There is an art to cultivating talent and an art to fostering inclusive working environments. For the latest AOP CRUNCH event, we were joined by leaders and changemakers to discover how it’s working to build a more diverse and inclusive digital media sector at a time when multiple overlapping crises have left leaders with many plates to spin.
The pyramid of DE&I priorities
The day began with Sumran Kaul from Media For All (MEFA), a network of black, Asian and minority ethnic talent from within the media and advertising industry. Kaul gave a preview of the second phase of the MEFA Measures survey, due to release later this year, which explored how its 800-plus members feel about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) at their companies.
“My summary of it is things have got a bit better but they’re still pretty s**t,” said Kaul. Recruitment of ethnic minorities has increased as has the visibility of role models within the industry, but many still feel culturally excluded by homogenous in-groups and that their companies lack transparency and accountability around DE&I efforts. Nearly half of those surveyed had considered leaving their companies in the past year.
Analysing the many ways in which ethnic minorities were being underserved led Kaul to ask, what does “good” look like? So, he separated DE&I success into a pyramid of priorities. At the top, conscientious leadership that genuinely cares. Next, thoughtful practices such as flexible working and developmental support such as coaching and mentorship. Finally, basic human values, “the sort of thing you teach children at school” before listing compassion, empathy and fairness as examples.
The power of coaching
Elaine dela Cruz, co-founder of DE&I consultancy Project 23 and Coaches of Colour, helps companies fill out the middle of Kaul’s pyramid. Dela Cruz shared details of Coaches of Colour’s work with Google. The media giant brought in the company to support a network of 40 Black employees — across various departments and levels of seniority — to take authentic action in their careers and provide a safe space to discuss the unique challenges they faced at Google and beyond.
Dela Cruz emphasised the need to quantitatively measure the impact of such initiatives. The coaching programme delivered a significant and tangible uplift across many areas, such as clarity of career ambitions, confidence to achieve those ambitions, and awareness of how to overcome barriers to progression. It supported people of colour to progress in their careers and therefore helped to drive diversity at all levels of a business. But perhaps most transformative was the sense of community that the programme engendered.
“The power of being together in [group coaching] spaces and working through these challenges offers a great return on investment for an organisation by creating the communities that we’re really thirsty for, as well as the clear return of higher employee engagement,” said dela Cruz. “Particularly when we’re working in an agile world, we’re looking for reasons for people to come together.”
Unleashing the power of midlife women
“My mission is to unleash the power of midlife women,” said Jacquie Duckworth, co-founder of Uninvisibility and Visible Start. “Easier said than done. My background is on the media owner side, 38 plus years working on various magazine and national press brands. And what I noticed was that when we get to the age of 45, we’re just exited from the business.”
To help midlife women claim or reclaim their place in media and advertising, Duckworth established — in collaboration with Brixton Finishing School and WPP — Visible Start, a free training and mentorship course open to any woman aged 45 and over, with no prior experience required. All participants have the opportunity to apply to one of 20 roles at WPP and gain access to the private Visible Society online community. Since its founding, 18 midlife women have secured jobs at WPP through the programme.
During registration for the pilot, participants were asked how they felt about themselves, and the responses were heartbreaking. They felt invisible, low in confidence and self-esteem, washed up, wiped out, angry and upset. When the programme started, most had their webcams off and mics muted. But by the end, “they were almost screaming down the mics, with full-on faces”.
Hema Mistry, programme coordinator at GroupM, is a Visible Start alumnus who joined during lockdown when the disruption to her usual work with Youth Parliament had left her feeling defeated. Visible Start reinvigorated Mistry’s passion to build her career, and not long after she was at GroupM — her first media role — remotely onboarding 32 apprentices into the business from her bedroom window.
“I was asked, ‘How did you do that?’ And I have no idea, it’s just me bringing my transferable skills from all the work that I’ve done before, plus being part of a [large] family,” said Mistry. “So, don’t ever look at intersectionality as a bad thing. Actually, it’s a good thing because some of us have rolled up our sleeves, pulled up our socks and just got on with it, very focused.”
