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Why are we still talking about diversity?

March 24, 2016 | 4 min read

It seems barely a week goes by without some sort of diversity related story. The controversy surrounding this year’s Oscars that led to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was quickly followed in the UK by #BritsSoWhite, as people took to social media to complain about the lack of artists of colour in the Brit Awards nominations. The comedian John Oliver summed it up best in a recent piece on Hollywood whitewashing by asking: ‘How is this still a thing?

Not to be outdone, the advertising industry has our very own scandal unfolding with the removal of Gustavo Martinez, the global CEO of JWT, over his alleged racist and sexist comments. This led to a flurry of debate at the 4As conference in Miami this week, where ironically Martinez had been due to host a panel about the need for diversity in marketing.

Meanwhile, his successor Tamara Ingram announced in London on Tuesday that she is committed to increasing diversity in her new role. She is reported as saying:

“I believe to the core of my being that diversity of people leads to diversity of thinking and diversity of ideas, and unleashing that creativity is very valuable to us. We haven’t got that inclusion in our work place at the moment.”

But there are some signs of a backlash against the backlash. A recent piece in the Economist highlighted ‘diversity fatigue’ as a growing trend. It cites a HR consultant who overheard two men speaking in the gym. When one of them said that he was due to attend a diversity-training workshop, the other man responded, “Oh God! That’s right up there with getting a root canal.”

I’ve begun hearing similar sentiments. Recently one agency ECD half jokingly told me that he is beginning to feel like an oppressed minority within the industry because he is a white middle-class man.

At the recent SXSW conference in Austin, diversity was a topic in several sessions. Having attended a number of these, I noticed a pattern. When Maxine Williams, global director of diversity for Facebook, delivered her speech on Diversity in Tech, the auditorium was only a quarter full, with most of the audience made up of people from minority groups. The next session featured Amber Venz Box, the president and co-founder of rewardStyle. In the space of a few minutes the same venue was filled to capacity with delegates cramming in to hear her speak about 'digital marketing in the age of influencers'.

There is nothing sinister about this. Influencers are a hot topic and Venz Box has figured out how to successfully monetize them. But this pattern of diversity advocates preaching to the converted while being ignored by the mainstream, occurred time and time again at SXSW.

This suggests to me that some people are simply learning to play the diversity game. As the brilliant satirical website ‘Rent-A-Minority’ puts it: “Rather than address institutional inequality in any meaningful way, diversity is something that is generally just for (temporary) show.”

I can understand why there is some sense of diversity fatigue setting in. It’s no fun feeling as though you are being blamed for a situation you didn’t create. But I’m sorry, not sorry. If you think the debate about diversity has been dragging on for too long, imagine how the people who have been experiencing inequality feel. I’d be delighted to stop talking about diversity once we’ve achieved meaningful change. As recent events have shown, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Jonathan Akwue is the chief executive of Lost Boys. You can find him on Twitter @jonakwue


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