When it comes to their attitudes about workplace efforts related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), pharma marketers are — in a word — disunited.

Nearly one-third of respondents to a recent survey told MM+M the amount of attention their company devotes to increasing DEI at work is “too much.” Another 22% said those efforts are “too little,” while 23% chose “about right.”

The corporate world is claiming “diversity fatigue,” one respondent observed, yet “we as a nation have not scratched the surface in equality.”

That comment sums up an industry that at times seems to be split between two extremes when it comes to efforts around hiring, retaining and advancing diverse workers. 

In the survey, some decried DEI for “going overboard” even as others called for it to remain a “strategic imperative” amid slow headway, to cite some of the other write-in comments.

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May of 2020 sparked many healthcare organizations to undergo a wholesale reexamination of racial inequities. 

Diversity efforts accelerated greatly in the wake of that tragedy, and over the past three years, companies have increased educational training, expanded talent recruitment and fostered more inclusive environments. 

Yet, while progress had been made prior to 2020 with regards to gender equality, including in the boardroom, studies show that when it comes to other types of equality — namely racial and sexual orientation — results have been slow to materialize across agencies, drugmakers and medical device companies. Now, data suggest the force behind those efforts has waned. 

Nearly a fifth of respondents to MM+M’s survey said DEI initiatives have plateaued in their organizations. On the other hand, 64% said such programs were either strong and gaining momentum or moderately strong. 

Separately, 43% of respondents said their firms had made progress in hiring and promoting people of color.

The survey, fielded from mid-July to mid-August, reflects a tension that appears to have been brewing among the general public even prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down affirmative action in June. 

In a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 6,000 U.S. workers conducted in February, 15% said their companies’ diversity measures don’t go far enough, while 14% said those efforts go too far. The majority — 54% — characterized corporate DEI measures as “about right.”

Other studies suggest corporate America’s appetite for DEI may be flagging. A recent Gallup survey found that 59% of HR heads at large companies had plans to boost DEI budgets in the next 12 months, down from the 84% who said they would do so in 2022. 

Meanwhile, the 4As 2022 Diversity in Agencies Survey, which came out in July, showed a 17% increase in representation among white CEO/owner and C-suite leader representation, moving from 73% in 2021 to 90% in 2022. Other underrepresented groups, 4As found, experienced representation loss at the executive level during the same period. 

That data point proved discouraging to many.

“It’s almost comical that in 2021, at a time when [agencies] were promising all these roles and opportunities for people of color, the uptick went to white executives,” said Walter Geer, chief experience design officer at VMLY&R. “It’s painfully obvious that at this point, if the individual or companies are not making changes, it’s intentional.”

While MM+M’s results suggest opinions among marketers at healthcare agencies and pharma manufacturers are divided, most respondents still attach a great deal of importance to diversity in their workplace. 

More than half of respondents said it’s extremely or very important to them to work somewhere with a mix of employees of different races and ethnicities. Many expressed the same sentiment for having professional colleagues of various ages (50.4%) and genders (43.6%). 

They weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the need to work alongside those with a mix of different sexual orientations. Equal proportions — 29.8% — said this was extremely or very important as those who said it was not important at all, although 22.7% said it was somewhat important.

The notion of hiring based on anything but qualifications also drew a mix of support as well as skepticism. 

Almost 60% disagreed with companies taking a person’s race and ethnicity into account in hiring and promotion decisions. Slightly more than a quarter agreed that such decisions should consider the person’s racial and ethnic background.

Notwithstanding these divisions, diversity remains a bedrock value at many organizations. Research shows that diverse teams with varying lived experiences and identities tend to make stronger decisions. 

Still, the Supreme Court’s recent removal of race as a factor in college admissions processes may affect the industry’s talent pool of diverse graduates available for hire. 

Full implications of the decision may not be known for some time, putting the onus on talent leaders to widen their sourcing strategies.

“Four-year degrees are not required for all positions we hire for,” said Julia Missaggia, chief people officer at CMI Media Group and Compas. “We’ve been looking outside of degree programs to source our talent for quite some time because we have robust training programs.”

The agency’s “sprint” program, Missaggia said, enables nontraditional hires to get up to speed with relevant and transferable skills. “For me, it’s about intention and what employers choose to focus on in creating more diverse workforces,” she added.

Eventually, the ruling may also pave the way for legal challenges to hiring and promotion practices. 

“There will be massive implications from that, indeed,” said Geer. “That decision makes it a lot easier for companies and organizations to say, ‘Well, enough of this DEI stuff. We don’t have to live and die by this thing. I can hire whoever I want.’” 

In terms of how people feel about workplace diversity efforts, Geer — who is one of only seven Black C-suite creatives in holding company-based agencies and has never been shy about holding the ad industry to account on his social channels — cites another soft indicator. 

“Look across social media and how many people are still talking about the topic; barely any,” he observed.

To wit, when Geer posted to his LinkedIn over the summer that “DEI is dead. Prove me wrong,” the response elicited was a shadow of his usual interest level.

Some perhaps thought he was referring to the analysis showing that chief diversity officers (CDOs) have experienced 40% higher turnover than their colleagues, according to a stat from Live Data Technologies cited by The Wall Street Journal

On the contrary, “When I say ‘DEI is dead,’ what I mean is the fact that people give a s— anymore,” explained Geer, adding that the work of CDOs remains critical. “Because [firms] don’t have to. No one is pressuring them anymore. It’s over with, that moment is gone.”