Last year, a deck of essential strategy books compiled by a handful of independent strategists, surfaced on LinkedIn. I dug in, eager to soak up recommendations from strategists I admired—who happened to be white and male. But my anticipation soon gave way to dismay and anger.
In the entire list of over 20 books, there was only one book written by a woman. And when I did a little further digging, it was clear that the representation of people of color was paltry as well.
This exclusion rankled me. Strategy, in its essence, is an exercise in curiosity about the world, and to only incorporate books by members of the dominant culture is to ignore a vast wealth of knowledge. Not only that, it telegraphs to women and people of color that our voices don’t count in the world of strategy.
Lists that don’t include women, people of color, or other voices marginal in our industry pop up relentlessly—so often that some women have become used to calling out the behavior.
I commented about my anger online, as did many other women, and I shared a list of my own favorite strategy books by women—like Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing, Donna Meadows’ Thinking in Systems, and Heather LeFevre’s Brain Surfing. A handful of women strategists had the same idea, leading to this public list by Kim Mackenzie of the online community Ladies Who Strategize, and this public list by Kaitlin Maud of Austin-based agency Current Forward.
This was far from a one-time incident. Sharing Twitter lists, book recommendations and other resources that highlight others’ expertise is one way strategists build an online presence and burnish their own expertise. Lists that don’t include women, people of color or other marginal voices in our industry pop up relentlessly—so often that some women have become used to calling out the behavior. When yet another noninclusive list of advertising expertise circulated recently on Twitter, the response was an ongoing course correction and a sense of exhaustion.
I call this the hand-to-hand combat of fighting bias—an ongoing individual effort to fight the exclusion of women and people of color in the industry. It’s a tiring job that’s often unrewarded and sometimes attacked. One woman who has frequently engaged on this front told me that she received messages calling her sexist for spotlighting only women in her responses.
The advertising industry has been putting effort into diversifying conferences and hiring pipelines, often because of being called out by people like Cindy Gallop. Within these avenues, it’s easy to identify a company or organization that needs to be held accountable. But when individuals share out lists of books and experts on LinkedIn and Twitter that are exclusionary, enforcing accountability is more difficult.
Accountability is just the first step. It’s on all of us to prioritize inclusion. It is important to highlight the women, people of color and LGBTQ people who are experts in the field of strategy, creativity and marketing in general. Not only do they pave the way for others like them, their points of view are critical to advancing our field. Strategists, for example, are tasked with staying curious about culture—and culture is inherently diverse. When essential lists or op follows don’t include diverse voices, it reinforces the idea that there is only one dominant narrative. And after a decade living with movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up, Black Lives Matter and the fight for same-sex marriage, it should be clear that a predominantly white male narrative is missing a lot of pieces.