the social-political experience in our world at the time. 

CDOs have an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that DE&I runs through every organizational function. If a leader applies that lens to their decision-making and strategies, it becomes a part of an organization's DNA and results in employees believing in what you're doing. It typically takes about five years to see your hiring, retention and promotion numbers change because you have to have people in the pipeline or hire from outside. 

P+S: Tell me about the CDO summit you held last year. 

MONROE: We had 125 CDOs from around the country, representing 24 industries and 1.6 million employees. One of the critical topics was the cumulative impact of racism on a CDO. We often experience second-hand trauma because people come to our office or talk with us over Zoom to share their stories of bias and microaggressions. One of the questions at the summit was, "How do we take care of ourselves when our job is to care for everybody else?" Seldom do people extend psychological care to CDOs to support them in their work. There is a lack of recognition that we need nurturing and support, maybe even more so than others, because of our role.

CDOs, and people in general, are exhausted from the last three years. The pandemic, remote working and discussions of race have been overwhelming because we have taken on assignments that were not in our job description. We came out of the Summit with a new language to explain trauma and a deeper understanding of the importance of self-care. Most importantly, we emerged with a renewed sense of hope for a better future. 

P+S: What are the big questions facing CDOs going forward?

MONROE: How do we ensure the topic of DE&I doesn't disappear into ESG, thus limiting its importance as we experienced when inclusion was added to the field? DE&I has to remain separate from ESG. But ESG, like inclusion, is more manageable for leaders to accept and feel comfortable about. If you place DE&I under ESG, what happens to its influence, visibility and strategic importance? That's a big question right now. 

Another question is, how do you become that confidante, advisor and facilitator of change across your organization? One of the characteristics of a good CDO is feeling empowered to hold your organization accountable. If you're not willing to get fired, don't take the job because that's the tension you'll have to live with if you're going to make a change.   


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