Scott Woods: Columbus Companies Hide Their DEI Failures By Ignoring a Survey

The Columbus Dispatch's reporting is damning—not for what it presents, but for what it couldn't.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
Columbus companies' failure to respond to a Dispatch survey undermines their DEI initiatives.

Last week, The Columbus Dispatch ran an article on a recent survey’s results regarding diversity initiatives by various companies, “Corporate diversity: Columbus companies making progress, but how fast?” Out of the gate, I would quibble with the title of this article, and you'll see why in a moment, but the content of it is just raw data. Very telling raw data.

If you put out a call to more than 2,000 companies/nonprofits about their DEI efforts and you get back 31 responses (1.5 percent), then your data is not representative. If it had, say, a 25 percent return rate, maybe (and I'd still debate that, just not as vociferously). But at 1.5 percent you haven't heard back from enough businesses for the stats to reflect the actual pool of businesses that exist in town. Saying "[W]omen make up 49 percent of the C-suites of participating companies, but the number is 21 percent for people of color" sounds like a lot until you remember we're only talking about 31 companies who responded. Out of 2,000+. There are 10 businesses in Budd Dairy Food Hall alone, 11 if you count Budd Dairy itself.

This is not the fault of the newspaper. The reporters did everything they could to elicit information from companies that have no problem any other time telling you how awesome they are. This is about companies choosing not to participate. When 98.5 percent of companies opt out of answering a survey about their DEI efforts, that's a choice. In other words, 1,969 companies saw a call to share whatever work they're putting in to change the culture of their organizations in the interest of racial equity and inclusion and said, "Nah."

Those are the facts. Why those facts persist would require more investigation, but the answer seems apparent to me: Their efforts fell off, assuming they did anything to begin with.

Look at how many businesses are basically back to whatever cultural or service model they had prior to the spring of 2020, when they thought Black people were going to burn their offices down if they didn't release a public statement saying they weren't racist. Look at how many of those public statements are no longer visible. Look at how little the composition of their boards has changed. Look at how many of them made their staff go through workshops or retreats or trainings, only to be where they were before. Look how many hired DEI specialists, only to hamstring their efforts or under-resource them. Look at the turnover rate on those positions.

Now imagine a newspaper sent you a survey two years after you were "racially reckoned with" and you hadn't changed anything, to the point where you couldn't even really fake it. It's easier to just not do the survey than to weather any resultant criticism. That's basically what most businesses do in these situations: Ignore a problem and it will go away. And it did. 

This article is damning, not for what it presents, but for what it couldn't. When it says, "For the second year, The Dispatch’s small set of survey participants realized higher rates of diversity than nationally, but gaps for people of color remain," that's out of 31 companies. Do you think the problem shrinks or expands when you expand the pool?

I quibble with the title of this article because it is reductive. There is no progress here. At 1.5 percent of businesses courted, that's a cultural indicator. And the indication is that Columbus doesn't care about fixing the problems DEI efforts are supposedly designed to address.

Scott Woods

They didn't take the survey because it would make them look bad. They clearly don't care about DEI efforts, and neither do I, but only because they don’t work. And they don’t work because companies generally don't care about the people whom such efforts are installed to help. They're set up to fail, and answering this survey would prove it.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.