The Most Inspiring DEI Leaders to Follow in 2023

Diane Forbes Berthoud, PhD, MA, is the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) vice president, Graduate School professor, and first chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer. She leads and oversees its equity, diversity, and inclusion strategic planning, implementation, and accountability. She is building capacities with various schools and units across UMB in addition to building relationships. Dr. Forbes Berthoud has led the creation of new positions and programs and provides resources for and with various people who already do diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work and need additional support, expertise, and partnership. And, according to her, she is working with her colleagues to change the world. If one has to describe her leadership style in a word, it would be “strategic.”

Before joining UMB in 2021, Dr. Forbes Berthoud worked at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) as associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion. When she was at UCSD, it was ranked second — among higher education institutions — in Forbes magazine’s list of best employers for diversity. And now, for two years in a row (2022 and 2023), UMB has been recognized as one of the best employers for diversity by Forbes. Dr. Forbes Berthoud also has been recognized as a woman of distinction by San Diego Woman Magazine because of her contribution to society, education, and community.

Improving Access for All

For Dr. Forbes Berthoud, it is a success if as a leader she has been able to increase and improve access to opportunities for all people regardless of their background, heritage, and identity and helped them thrive and excel. “If we look at our institution over time, and we see that people who have traditionally been marginalized are now in positions of leadership or have increased in scale or capacity in a particular discipline or area, that for me is a success, a movement from one point to another, an increase or expansion of a set of resources over commitment we had,” she says.

Success, according to Dr. Forbes Berthoud, involves being true to one’s word. For example, when they set out with a particular vision, mission, and purpose, they strive to accomplish that. And she considers it a success when an organization or an individual can meet their goals to improve the lives of others.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud does not discount money as a measure of success. Earnings and profits matter, but she is currently more concerned with the human condition and the state of the world, especially since 2020. “Those of us who are DEI leaders are concerned with those questions more and more because it is also about people’s well-being and quality of their lives,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. “I would like to leave things and people in the world better than I found it.”

Why DEI?

Dr. Forbes Berthoud first became interested in the DEI field in the mid-1990s. At the time, it was still in the nascent stage of development and was not called DEI. Things like sensitivity training and cultural diversity were part of the field. Dr. Forbes Berthoud recalls that there were different kinds of terms used. She was a lead on a countywide initiative that was called diversity management and organizational effectiveness for the Montgomery County (Md.) government. “Diversity was something to manage. It was almost as if it was a problem or a conundrum to solve and to work through organizations,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says.

“But the broadest definition I can think of that speaks to or responds to ‘why’ is that diverse teams in organizations are better,” she adds. “Research shows this.” There is improved and increased teamwork, collaboration, and effectiveness, and diverse teams make better decisions, she says. They also are more profitable, Dr. Forbes Berthoud points out. About 30 to 40 percent — depending on the company — of organizations are likely to make more money as a result. She also says that diverse teams are smarter. Research also shows that there are neurological, intellectual, and academic benefits to diversity.

Over the years, Dr. Forbes Berthoud has worked in institutions where one is addressing critical problems, such as COVID-19. And she has been in rooms with social workers, philosophers, medical practitioners, students, parents, people unemployed, people at the highest level in organizations and at mid-level, and throughout organizations, and she has learned from every one of them.

“We have learned from everyone, thinking through what is the experience of the bus driver, the shuttle driver, or the person who cleans buildings,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. “They never left the campus or work during the pandemic. Researchers and physicians, too, were working in labs, and there were office workers who could work in front of their laptops. We learn from all voices.

“Each person based on their experience, skill, and background brought something special and unique to our understanding of COVID and its spread, management, and prevention,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. Also, when dealing with big issues, such as poverty, hunger, injustice, climate crisis, and lack of access to quality education, one not only benefits from hearing from teachers and educators but also from community members and all kinds of people with all kinds of background, according to Dr. Forbes Berthoud.

