Mainstreaming Misfired

Breaking the Facade

Mainstreaming was introduced in the 1990s as a strategy for tackling the thorny subjects of diversity and inclusion. Over time, while it was meant to bring these issues to the core of policies and working strategies, it became more a way to be seen as tackling discrimination, while yielding few results. Today, mainstreaming lives on in large international institutions focused mainly on gender, but the concepts have been adopted in the corporate world through diversity, equity and inclusion efforts buried in CSR and ESG approaches. And, while it is currently en vogue to endorse social justice initiatives such as Black Lives Matter, are these practices simply 'virtue signaling,' or is there a real effort to create real change in corporate inclusion going forward?

In 1995, gender mainstreaming was established as a major global strategy in the UN Beijing Platform for Action intended to restructure practices that perpetuated inequalities and refocus attention on the division of labor, access to and control over resources and potential for decision-making 1.

Developmental organizations, private donors and NGOs established gender units for the oversight, coordination, monitoring, and evaluation of mainstreaming policies. However, many mainstreaming efforts missed the mark – instead, focusing only on issues such as staffing, policies, developing indicators and training of staff 2.

Fast forward to today and mainstreaming has become buried in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts included in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental Social and Governance (ESG).

Starbucks is an oft cited example of CSR because of their stated commitments to buy ethically sourced coffee, offer community service hours, and their college program for employees 3. However, recently they were slammed on social media for offering staff that wished to support Black Lives Matter (BLM) a watered-down version of badges, with The Seattle Times pointing out that a couple of years ago they had to instigate ‘company-wide racial sensitivity’ training after police were called on black customers 4. Even more damning, The Guardian last year alleged child labor was used to harvest beans on Starbucks suppliers’ farms 5.

What They Say vs What They Do: Corporate Virtue Signaling

To be fair, at least Starbucks has made some efforts to address these issues, no matter how misfired they may have been. Other corporations not so much.

The term virtue signaling was coined to cover the gap between stated policies and reality. According to James Bartholomew, who claims to have invented it, virtue signaling occurs when a person goes out of their way to indicate that they are virtuous by condemning racism or bigotry but taking little action to implement actual change in response to their condemnation. Basically, virtue signaling is a performative response 6.

In a well-known example from last year, Nike supported BLM as a statement in an ad campaign 7. In many ways, this is good business. Gartner Research found that 40% of liberals make purchasing decisions based on a brand’s political alignment, compared to only 25% of conservatives 8. How often do these companies 'walk the walk,' however? When the BBC looked at Nike’s public records, they found that less than 10% of Nike’s 300-plus vice presidents are Black 9.


It is clear that these initiatives do little to implement tangible change, although many companies have publicly committed to increase DE&I efforts on a wider scale. In a 2020 report by Elevating Equity, it was found that 76% of companies have no DE&I goals at all, and many do not include it in their leadership development, instead treating it as a compliance goal. Nor is it common for companies to make it a management responsibility to attract and hire diverse talent. However, even companies that do recruit and hire diverse talent do not often keep their DE&I practices consistent throughout the talent supply chain of hiring to promotion to growth 10.

People of color and women remain underrepresented in management, often to referred to as 'the broken rung.' In the United States, in 2020, McKinsey discovered that 85 women were promoted to management positions for every 100 men. For women of color, the gap was larger, 58 Black women and 71 Latinas, respectively 11.

In some fields, there is less of a gap. In college administrations more than half of the administrators are women, but for people of color, only 13% are top executive officers 12.

Beyond hiring, women are still experiencing larger financial disparities. According to reports, it will take 54 years to close this gap in Western Europe, and 151 years in North America unless policy makers and other stakeholders adapt policies to close it 13.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting job losses have also disproportionately affected women, tied to the fact that women account for higher levels of employment in hospitality, food services, retail and the arts, all industries significantly impacted by the pandemic. Female entrepreneurship, especially in developing companies, was also disproportionately impacted by the pandemic 14.

More than Virtue

Whether signaled or not, not addressing discrimination and inclusion can have serious health, mental health and wellbeing impacts on employees that corporations need to take seriously.

Several reports have related discrimination (at work) and non-inclusion issues to negative employee impacts ranging from decreases in performance, higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression, and health issues like hypertension, obesity and substance use 15 16. So, it is more than simply being seen to be virtuous, it impacts corporations’ productivity and wellbeing.

Where DE&I practices and plans exist, they often include employee wellbeing. According to McKinsey, 35% of women rank counseling among the top three resources an employer can provide, as compared to 29% men. LGBTQ+ employees ranked health checks and healthcare services as their most appreciated employer resource, compared to the third most important for straight and cisgender employees. These should be taken into consideration when looking to support diversity in company wellness initiatives 17.

Restructuring Efforts to Improve Employee Wellbeing

Restructuring mainstreaming efforts goes beyond simply working social issues into the advertising budget and developing a DE&I policy. DE&I efforts need to be embedded in corporate culture and practiced in hiring, wellness, development and promotions, enacting meaningful policies that will be more than another item on our checklist.

As of February 2021, companies like Facebook and Twitter have committed to increasing the percentage of women and people of color in their leadership to 25% by 2025 through a Silicon Valley born initiative called Pledge 25x25 18.

In 2018, California passed legislation called Women on Boards (Senate Bill 826), committed to advancing gender representation on California corporate boards. This law requires that all publicly held domestic or foreign companies have at least one female director on their boards 19.

It has also been found that companies with a higher ESG score report higher rates of employee satisfaction and are more attractive to students and young professionals. ESG performance is becoming an important consideration for companies who are seeking to attract Millennial and Gen Z employees, who will make up 72% of the global workforce in 2029 20. Effectively, having a strong ESG score leads to stronger corporate wellness.

The CSR policies play into this, too. When we look at the Starbucks example, their investment in their employees leads to employees reporting an 82% job satisfaction rate and lower employee turnover 21. Starbucks has also committed to increasing diversity within their ranks by tying executive pay to inclusion initiatives 22.

Leaders can start by enacting policies that promote inclusivity internally. McKinney recommends that we start with promoting a more sustainable workplace by revisiting productivity and performance standards, particularly in relation to the pandemic. This could be implemented by making goals more flexible or through offering additional time off to help parents who are dealing with balancing their professional life with personal obstacles such as navigating remote learning.

We can also rethink our norms around flexible scheduling and re-establishing our own flexible work options in response to the pandemic. It is also recommended that we take the time to address our own gender biases, especially while working through the pandemic, such as practicing compassion when we see children playing in the background during a video conference.

It is critical to develop policies and use meaningful communication to ensure that we are making our workplace an inclusive space 11. Leaders can implement these policies in hiring practices and commit to hiring and developing diverse leadership. Leaders should also consider wellness policies that support diverse employees and commit to employee healthcare and mental health support.

An inclusive workplace is a healthy workplace. We need to go beyond public commitments and fully embrace inclusion and equity from the ground up.

Picture of Nia Norris

Nia Norris

Nia Norris is a journalist in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Ms, Romper, and Next City among other publications.


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