What The History of Economic Equity Language in Business Indicates About Its Future

“You can see the shift in how companies are answering queries related to social impact,” said Carla A. Harris, senior advisor of Morgan Stanley, during the “Inclusive Capitalism” panel at the 2024 Milken Institute Global Conference.

The panel included Ms. Harris, as well as Troy Duffie, director at Milken Institute; Nisha Biswal, deputy CEO of the US International Development Finance Corporation; Roger Ferguson, former president and CEO of TIAA; and Martin Nesbitt, co-CEO of The Vistria Group. As I listened to the inspiring speakers discuss their philosophies on diverse, and therefore healthier, economic ecosystems, I noticed that parts of the conversation kept coming back to language. “Redefining capitalism,” “communication revolution,” “elevate the conversation,” and “normalize the language,” are just a few of the phrases from the discussion that piqued my interest as a marketing communications professional.

It seems that the way we talk about economic equity has taken center stage over how we accomplish it. To understand why language is central now to the intersection of social impact and capitalism, you must reflect on where we’ve been. As Ms. Harris rightly pointed out, 15 years ago many investors and corporations were hyper focused on measuring environmental impact. Just a few years ago in 2020, the focal point of social impact became diversity. Today, some corporations are opting not to use the terms “diversity” and “DEI” at all, instead moving toward leveraging the term “inclusion” to be all encompassing. In a recent Washington Post article by Taylor Telford and Julian Mark, Atlanta-based employment attorney Marilyn Fish noted that many of her clients, including some Fortune 500 companies, have newly renamed internal diversity-focused programs to put the word “inclusion” at the forefront.

The sometimes-unspoken truth present in this history is that the way we talk about social impact and equity is highly dependent on how we as humans relate to what is happening in our culture of capitalism. As a Time article by Eugene Linden notes, the issue of climate change became politicized in the 1990s. In 2020, our world faced a “racial reckoning” after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Just three years later, Affirmative Action was repealed by the Supreme Court.

Each of these moments in time shifted the cultural consciousness of what good and profitable social impact might look and, importantly, sound like. In each of these moments, our capitalism ecosystem responded in one way or another—even no presence of culturally relevant social impact- and equity-related language is, in fact, a response.

The link between culture and capitalism is very real. We should expect cultural capital and the language we use to bring relevance to economic equity and social impact to shift. This will always be true, as younger generations enter capitalist society and leverage their unique experiences, perspectives, and tactics to combat inequities.

In short, the context around economic equity will evolve and so will the language. It is the underpinning philosophy that creating an inclusive economy is good for everyone, including businesses’ bottom lines, that remains consistent. For example, despite the current anxieties we see cropping up in corporations around diversity-focused language, we know that “an ecosystem that is diverse is much stronger,” noted Mr. Ferguson during the panel. Ms. Harris also went on to say that in capitalism, “we are all competing around innovation, and you need a lot of ideas, perspectives, experiences, and diversity in the room to get to the one that puts you on top.” The same Washington Post article highlights a McKinsey study showing that companies with high racial, ethnic, and gender representation are 39% more likely to financially outperform.

As we near the 2024 general election, many corporate leaders may be holding their breaths—and tongues—for the outcome. One result may evoke a “challenger” response in capitalism, while another may establish a “too-slow-but-steady-progress” economic and legal environment. In either scenario, advancement in equity and inclusion remains beneficial for capitalism.

If we start with those baseline concepts—inclusion is good for capitalism and context will shift language—then our job is simply to understand the shifts and continue to communicate our equity-based values from a place of authenticity and relatability.

After all, “if we made it up, we can fix it,” said Mr. Nesbitt of capitalism and democracy.

By Megan Tuck

Photo by Andre Moura via Pexels