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No longer 3%: white women need to rethink their role in the diversity debate

By Jenny Nicholson | Group Creative Director

November 7, 2017 | 8 min read

As a whole, the sixth annual 3% Conference was as empowering, positive and future-focused as you’d imagine. But it wasn’t all group hugs and high-fives.

Jenny Nicholson

Jenny Nicholson is group creative director at McKinney

On several occasions during post-panel Q&As, presenters stood blinking uncomfortably as voices from the audience challenged their assumptions and pointed out the privilege reflected in their statements.

The tension came to a head on the afternoon of the second day. VML and 72andSunny were announced as the first 3% Certified agencies, in recognition of their commitment to diversity and inclusion. The agency leaders spent some time talking about what they’d done to earn that distinction and then the floor was opened for audience questions.

Derek Walker of Brown and Browner Advertising stepped up to ask why the agencies had so few people of color represented in their senior ranks.

To their credit, the leaders on stage agreed. We’ve done great on gender, they said. We’re not there on racial diversity. We know that. But finding good people is hard. It’s a process, they said. It takes time.

Derek responded with the full force of the pain and grief and rage borne of 25 years spent knocking on the doors of an industry that remains closed to people who look like him.

“You want me to wait?” he asked. “I’m 53 years old. I don’t have time to wait. Would you tell a white woman to wait just a few more years and then it will be her turn? If you wouldn’t say it to a white woman, please don’t say it to all the black people in this room.”

It was an intense moment. It was uncomfortable, but it was real. Unfortunately, it was also over. The moderator wrapped things up, saying it was time for lunch.

I’ve spent the last three days thinking about what happened and how it could have gone differently. I’ve scrolled through threads on Twitter and talked with other attendees to get their take.

The truth is, the 3% Movement hasn’t worked equally for everyone.

Women now represent 29% of creative directors and 39% of advertising executives. Fewer men are in leadership positions than ever. But most of those openings, especially at the highest levels, have been filled by white women. The tide is rising, but it’s not lifting the boats of women and men of color to the same level.

I keep thinking about the privilege walk that kicked off the conference. Ten brave people stood onstage as Luvvie Ajayi asked questions that had them take either one step forward or one step back. Questions like: “Were you raised by a single parent?” and “Have you ever been bullied because of something you couldn’t change?” The exercise was a powerful visual explanation of how privilege works: Some of us have a head start. And some head starts are bigger than others. It’s worth noting that, out of 10 participants, three were brown. All three ended up at the back.

Karen Kaplan, chief executive of Hill Holliday and one of the participants in the walk, made a comment that keeps echoing in my head. “What struck me,” she said. “is that I could see the people at my level or in front of me. But I couldn’t see anyone behind me.”

That’s where too many white women in this industry are right now: Focused on the backs of the men still ahead of us, but not able to see the perspective of those we are leaving behind.

Even the magnificent Cindy Gallop ran into this issue. Nobody has been more vocal about the need for change in this industry. But she began her closing keynote with this declaration: “The biggest issue facing our industry today is not diversity — it's sexual harassment.”

I’m not saying sexual harassment isn’t an issue. Of course it is, and I’m proud leaders like Cindy are calling it out. And she went on to say that the danger of sexual harassment is that it prevents gender equality and diversity from happening. I don’t for a second believe Cindy Gallop thinks diversity isn’t critical.

But I’m a writer. As such, I believe words have power. And “this not that” is a dangerous construct. When we play that game, we all lose.

Success isn’t a certain number of women at the top. It’s not a particular percentage of people of color at the table, either.

Success is an industry where it doesn’t matter what you look like, what’s in your pants, who you love or how your body works, only that you’re a badass at what you do. Success is everyone being safe from abuse or victimization by the people they encounter at work.

I know we all want that. But I also know we’ll never get there by pretending we’re one big happy family facing the same obstacles.

Kat and Lisen and the rest of the 3% team have been doing their part. When Judy Jackson called them out for not addressing diversity beyond gender, they said “you’re absolutely right” and expanded their platform to welcome people of all genders, ethnicities, orientations and physical abilities. When someone asked why their research dove deep on gender issues but didn’t give racial diversity the same attention, they immediately committed to a new research program.

But it’s not just on them to change.

Women like me, who have benefited most from the move from 3% to 29%, can’t just clap and nod and tweet about how unfair the system is. Because the higher that number creeps, the more we become the system.

Just as the 3% Movement has forced gender issues into the light, we need to acknowledge how blind we are when it comes to the perspectives of people who are pushing against biases other than gender.

We have to give up the idea that this movement was founded just for us.

And we need to listen carefully to those who are brave enough to call us on our privilege.

With that in mind, some tough questions of my own: Did you embrace discomfort during the conference? Or did you stick with what felt safe?

Did you spend most of the time talking with friends and colleagues? Or networking with people you hope will hire you someday? How many times did you stand beside someone different and avoid talking to them because you weren’t sure how to start the conversation?

I was nervous about going to the conference alone. But it forced me to take risks I may have avoided if I’d been with familiar company.

Instead, I told my social anxiety to shut up and tried to connect with as many different people as I could. I felt awkward a lot. I worried I was getting it wrong. I realized a few times that I totally was.

And I learned so damn much.

I discovered Dallas BBQ and their dangerously delicious Texas-sized margaritas. I learned that the 25Forty Project isn’t the product of a PR machine, but the passion of people who are trying to make a real impact. I realized that things as seemingly innocuous as corporate icebreakers can be weapons of exclusion. I learned that I feel safe to speak my mind only because I’ve never been punished for doing so. Most importantly, I met so many talented people I would never have known otherwise. My social networks literally look different than they did on Wednesday night. Which is perfect, because I’m not the same person, either.

If that’s not the point of this movement, I don’t know what is.

Jenny Nicholson is group creative director at McKinney. She tweets @missjenny

Wunderman proudly supports The Drum’s 3% Conference coverage. We believe true diversity does not check boxes, it checks itself.

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