Listen up, adland: these are the barriers blocking diversity

An open letter on the practical steps ad leaders can take to build diverse talent.

To adland’s chief executives, managing directors and heads of talent,

As a queer, first-generation Nigerian immigrant, born in the mid-1990s, I know I’m not the typical adland recruit. Yet, now I’m on the inside, I know that the industry is dedicated to bringing in a more diverse set of people than it has in the past. I am also very aware that it’s easier said than done. There have been plenty of conference platforms telling you to make your workforce more diverse, but rather fewer explaining how to go about this. And I’ve met with a few of you lately who recognise the problem, but don’t really know how to set about solving it.

I don’t have all the answers, but I can at least offer you a different perspective to many of Campaign’s columnists. So I decided to write this open letter: to highlight five of the hidden barriers you might not be aware of, along with my suggestions for how these might be overcome.

Barrier 1: cost of travel

An easy way to encourage and sustain your inflow of diverse talent is by subsidising or fully covering the cost of travel for candidates who need help.

People living or studying outside the M25 need to take out a mortgage to pay for a return train to London nowadays – and don't get me started on the cost of travelling around London.

Covering travel to interviews for candidates who aren’t London-based would ensure talent from every background can afford to apply. Or you could go a step further and just save everyone the cost of travelling by conducting all first-stage interviews over Skype.

Barrier 2: work experience

We all know that the privilege of work experience at a top agency is not handed out equally. We know you’ve found space for the daughter of that big client and the son of your best chum from Wacl. And that’s fine. But there are countless numbers of young people who would kill for a week at an agency, but have no means of getting their foot in the door. Don’t stop taking the offspring of your friends and clients, but I’d like you to commit that, whenever you do, you pair them up with someone from a disadvantaged background and get them to do their work experience together. So many of adland’s best and brightest started out in a work experience role, so this simple change could help diversify your talent pipeline at negligible cost.

Barrier 3: unconscious bias

I get it, you’re not a racist, you don't have a homophobic bone in your body and your best friend growing up was autistic. But that still doesn't mean there aren’t people in your agency who are unconsciously perpetuating negative stereotypes when it comes to hiring, promoting and even casting people in ads.

It's a well-documented fact that men are hired and promoted based on potential, in comparison to women, who are judged based on evidence. This unfair bias can affect the trajectory of someone’s career and even determine if they get a chance in the first place. So while it won’t be easy or fun, unconscious bias training for every member of staff is essential. Many agencies are ahead of the game on this and have seen how unconscious bias training can really help in the agency’s day-to-day interactions with minority groups. An engaged, aware workforce in your agency will enable more of us to be hired, promoted and given that oh-so-important leap of faith.

Barrier 4: mental and emotional health

This issue goes beyond minority groups, of course, but please recognise that a lot of people from marginalised groups may suffer from some form of trauma, whether that is racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism or even the unspoken burden of being the eldest sibling in a single-parent or low-income household.

So make sure your organisation has robust mental-health support for all employees (especially to new starters). It should be readily available for everyone to access at any point of their career. Support should be advertised, promoted and normalised, with as much vigour and gusto as the quarterly awayday or Christmas party. Introducing simple solutions such as mental-health days off or mental-health check-ins with line managers can go a long way to helping staff feel fully supported. 

Barrier 5: 'professionalism'

There is a problematic and antiquated notion that how you dress, speak and even style the hair growing out of your head has an effect on how you do your job. If this attitude persists at your agency, it will have a negative effect on your talent pipeline, cause detrimental emotional and mental stress on staff already in your company and further increase the micro-aggressions minority groups face in the workplace.

For example, a dress code that requires a suit or smart outfit locks out those who cannot afford to be spending minimum £50 for a two-piece suit for an interview or even for day-to-day workwear, while for anyone identified as gender non-conforming it can feel like a straitjacket that must be adorned just so you can afford to put food on the table. Moreover, if you do make sacrifices to get those "professional clothes" once you’re in the role, having to upkeep your wardrobe hammers your income, which is especially tough for those in junior roles.

Moving on from dress code, let me briefly mention hairstyles – an issue that disproportionately affects the black community, especially black women. For centuries, we’ve been told that our natural hair is unkempt, distracting and unprofessional. That we need to shave it off or hide it under wigs or weaves to be taken seriously in a professional environment. This is a form of racism that many organisations participate in and something we’re unable to recognise because we’re met with a counter-argument (we are all aware that afro hair has been politicised for the past 400 years). 

So if you want diversity in your organisation, get comfortable with people’s expression of that diversity.  There’s no point hiring and championing talent from diverse backgrounds and marginalised groups if a woman in a hijab makes you feel uncomfortable or if a gender-fluid employee’s choice of dress means they will be overlooked for a senior position because you’re worried about how they choose to present themselves. 

Enough of my words. Over to you for the actions.

Nwora Emenike is commercial executive at the Advertising Association but writing in a personal capacity

Picture: Bronac McNeill

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