• FWX Dec qtr 2023  75.5
  • FWX yr-o-yr  1
  • FWX qtr-o-qtr  2
  • ASX 200 Boards years to equality  6.3
  • Underemployment years to equality  21
  • Superannuation years to equality  17.7
  • Gender pay gap years to equality  21.9
  • Employment years to equality  27.5
  • Unpaid work years to equality  46.1
  • Education years to equality  389

How to overcome the Elon Musks on DEI resistance

How business leaders can overcome DEI resistance to grow successful programs that benefit everyone, even the Elon Musks!
February 14, 2024

How to overcome the Elon Musks on DEI resistance: It wasn’t too long ago that billionaire Elon Musk disturbed diversity and inclusion advocates when he proclaimed: DEI must die.

The billionaire, who has been at the centre of various California lawsuits over claims of discrimination and harassment at his Telsa factories, took to social media at the end of last year to liken diversity and inclusion efforts to just another form of racism.

The comments triggered both their fair share of support and rejection from various crowds. The gist of which was some believing that Musk had tapped into political correctness gone too far, and others blasting Musk for not understanding DEI enough from a privileged position.

“His [Elon Musk’s] action is a textbook case of the privileged few taking steps to protect the membership of that small group,” said Dr Linda Peach, diversity consultant. “Until we have equivalent representation in positions of power – be they political, social, economic or corporate positions – all gains made in equality are subject to the whims of the people who retain the bulk of the power.”

The whole drama, regardless of your thoughts on it, does reflect the often-difficult task that business leaders face when trying to bring key stakeholders and employees on the journey to make their workforces fair and inclusive, particularly when gender is concerned.

DEI consultant Michelle Redfern says that whenever she is working with clients to build, accelerate and implement their DEI strategies, she always starts by telling them to expect resistance because:

  • Resistance is normal in periods of change.
  • Resistance is at its greatest when it threatens existing norms, behaviours and structures.
  • Resistance happens because people are strongly motivated to protect themselves.

“The key to resisting the resisters is sharing knowledge that power is not distributed evenly, privilege is not understood well enough and that resisters use various techniques to maintain power and privilege,” says Ms Redfern.

“People like Elon Musk are actively resisting or derailing DEI progress and who hold extraordinary power and (unearned) privilege are, put simply, threatened and are protecting themselves.

“They are skilled influencers who craft their language and approach to engage their target audience, others who have enjoyed the benefits of their unearned privilege.”

They typically use a three-step strategy to do this:

  • Denial – This isn’t a problem. Nothing to see here.
  • Disengagement – This isn’t my problem. Someone else will deal with it.
  • Derailing – “What about other problems?

According to Dr Sanjeewa Perera, Senior Lecturer at UniSA Business School says the most critical starting point in overcoming DEI resistance, is that initiatives must have the support of key business decision makers.

“Without support from the top, DEI initiatives will not be sustainable,” she said.

Here are a number of ideas from the experts in this article that support how business leaders can overcome resistance to enjoy DEI success.

  1. Demonstrate a commitment to DEI loudly and communicate the vision often and clearly.
  2. Clearly explain why DEI is important to the organisation.
  3. Invest in upskilling those leading DEI efforts and people leaders in DEI fundamentals and help them to manage resistance to DEI.
  4. Recognize that it can take time to see long term effect of DEI initiatives.
  5. Celebrate small wins, acknowledge when you get it wrong and be persistent.
  6. Instead of looking to what DEI activities are most popular at the moment, be deliberate in your choice, look for DEI activities that would work best in your own organisation.
  7. Be bold and courageous, knowing that for a handful of Elon Musks’ out there, there is a large number of employees, customers and others who recognise the value of what you do.

“Organisations need to commit to action in the long run and be willing to stay the course,” says Dr Perera.

“For example, we may not necessarily see changes in leadership representation just 3 months after implementing a leadership development program for high potential leaders from minority groups.

“DEI initiatives that work in a large organisation e.g., targeted leadership development programs might not work in a smaller organisation,” she added.

“Organisations need to find strategies that work in their own contexts, this might be a network support group for LGBTQIA+ community, including pronouns in email signatures, looking at building access to those who are differently able.

“I think even a small initiative can have a ripple effect and start the journey to a more inclusive workplace,” says Dr Perera.


Financy covers gender finance, diversity, inclusion and ESG issues. We advocate for gender equity change through the Women’s Index report and help businesses take action on DEI through tech solutions like IMPACTER.

Related Articles


Leave us A Comment

February 14, 2024
Proudly Supported by

Get the full Insights

Enter your details below to instantly receive the latest Women’s Index report

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Fortnightly Fix

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.