The elephant in the room when it comes to diversity

The elephant in the room when it comes to diversity

Five things people privately feel about ‘diversity’, but would never say publicly.


One of the hot topics of discussion in our industry today is around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I). The rhetoric is well versed—diverse and inclusive environments are important and beneficial, but there is a lack of them in companies/the industry/society (take your pick). There has been a sharp increase in conferences, panel discussions, reports, trade articles, etc. about the subject and I’m adding another, but from a perspective I’ve not seen enough of yet.

Change takes time. There are deep rooted structural challenges which are complex, and when companies are trying to navigate rapidly changing and relentless business conditions it is obviously much harder. Priorities will always inevitably focus on the here and now. So, of course, a major barrier to progress is that addressing DE&I challenges takes time, attention, and resources.

Many people in our industry do not want diverse and inclusive environments

But I’d like to focus on another barrier which isn’t discussed enough. To put it bluntly: there are many people in our industry who don’t want diverse and inclusive environments.

Over the past few years I’ve privately spoken and listened to a lot of people about the topic. My summary of overall sentiment is (nearly) everyone acknowledges the imbalances, most want ‘progress’, many are indifferent, and quite a few see it as a threat.

The most interesting conversations I’ve had are with people whose feelings are at odds with the public discourse, but they’re not brave, naïve, or interested enough to speak about these publicly. But I can. I’ll share what I’ve picked up, along with some paraphrased quotes. So, in no particular order:

‘I don’t care about diversity’

The longer version: “I don’t care that much. I have other priorities”—my own career, my company’s performance, the welfare of my family, other personal interests, etc. Fair enough.

It’s a bit like me with peoples’ working conditions. Do I care? Absolutely (I’m a great guy).

Do I care that much to not shop at Amazon? Absolutely not (…so clearly not that great then).

‘Too many people with mediocre talent are getting fast tracked’

“Yes, ok, so maybe it has been unfair, but how is fast tracking mediocre talent going to help?”

More provocatively: “people are blatantly leveraging it for their own personal gain, it’s basically a power grab”.

‘Everyone prefers to be around their own’

“If I walk into a room, I would prefer there are more people I have something in common with. That’s human nature and would be the same for anyone else, wouldn’t it?”

‘Is it fair to get punished for the actions of other people that had nothing to do with me’

The ‘pro movement’ argument (to give it a label) is people shouldn’t be unfairly treated due to their gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation/etc. But that’s the exact thing happening to men/white/middle class people. Two wrongs don’t make a right.  After all, “you can’t reverse history overnight”.

‘It’s the law of the jungle’

Finding quality diverse talent and getting ways of doing business to change takes a lot (read as ‘too much’) time, effort, and resource. “Sorry if its harsh but we’re businesses, not charities. It’s the law of the jungle, everyone wants to be at the top, but not everyone can be”.

How come it’s never really spoken about?

Your reaction to these depends on your disposition. Part of my background is research and I have an interest in understanding how, or rather why, people think and behave the way they do. Maybe because of this my inclination and view is these feelings come from a very natural, human and valid instinct. Other people I know are livid and outraged. Some, not all, are shocked.

Whatever your view, unless you live in a bubble or are in ignorant denial, we all know these attitudes exist. So how come it’s never really spoken about?

The industry must be pragmatic if it is to progress

If the industry does want to progress, it is important there is an acknowledgment this is how many people feel. From a pragmatic perspective, it’s critical because a lot of what I’ve shared is from more senior and influential industry players (yes, that does often mean older white middle class men, but not exclusively, by any means). So, these views matter because they can help understand motivations and decisions (which equals effort and resources) directed towards the evolution we ‘all’ seem to want.

Resistance to change, or social progress, is of course an eternal and inevitable human truth, but there is too little discussion about understanding those who would prefer things to remain as they are. It is very misguided. After all, how can you honestly improve the situation if you don’t honestly look at the situation.

So, on behalf of the marginalised minority (irony intended), if you’re involved in thinking around DE&I, please remember if we want diverse & inclusive environments then we need to start doing more to understand the people who don’t want diverse and inclusive environments.

So what can we do?

Fortunately, I have all the answers.

No, so obviously I don’t. In terms of when significant change will arrive, and I’m speaking in general terms here, in my opinion it’ll be when the current industry leaders are replaced by the next generation who have a differently shaped value system and a default progressive mentality (rather than having to adapt to the ‘new world’). So, be patient because it won’t be anytime soon.

In the meantime, acknowledging the whole spectrum of feeling across the industry surely has to be a start, not just the converted preaching to the converted. My main hope is that other people start to be more open and direct when discussing DE&I issues rather than side stepping the massive white elephant sat in the room.

If we don’t speak about it, then how will we ever shift it? To that end, I’ve also tried to think of some other practical suggestions and observations, keeping in mind I do so with desire for open discussion and feedback.

Plan all initiatives with a default mentality of ‘no one cares’

I always read how improving inclusiveness is an issue for ‘everyone’. True, but its idealistic to think ‘everyone’ will invest effort. Better to find ways the ‘silent majority’ can dip in to help on initiatives.

Please don’t make DE&I related training compulsory

I think these should be optional. Then measure attendance. It’s an opportunity to see where you’re at.

Look at processes, not people

I don’t like quotas. They create potential for resentment and people don’t need artificial boosting anyway. Isn’t it better to examine the processes through which we find, support and reward talent?

So, for example, experiment with new recruitment sources; create more transparency behind promotion & hiring decisions; establish measures and reporting around DE&I—and please don’t dress up results.

Reframe and integrate DE&I into business strategy

Every company wants to find the best talent, attract new customers, generate new ideas, foster a more innovative culture, and look good on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) front. If initiatives are incorporated into these business goals, then it’ll push things forward anyway, given the margins of gain will come from untapped corners.

Empathy has to flow both ways

Putting aside people who’ll be entrenched in their opposition forever, and straight up narcissists, the negative sentiment so many feel is often rooted in anxiety, insecurity, and fear. I definitely think more needs to be done to help create (non-judgemental) spaces that people can step into. At the moment its more like a minefield. Surely bringing them into the discussion is more helpful than marginalising them.

After all, isn’t diversity and inclusiveness supposed to be about tolerance and shared understanding?

Sumran Kaul is client lead at advertising measurement start-up Brand Metrics and director of insight at Media For All (MEFA- a network of Black, Asian & ethnic minority talent working in the media industry).

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