The federal government’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility chief, whose work has been caught up in conservative blowback over whether DEIA efforts go too far, is stepping down to take a similar post at Disney — itself a target of criticism from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over its gender and LGBTQ+ policies.

Janice Underwood, who was appointed to the Office of Personnel Management to lead equitable workplace policies for 2.1 million federal employees, will be taking a new position to oversee DEIA efforts at Disney, the company said in a LinkedIn post.

DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, has conducted a long-running campaign to curb the power of Disney World in what is seen as retaliation for the company’s stance against legislation he signed in 2022 that bars instruction in some schools about sexual orientation and gender identity, the New York Times reported.

“We are focused on developing, engaging and retaining a diverse workforce and leadership team because the more our workforce reflects the diversity of our consumers worldwide, the better and more authentically we are able to serve those consumers,” said Disney of its DEIA initiatives.

OPM intends to fill the vacancy.

“Employees bring their best to work when they feel supported and empowered, and Dr. Underwood has played a critical role in helping to position the federal government as a leader in DEIA,” said Kiran Ahuja, director of OPM in a statement. “This work is essential in our ability to recruit, hire and retain the best talent across the country.”

Underwood’s work has closely aligned with expectations set by the President himself to reexamine the federal government as a model employer and lower barriers to recruiting in-demand, diverse applicants. The response by lawmakers however, which have acknowledged staff shortages at agencies, has been skeptical of the efforts. Congressional Republicans in particular have denigrated DEIA work.

“Dividing people by race, gender and religion and calling it ‘inclusion’ doesn’t add up,” said Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fl., in a statement last February supporting slashing funding for a chief diversity officer or similar position at the Pentagon.

Recent CDO vacancies at the State Department and the Pentagon prompted discussions on the Hill about what these positions should look like. As of an August review by Federal Times, there are full-time or acting DEIA officials in place at 21 of 24 main agencies.

In defense of the DEIA strategic plans they’ve been developing, agencies and practitioners have said that the work doesn’t compromise, but rather supports, the government’s merit-based system. The latest Federal Employee Viewpoints survey found 71% of respondents felt positively about their agency’s DEIA work, an increase of two percentage points from 2022.

“A growing body of evidence demonstrates that diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible workplaces yield higher-performing organizations,” Biden said in his 2021 executive order charging federal leaders with creating frameworks for assessing diversity.

Before arriving at OPM, Underwood worked for former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and spearheaded the ONE Virginia Plan, a first-of-its-kind statewide initiative involving more than 100 agencies.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, has critiqued DEIA initiatives in the Commonwealth.

In an interview at the Milken Institute 2023 Global Conference earlier in May, Youngkin said merit and excellence were undermined by goals to achieve equal outcomes, according to 13News Now, a television station in Norfolk.

“When equity overcomes excellence, we got a problem, so we’re trying to reverse that,” Youngkin said, according to the report.

In her tenure at OPM, Underwood has called for better technology and data to keep track of DEIA initiatives. Her leadership also brought the inaugural government-wide report highlighting the creation of the Chief Diversity Officers Executive Council, new indexes in the government worker satisfaction survey and accessibility of healthcare coverage for LGBTQ+ employees. Her work has also highlighted the need to ensure resources and visibility are given to disability and mental health issues.

“We must commit to long-term, continuous improvement, and prevent DEIA initiatives and programs from fizzling out,” said Underwood at the 2022 DEIA Summit. “We need our commitment to DEIA to be baked in like the ingredients of a delicious cake and not like too much icing on the cake, which can easily be scraped off.”

Some of OPM’s goals for the year ahead include increasing outreach and recruitment for organizations that partner with underserved & tribal communities, colleges, and universities by 10% and decrease the rate of undisclosed demographic data by 2%.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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