There were a number of talks this year at SXSW around diversity and inclusion; from the impact of the female gaze in filmmaking, to panel debates on designing for bias. But what was particularly exciting for me was the emerging trend of taking diversity initiatives beyond data, into action.
There has been a lot of progress in our industry towards creating more diverse workplaces, but so far it’s been predominantly focused on recognising bias in ourselves and in our organisations. This is only the first step - the challenge now is creating real change based on the information we’re gathering.
Data comfort blanket
Silicon Valley giants have been publishing diversity data for the last few years, but change in the technology industry is happening very slowly.
Why is this? Perhaps these diversity data audits are giving businesses a false sense of security. Firms see that they are not alone in their poor performance, which gives rise to a sense of relief and therefore, less incentive to improve.
Surveys are important, but should be used in the right way. They’re an opportunity to gather invaluable insight into where the gaps are and what the internal and external priorities should be, not an opportunity to justify your own results by those of others.
There’s a tendency within businesses to see the responsibility of encouraging diverse thinking as that of minority groups themselves.
But creating silos of diversity and inclusion simply doesn't work.
These groups are of course important, as they create spaces in which minority issues can be raised and supported provided. However, alone, they rarely gain the visibility to make any real impact on a wider organisation.
Encouraging and championing diverse thinking needs to be a goal and objective across the whole organisation. All team leaders should be asking themselves: what preconceived perspectives do I bring to the table, what do my team bring and how do I own and challenge these?
Likewise, when creating work, one person of colour on a team is not a sufficient focus group for their entire community.
Agencies should be investing in research that generates authentic stories. This can be difficult to gather due to community sensitivities, but research has shown virtual reality can help - people felt less judged and are able to share their thoughts and feelings in a way they wouldn't have done face to face.
While technology has arguably done a lot to fuel divisions and lack of empathy in society, there is also a great deal it can offer to help bring people together and foster greater mutual understanding.
Cultural fit vs cultural growth
Within agencies, particularly smaller ones, you’ll often find groups of very like-minded individuals with similar opinions, beliefs, even hobbies. This stems from leaders looking to build out their teams without compromising on their core vision, aiming for maximum "culture fit" among new recruits.
While this can be a good early strategy, longer term this approach can lead to lack of diversity. Hiring people who "fit the agency culture" and we feel comfortable with because they reflect our own perspectives and values, doesn't get us to great ideas or innovative approaches. You need people who will challenge you, bring a new point of view.
Hire for cultural growth, not a cultural fit.
Addressing the environmental factors
Bias is not just a data or organisational issue, it is also a cultural issue.
This point is brought home starkly by the example of gender pay gaps for Uber drivers. Despite the fact that Uber is gender neutral in selecting and dispatching drivers, men are still getting paid more through the system than women. When they looked into this it was due to that fact that women worked at less profitable times than men (for example not at night) and tend not to drive as fast or take as many "risks" with routes.
This is not an issue with the programming of the system or data algorithms, but of culture and society. Uber is apparently working at a grassroots level to address some of these issues and help to make the service as profitable for women as it is for men.
This is a great reminder for us all that it is not enough to hire more people from minority groups into our organisations. We also need to create an environment that supports them and helps them to thrive.
Time to do more
Some stunning data presented by WGSN gave an indication of just how significantly the structure of the societies we live in is shifting.
By 2020, White Caucasians in the US will be in the minority and by 2050 25% of the world's population will be Muslim Millennials.
This data is a stark reminder that diversity is no longer a minority issue - it is now becoming the "new majority".
Agencies that fail to recognise and adapt to this will be left behind. Now is the time to create real and lasting change, and there is much we can learn from the successes and failures from others before us.
Mobbie Nazir is chief strategy officer at We Are Social