#OscarsSoWhite: Why Public Statements on Diversity Aren’t Enough

#OscarsSoWhite: Why Public Statements on Diversity Aren’t Enough

Late last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced radical changes to its governance and voting structure, aimed at increasing the diversity of its voting membership. The announcement came in response to widespread controversy among the public and Hollywood insiders alike over this year’s Oscar nominations, which include no non-white actors. Will Smith, who had been expected to receive a nomination for his starring role in “Concussion,” announced that he would not attend the awards ceremony. Multitudes of other celebrities and insiders spoke out about the lack of diversity in the nominee pool as well.

Last Friday’s announcement marks a monumental shift for the Academy and its image. While it’s impossible to prove or disprove whether specific films or actors deserved nominations, the Academy has now publicly acknowledged the larger issue at the heart of the controversy: namely, that its voting members reflect the predominantly white and male demographics of the film industry.

The Academy’s response is an example of how organizations can use public statements to establish accountability and drive change. Echoing the steps some Silicon Valley firms have taken to increase minority inclusion and the focus on gender equality at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and responding to mounting pressure on the entertainment industry to step up its diversity efforts, the Academy has just acknowledged that it has not kept pace with the demographic shifts of the world, its constituents, and its customers, and that something needs to be done.

Importantly, however, the Academy’s actions went beyond making a public statement.

Public commitments and increased awareness alone are not sufficient to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in white- and male-dominated industries—just ask any progressive organization working on these issues. By committing to change its policies, the Academy is recognizing that it can’t overcome its entrenched biases without actively recruiting a more diverse membership.

This move reflects our increasing understanding of implicit or unconscious bias, driven by research such as that of David Rock, founder of the Neuroleadership Institute. Rock’s work points out that everyone, whether members of the Academy voting on awards or leaders at an organization deciding who deserves the next promotion, is inherently biased: It’s just how our brains work. The impact of bias, whether implicit or explicit, is especially relevant to the highly subjective process of judging actors or directors in film.

So it stands to reason that the Academy is committing to increasing the diversity of its ranks. That’s the change needed to actually make a difference. And their next steps—to define diversity, to change their typical sourcing channels, to include current Academy members in the change, and to foster not only diversity but also inclusion—will be fascinating to watch.