“We are smarter and better when we have more diverse teams. Also, when people are included, they feel like they belong,” she says. “When people feel like they belong, they are more engaged, productive, satisfied in their work, and more likely to interact more positively, which then gives more positive outcomes for the organization.”

When others talk about DEI, Dr. Forbes Berthoud often starts with E — equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). She says that she cares about equity quite a bit. Equity, according to her, means looking at both assessing the historical and structural conditions that exist and addressing any barriers or disparities that exist among or between groups, as it relates to access to opportunities, resources, supports, recognition, rewards, hiring, and promotions.

“Equity is really thinking about how we level the playing field and making sure that we have just outcomes. That is harder work because we need to put our words into action,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud adds. And she does that successfully in collaboration with many other people, such as colleagues in human resources, faculty and student affairs, and the community — and with those who are champions and leaders in this area.

Lack of Understanding and Misunderstanding

Dr. Forbes Berthoud considers a general lack of understanding and misperception about the DEI field as one of the key challenges. She also points out that some are unaware of how things have evolved because they have failed to update themselves. “If we are thinking about the field only as sensitivity training or being tolerant of people or perspectives, we are losing the tremendous opportunity to celebrate and embrace difference in ways that are important,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says.

She also has noted misunderstandings about the depth, breadth, and scope of what needs to be done in DEI work. According to her, a part of that involves assessment, strategic planning, relationship building, and decision making, and it involves a lot of organizational and personal dynamics to accomplish and bring about change.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud continues to be challenged by people’s misunderstanding, both externally and internally, about what they do, and the importance of the DEI field. Some people think all that is needed is to establish an office and hire an individual. To be effective in this work, it requires a collective effort and integrated understanding of DEI in all aspects of an organization’s functioning — hiring, promotion, professional development, funding, scholarship, access, admissions, and so on. If a unit is created on the base of a misunderstanding, the operation that follows also is caught in a tense position, says Dr. Forbes Berthoud.

Career in Education Field

Most of Dr. Forbes Berthoud’s career has been in education. She comes from a long line of educators. Her mother, grandfather, and great- grandfather were in the education field. “So, I kind of grew up in that world,” she says. “Asking questions, learning key principles, and reading a lot.” She also believes that education is one of the paths to liberation and empowerment.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud has served as a full-time tenured faculty member, department chair, academic director, and administrator for more than two decades and also has been grateful to spend time with her family at home over the years and extend her skills and expertise in consulting. Her background is in organizational communication and social psychology, which means studying processes and people and working on organizational change and development. And some of her work was in and around issue development and coaching. “So, I was able, from time to time, to consult to large organizations like the American Psychological Association and a United Nations agency” she says.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud is interested in education because it provides her opportunities to change the world and change hearts and minds, and because it allows her to be committed to learning, discovery, innovation, and asking questions. “The journey of innovation, discovery, learning, and inquiry has been really important to me, and I think if we commit more time to that, some of our problems could be addressed and solved,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says.

Creating the Best Workplace for All Employees

Since 2020, Dr. Forbes Berthoud has been working with greater thoughtfulness around the changing needs of the workforce, particularly since the so-called Great Resignation. She is paying attention to the changes in the workforce, which means paying attention to people, specifically those who have been impacted by the changes that have occurred. For example, people who have greater domestic and caregiving responsibilities — women and racially minoritized groups. Dr. Forbes Berthoud points out that they are paying attention to people who have a lower income in a way they have never before.

One of UMB’s core values is well-being. Dr. Forbes Berthoud says that UMB is thinking of mental health and well-being in a way it has not talked about them before. She, however, does not claim that it is the only institution doing that. It is a trend across the workforce and many organizations. “But we are not just following a trend, we are caring more about our people,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. “And, in fact, on our surveys and in our conversations with people, we have received high scores for not just our core values but also for committed, demonstrated actions.”

