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Maria Dixon Hall Is Redefining the Chief Diversity Officer Role

The influential SMU exec says government and corporate backlash involving DEI measures will cause leaders to emerge and evolve.
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Maria Dixon Hall

Maria Dixon Hall is on the roller coaster ride that is Corporate America’s understanding of and approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. After serving as a communication professor at Southern Methodist University for years, she was named the school’s chief diversity officer in August 2020 and serves as senior advisor to the president. 

Following the social upheaval and increased awareness of systemic racism in 2020, corporations and organizations nationwide added diversity positions to their C-Suites. But four years later, many of those organizations are reversing course. 

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, and the State of Texas passed a law banning DEI offices in public education institutions. The law also prohibited diversity statements for job applicants and mandatory DEI training for state employees.

This news might cause despair for a DEI professional in higher education like Dixon Hall, but she says the backlash will force organizations to rethink and expand their definition of DEI. At SMU, she sees the role of a DEI leader as an internal consultant who seeks to get the best out of the school’s leaders “in spite of and because of our differences,” she says. 

Many organizations added DEI positions without considering their cultures, Dixon Hall says. “The office was not ingrained in who they were and were more tied to the political realities of where we were than understanding the true organizational value of having a DEI office,” she says. The disconnect with the organization’s mission, value, vision, and emphasis on race, she says, led to frustration at multiple levels. The newly hired DEI leaders felt like they were banging their heads against a wall without support, and employees felt like they were being forced into mandatory DEI training they didn’t want to do. 

SMU has expanded the view of DEI to include gender, sexual orientation, religion, neurodivergence, and more. Good DEI leadership, especially in the current climate, means considering all iterations of diversity and seeing those differences as strengths, Dixon Hall says. “In an orchestra, you do not try to get a violin to sound like the tuba,” she says. “You want the richness of the violin and the brass of the tuba. They are different instruments, but that doesn’t mean they’re not both valuable. They both have a seat on the stage, but they have different roles.” 

DEI leaders who want to be successful in this new environment must see themselves as talent management professionals who go beyond celebrating and recognizing differences and put those differences to work for the organization’s benefit, she adds. Meanwhile, CEOs must ask themselves if the DEI initiatives result from public pressure or true belief. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it in the end, Dixon Hall says. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she says. “Sometimes there is a backlash, and then we emerge and evolve. The refining is not going to be done in a year.”

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Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior writer for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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