Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Myth of “Trickle-down Diversity”

Do more black, Asian and minority Ethnic people (BAME) in executive positions in the media help or hinder the progress of BAME people in the industry?

The answer is a resounding; Maybe - but at a great personal cost

A few months ago I was having a lunch with a black person who had just been appointed to a very important position in one of Britain's major broadcasters. During our conversation the person told me; "I am going to do my best to promote black and Asian people whatever that means to my career."

And here is the dilemma. The black person clearly wanted to promote diversity but implicit in their statement is that they know their own personal career might suffer as a result.      

I frequently hear people talk about the need for more BAME people to be in the position of Gatekeepers and in executive roles.

The theory is that if we only had BAME people in high level positions they would commission more BAME programmes and content and would increase diversity by promoting and recruiting other BAME people.

Just get BAME people on important management boards and in key high level positions and diversity will follow. In many ways this is precisely what my lunch partner was saying that he was going to do.

I am going to call this argument Trickle-down diversity". And while we all know black and Asian individuals who have fearlessly worked to increase the number of BAME people working in film and television there is growing evidence that "trickle-down diversity" is seriously flawed as a concept to solve diversity on an industry wide level. 

Study after study has shown that women and people of colour pay a heavy price for promoting diversity.

In a seminal paper titled: Female tokens in high-prestige work groups: Catalysts or inhibitors of group diversification? the researchers studied 300 executives both male and female. They found that when men promoted diversity, they received slightly higher performance ratings. They were perceived as good guys creating a better workplace. However when women executives promoted diversity, they were perceived as nepotistic  trying to "advantage their own group" and their own performance was then negatively perceived accordingly.

In another study, done two years ago, by the Harvard Business Review researchers found a similar result; "women and non-white executives who advocated for diversity were rated much worse by their bosses."  

And a third study has even possibly worse far reaching implications. Non-white people who have previously demonstrated a tendency to advocate for diversity are less likely to be promoted or get a new job. In this academic paper titled : 
"Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market"  BAME job applicants who included experiences related to their ethnicity on their CVs were more likely to be passed over for jobs  even at companies that openly valued diversity.

The worry is that when a person from a "diverse" background finally makes it to the higher echelons instead of this having a "trickle down diversity" effect it could actually slow down progress throughout the rest of a company. 

White men on boards who had previously advocated for diversity, when there were no women or people of colour present, might take their cues from the one diverse person on the board or abdicate that responsibility to that one person. And in turn the one woman or person of colour on the board might not advocate for diversity because quite rationally they know that due to prejudice it damages their own career.

This phenomenon could explain another study of Standard & Poor's 1,500 companies over 20 years which found that when one woman reached senior management, instead of another woman reaching those heights becoming easier it was in fact more difficult! 51 percent more difficult to be precise.

So what can we take from this? Does it mean we should all give up hope and not even bother to try and increase the number of women and BAME people in senior positions?

You will not be surprised to hear that I am not advocating this nihlistic approach.

There is no doubt that media organisations and broadcasters in the UK need to increase the number of BAME people in senior management positions. And nearly all broadcasters have at least made public commitments to do this and the BBC even announced that by 2020 at least two members of all its senior leadership boards will be from a BAME background.

However it is important to realize that even if progress is made in this important area these people must be given the support so they can actually help other BAME people without worrying about being penalized for their efforts. 

And that requires a real change in culture and the other
non-diverse members in senior management recognising that diversity doesn't stop when a non-white face is sitting next to them in the boardroom.

I applaud the courage of so many women and BAME executives who promote diversity knowing the risks to their own careeer. But until these actions stop requiring courage real progress on an industry level will not be made.  

Andtrickle-down diversity" might actually do more harm than good.

(My thanks to a Twitter conversation with @BlaakRichardson and @CampbellX who caused me to rewrite this piece and clarify some of the points I was trying to get across)

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