#OscarsSoWhite: Don’t Just Change Demographics, Change Culture

#OscarsSoWhite: Don’t Just Change Demographics, Change Culture

Following the recent controversy over the lack of non-white acting nominees for this year’s Oscars, the New York Times analyzed the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences to gauge how hard it would be for the organization to meaningfully diversify its voting membership. Using public and private databases, they compiled basic racial outlines of the more than 1,100 members who control the acting nominations for the Academy Awards. In doing so, they found (and confirmed with an Academy spokesperson) that:

Roughly 87 percent are white. About 58 percent are male. As many as two-thirds are at least 60 years old…Along with the white members, about 6 percent are black, under 4 percent are Hispanic and less than 2 percent are Asian. Women make up about 42 percent of the branch.

They then ran the numbers to calculate how many of people of color the Academy would have to add each year to meet its goal of doubling the number of minorities in its membership by 2020:

Over the next five years, the academy would have to annually add about 14 black actors and at least nine actors who were either Asian or Hispanic to double the number of acting branch members in those ethnic groups. That would account for almost all of the slots if it invited 25 actors, which is how many were offered membership last year. To attain gender parity among actors in five years, the academy could more than triple the number of annual admissions, to 80, while adding three women for every man. Assuming a typical annual attrition rate of about 26 people (largely because of death), the branch membership would be about 51 percent women by 2020, but women would then far outnumber men among the younger members.

Now, the details of the Academy’s demographics are very interesting, and the challenges it faces should resonate with any organization in which committees are making decisions, whether with regard to recognition or hiring. Especially in predominantly white and male industries, how can organizations ensure that decision-making committees are conscious of diversity and inclusion?

One option is to change the demographics of the committees. Research suggests that having more representative leadership tends to improve diversity organically over time, but as the Times analysis shows, laying the groundwork for this kind of change can be difficult, especially when diversifying the committee requires diversifying the entire organization. Another option is to change selection processes to require committees to consider a more diverse group of candidates. Organizations likely have to do a bit of both, and perhaps the second will fade away as committees become more diverse over time.

Yet, as I mentioned in my previous post, diversity statements and hiring practices alone are not enough to actually change the spirit of the Academy. When we talk about “diversity and inclusion,” we use these terms in tandem for a good reason. Without also considering how it will create an inclusive environment for its new, younger, more diverse membership, the Academy’s efforts to improve diversity risk being perceived as discriminatory by the old guard and as tokenism by the young actors whom it is trying to include.

Remember that for previously privileged groups (i.e., white men), diversity initiatives often feel like a form of discrimination against them. Whether or not we ought to be sympathetic to those feelings, organizations looking to diversify their ranks must contend with the likelihood that some employees and job candidates may resent the extra attention that women and minorities seem to get.

Returning to the Academy’s dilemma, imagine what the reaction might be if your organization’s diversity program were simply to avoid hiring white men for the next five years—assuming that was the only way to achieve your diversity goals through recruiting alone. Employees, just like some current members of the Academy, would feel threatened by and resistant to changes that did little to help them personally, even if they strengthened the organization as a whole. Some have countered this with policies closer to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which itself has been questioned for its lack of results. Alternatively, organizations will often expect all employees to attend diversity training about unconscious biases.

But to focus on diversity and inclusion means looking at attitudes as well as numbers. It means not just conducting training, but also engaging in dialogue and facilitating open, honest conversations. In the Academy’s case, it could mean increasing the number of diversity and inclusion events that members attend or sponsor, for example, or promoting “supplier diversity”— supporting businesses owned by minorities, veterans, or people with disabilities . Maybe it’s about how many more films actually feature diverse actors and actresses in the coming years, assuming that committed Academy members have some level of influence in their environment. Someday, it could even mean looking at how the Academy is judged on its thought leadership in the diversity and inclusion space.

The Academy’s demographic challenges are a great example of why diversity without inclusion is a recipe for failure. Instead, it is the focus on inclusion—on helping current employees celebrate their unique traits and welcoming new people into the organization—that makes the most progressive, diverse, and inclusive organizations thrive.