She says that UMB is creating models for flexible work, committing more funds to childcare, thinking about students who are parents, and revamping its paedology. The institution is teaching us to be more inclusive so that those graduating from UMB are equipped to meet the new normal or the new world post-COVID-19.

Under Dr. Forbes Berthoud’s leadership, data analytics is being leveraged to map many pre-COVID and post-COVID diversity, hiring, promotion, and access trends. She reveals that UMB also established a Future of Work Task Force, which was set to wrap up its work in the next few months.

“It is not just 10 people in a corner in a room making a set of decisions,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. “Over 2,000 employees, either on the committee or responding to surveys or coming to town halls or meetings have responded and shared their ideas. At UMB, there is a greater commitment to shared and collective decision-making in the leadership so that we are making decisions that attend to the well-being of our people.”

She highlights that, while important, DEI is not only about gender and race. The field has plenty of nuances. “And what we have done at UMB is to design and implement a collective and inclusive model of decision-making to help us arrive at the best place for all our employees,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says.

Road Map Ahead from DEI Perspective

From the DEI perspective, Dr. Forbes Berthoud and her team have multiple plans for the future. One of them is to complete the development of the University’s first Diversity Strategic Plan.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud points out that there has been great work done at UMB, and many initiatives are already in place. “What we need is a coordinated, aligned, cohesive set of functions. We planned to get there across all our areas, and that is certainly ahead for us, and we are close to finalizing that this summer to early fall,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud adds. The road map ahead includes an accountability framework. It involves the development of steps, holding themselves accountable, and building performance evaluation measures to know whether they are being successful in that or not.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud also says that UMB will continue committing more resources to grant writing. Along with allocating resources to themselves, it also will support others who are writing grants and securing funding to improve and increase diversity, for example, among the faculty across disciplines. Also, there are efforts to diversify and increase equity topics in the curriculum and to influence those who graduate and the knowledge and skill base of future health and human services professionals that UMB graduates.

And Dr. Forbes Berthoud has plans to continue building the capacity among diversity leaders and champions throughout the University, which is developing a heat map of diversity leadership and capacity. When Dr. Forbes Berthoud assumed her role, half of UMB’s schools had an appointed diversity lead, and in partnership with all the institution’s leaders, every school now has one. That has changed the landscape of the University, because it indicates that building capacity is a priority.

“We are committing professional and human resources as well as to creating an inclusive and healthy climate and culture, building on what was already there to advance our goals,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. “We are also very clear that this work is not an individual responsibility, but a distributed and inclusive model of diversity leadership and integration.”

Message to Aspiring DEI Leaders

She tells aspiring DEI leaders to be prepared for “what this job is and investigate all the elements of the role.”

She points out that the field of DEI is not limited to change making and revolution; there are elements related to personal, psychological, and emotional well-being and intelligence as well. Some people are not prepared for that. It can take a toll on them when they read a news story and have to plan a program around that because they may be of that particular identity or have relatives or friends who are of that identity. And, even when they are emotionally and psychologically affected, they have to do their job. “So, be prepared for what that means,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says. She also encourages aspiring leaders to seek the community of care, practice, wisdom, and knowledge to guide them through.

Dr. Forbes Berthoud tells aspiring leaders that she has seen remarkable success in her career because of great mentorship and sponsorship and by practicing humility. She often talks to her elders with extensive experience and people in different disciplines, such as medicine, philosophy, communications, ethnic studies, and political science so she can learn from their views on the same issues that she and her colleagues might be facing.

There is much more to the DEI field than most think. It requires skills around assessment, analysis, community, relationship building, communication, engagement, networking, and fundraising. “Sometimes people are not always prepared for that. So, I would say be prepared, do your homework, investigate, and seek communities and support,” Dr. Forbes Berthoud says.

As a strategic, visionary leader, Dr. Forbes Berthoud hopes to continue creating a more just, inclusive, and equitable future at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and beyond.