“As Hema stated, we add value to the business,” said Duckworth. “I’ve got a 26-year-old daughter, and that generation of diva hissy fits if things aren’t running instantly to their satisfaction. We’re a generation going, ‘Let’s just bring it down. What’s the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen probably has already … our life learning, our wisdom, our sage, [makes us] really great at problem solving.”
How DE&I initiatives filter through to expanded audiences
Ridhi Radia, head of equality, diversity and inclusion at Immediate Media, shared her advice on achieving measurable DE&I success within media, following an extensive, data and interview-driven audit that she led at the company.
First, media companies should empower their employee network groups and actively listen and engage with them to understand their needs. Then there’s education and training, whether that’s formal courses such as unconscious bias training or company-wide panels where people can share their challenges and lived experiences. Finally, these efforts filter through to editorial to authentically engage with new audiences, as evidenced through Immediate Media’s work with BBC Good Food.
“Food brings people together. In diverse communities, the first thing we all connect on is food. We celebrated Christmas and Easter and Pancake Day, but there wasn’t that much on Diwali, Eid or Rosh Hashanah,” said Radia. “How could we not be celebrating? They’re very quick wins, so we built content around that and we gained new audiences. Two years later, we’re now number one on Google for all religious recipes.”
Standing firm on DE&I through internal and external crises
Companies must not sweep toxic behaviour of high-performing staff under the rug. This is an unfortunately common problem that Maria McDowell, founder of Lollipop Mentoring — which centres on the needs of black women — encounters in her mentees. In one example, three mentees had left the same company due to the behaviour of a single colleague.
“A lot of the time, there are one or two members of staff who are causing a lot of problems, are making people unhappy,” said McDowell. “And year after year, they’re still in those positions because clients like them or they bring in revenue. Where is the bravery? If people see that senior people aren’t putting up with stuff, it builds trust, it makes people believe in the leadership. It changes culture, and it makes people feel they are listened to.”
To make progress on this front, senior staff must not shy away from difficult conversations, and create spaces where people trust that they can speak freely. Jason Campbell, executive coach and founder of Sayit, trains leadership and management on confronting uncomfortable conversations, which he believes is key to creating an open and equitable company culture.
“We don’t find out about these things until it’s too late. Then that person is in front of me saying, ‘I’m really sorry but I haven’t been happy for six months, I found another job and I start next week.’ And I go, ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ … It’s about creating a level playing field. It’s less about ‘boss’, ‘employee’; it’s about being yourself, being honest and being a bit vulnerable.”
“Vulnerability is something that has been discouraged, mainly because leaders were traditionally men, to be honest,” said Victoria Usher, CEO and founder of GingerMay. “Now you can see that authenticity and transparency are important, particularly when there’s a crisis. That is one of the first rules of crisis management – show authenticity and vulnerability. Because otherwise you just sound corporate and like you don’t care.”
For Usher, no crisis is as concerning as the climate crisis, which motivated her to push for GingerMay to achieve its recent B Corp certification. This allowed her to channel her concerns into action, while also future proofing the ability of the business to attract talent: “Gen Z employees are already looking for your sustainability policy. And that is just going to get stronger and stronger.”
Debbie Tembo, inclusion partner at Creative Equals, is concerned that this age of permacrisis and culture wars is leading to DE&I fatigue, with companies leaving their marginalised talent out in the cold. “If we look at the two brands in the US who had a lot of backlash for getting it wrong, what they created was a wave of fear around DE&I. What you saw was a lot of companies retracting their commitments, a lot of brands going completely quiet, and just a real regression in what is happening in the DE&I landscape.”
Tembo continued, “It’s important for leaders, particularly, within these brands and within these organisations, to realise that when you are externally crisis managing, you need to also be internally focusing on crisis care. Because when you don’t stand up for the marginalised communities and partners that you’ve been working with externally, you’re also not standing up for those marginalised communities within your organisation. And it sends the wrong message.”
The overarching takeaway was the importance of working together to make a positive difference to DE&I in the digital media industry. We must support all those working to make positive change and hold ourselves accountable to ensure DE&I is a continuous evolution.
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