When the Diversity Conversation Is ‘Over’, It’s Really Just Getting Started

When the Diversity Conversation Is ‘Over’, It’s Really Just Getting Started

Days after causing an uproar with his comments that the debate over gender equality in advertising is “over” and that the reason there are so few women in leadership positions in the industry is that women don’t aspire to hold those positions, Saatchi & Saatchi executive chairman Kevin Roberts has decided to retire early and leave his position next month. Roberts’s resignation won’t do much to level the playing field for women in advertising, but in the mind of Digiday’s Shareen Pathak, the controversy he courted has opened up an opportunity to advance the very same conversation he called finished:

[H]ere’s the thing about the Roberts scandal: Depending on how it’s framed, one can actually make the case that the gender debate is, in fact, “over.” Agencies have implemented checks and balances; there are diversity officers; there are quotas. Real sexism is harder to spot than ever — as one agency employee said, “no one’s patting your ass any more” — but it’s still endemic. …

“There are elements of [Roberts’] comment that are true,” said Lisa Leone, a freelance creative director. Leone points to the 3% Conference, which began as a response to the surprising statistic that only 3 percent of creative directors in the industry are female. Today, that number is 11 percent. So on some level, Roberts may have been right that the “debate” — as far as how the numbers are trending — is over. But is 11 percent good enough? “We’re not there yet, but we’ve made strides,” said Leone. …

One agency director, speaking anonymously, complained that diversity programs at agencies are sorely lacking and often just tick the boxes, she said. “I’ve rarely seen deeper issues such as unconscious bias ever dealt with head on, lately, because HR departments don’t want to deal with the stress of evolving a company culture,” she said. On some level, maybe Roberts thought his agencies’ diversity programs “had ticked all the boxes,” in which case he was being sincere.

This brings to mind a recent conversation in which one of our members was talking about reframing the conversation about gender diversity from one centered on presence (Do we have enough women?) to one that focused more on equal representation (Are most teams in our organization balanced on a range of characteristics, from gender, to diversity of thought and background, to race and age?). When organizations shift their thinking toward this second approach—not “ticking the boxes” for female representation, but rather thinking carefully about the outcomes they want their diversity and inclusion efforts to generate, and adopting a more holistic approach to D&I to that end—the conversation certainly won’t be “over,” but we may be having it on somewhat different terms.