Diversity Efforts Are Often Whitewashed and Dulled Down. Here Are 5 Ways to Improve These Initiatives

Advertising has rebranded the term, and it isn’t a positive change

Illustration of different white men and women's faces.
Agencies and brands can champion being inclusive while not actually acknowledging ethnic or racial minorities in their efforts.
Getty Images

As we round out July, I am taking refuge in the fact that we’ve survived another round of the International Festival of Press Releases, sometimes referred to as Cannes Lions.

This year’s festival followed the patterns of years past. The biggest spending, hottest and most powerful of the advertising industry went to France to ensure they beat their chests about the things that are critically important to them, things they talk about once a year at Cannes. C-suite and svps took to LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to show themselves holding microphones and waxing poetic about the on-trend topics. In many ways, this year was largely about diversity.

Following along from home, I saw a slew of new and renewed initiatives aimed at tackling diversity in advertising. And what I mean by that is I saw many high-ranking white men and white women making the case for why it’s a grave issue that there are not more women in advertising and the advertising industry, especially in leadership roles. A statement I don’t necessarily disagree with. The Female Quotient showed up again, promoting conversation around the GEM score (gender equality measure) and spoke about diversity with leaders of the industry’s biggest brands. The ANA’s #SeeHer came back for another year, also with support from big entertainment brands. The UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance garnered a lot of ink, especially with their executive director being awarded the Cannes Lion Heart.

Diversity has now been co-opted to simply mean “women,” and most often to mean “white women.”

Being black, I’ve always been excited to hear companies commit to diversity. It is the singular initiative in many companies that directly relates to me. As an industry, we don’t talk about black people—or the lack of them—or why we need to include them or why we should make products for them or advertise to them or acknowledge them, unless we’re specifically talking about diversity. So, in theory, I would have been very excited for the programming at Cannes this year, except for one thing: Diversity has now been co-opted to simply mean “women,” and most often to mean “white women.”

The ad industry has rebranded diversity, and while I’m furious about it, I can’t say that I’m surprised. It’s as sad as it is clever. Now companies can commit to diversity by championing a non-minority population. They can go to Cannes and say they are committed to facing the hard conversations about representation, inclusion and belonging without having to acknowledge racial, ethnic or socioeconomic minorities. The saddest part is that many of the initiatives I mentioned above do touch on intersectionality (that is to say, women of color), but when their panels, messages and hashtags spread widely, that nuance is lost.

You know what sucks? Being the only black person in a company, building, department or team and feeling incredibly out of place, isolated, devalued and misunderstood every day. It sucks to be in that situation and to get excited when someone unveils a new diversity initiative before realizing that these diversity efforts are not aimed at acknowledging you but instead will be considered successful if their outcome is getting more white women into leadership positions.

In the rarer places where diversity is used more broadly, it often focuses on entry-level talent or new job applicants. It’s a game to increase numbers or percentage points that can be shown in an annual report without thinking through the experience minorities will have when they come to work each day. It ignores if they are fairly compensated and given high-visibility opportunities to succeed and be promoted. It doesn’t show if they are able to access mentors and champions, have their voices heard or impact the business in a tangible way. It is incomplete.

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