Somber Super Bowl commercials reveal an existential crisis — one that speaks to issues of diversity. About 114.5 million people tuned in on February 1 for Super Bowl XLIX, making it the most watched show in television history, in terms of viewership. Apart from the promise of a big game, the spectacle also drew in plenty of casual football fans because of its commercials, which have a reputation for being humorous, edgy and a bit unorthodox. This year, however, the tone was decidedly somber. Carnival Cruise Lines brought down the mood by using a bittersweet voiceover from beloved president and civil rights proponent John F. Kennedy to wax poetic about the sea. No More’s public service announcement presented a chilling 911 call from a battered woman, underscoring the horrors, and ongoing rise, of domestic abuse. And Nationwide ran the most controversial spot — an ad that sparked swift outrage and backlash — featuring a monologue delivered by what viewers discover to be the victim of a preventable childhood death, speaking from the great metaphorical beyond.
The medium is the message
In 1964, revered communications theory philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the now ubiquitous phrase “the medium is the message.” The gist is that the form of a medium embeds itself within the message it’s presenting, creating a mutually dependent relationship by which media influence how messages are perceived. So a news piece covering a heinous crime becomes less about the content of the story and more about how the exposure and framing of the situation can change public attitudes toward it. This year, both the medium and the message are brimming with diversity.
One of the most poignant Super Bowl ads came from Always. A disturbing number of commercials from Super Bowls past have emphasized the objectification of women instead of their empowerment. So it was gratifying to see Always transform the derisive phrase “like a girl” into “like a champ” — a celebration and reinforcement of female strength rather than a put down.
The issue is still so pronounced that President Obama said in his State of the Union address: “This Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”
And we can’t forget the media circus that followed Bruce Jenner in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. In Touch magazine published a cowardly, falsified image of the athlete turned reality TV personality in drag. Yet, the message in that medium was quickly trounced. He’ll soon have his own media platform to use as a means of spreading a more positive message. As an Olympian, Jenner was an inspiration to many. Now he has the opportunity to be a hero once again, this time to the transgender community.
The reality is that the new generations of talent don’t understand or tolerate prejudice. They’re attracted to business cultures that embrace the message of diversity. And that sentiment is spreading like wildfire. Consider the tech industry, a favorite space among Millennials. Prior to the end of 2014, few organizations in that sector were willing to discuss internal demographics. Now, they’re taking the laudable first steps toward increasing diversity by releasing workforce data and using that information to benchmark, strategize, determine next steps and measure progress toward a truly representative global talent pool.
Using tech firms as an example, here are some solid ways you can bolster your company’s diversity initiatives, regardless of industry, and create the most compelling message in your media.
Building a culture of values, inclusion and success that represents all of your talent
Define diversity. To instill diverse values, a company must understand all the definitions that come into play when assessing the composition of a multicultural workforce. Diversity reaches far beyond race and gender. It must also include other categories, such as those workers in need of physical accommodations. Too often overlooked in the discussion, this talent has a lot to contribute in exchange for simple support. Consider individuals with Down syndrome, who are becoming increasingly integrated into society, schools and workplaces. Accommodations can be as simple as alterations to schedules or some job duties. A list of creative solutions suggested by the National Center on Workforce and Disability illustrates a range of supportive practices that cost employers between $50 and $200 on average, across all categories.
Yet to call these workers disabled is to undermine their abilities. Fans of “American Horror Story” are surely familiar with actress Jamie Brewer, a player on the show for two seasons. This talented performer has Down syndrome and holds her own alongside Academy Award-winner Jessica Lange. Her roles are memorable because she’s a great actor, not because she has Down syndrome. And what company in its right mind would turn down an opportunity to have Stephen Hawking on the payroll, simply because he would need some minor logistical support for his wheelchair?
Focus on culture, not pipelines. As Catherine Ashcraft of Fast Company points out, making the talent pipeline the focus of the issue shifts the attention away from a company’s culture, preventing it from performing “important research-based actions” that lead to the development an eclectic environment. As research demonstrates, company culture bears the lion’s share of responsibility for driving underrepresented talent away from jobs, not weak pipelines.
Foster leadership support and accountability. It’s one thing to talk about diversity, yet it’s quite another to actually work toward it. Creating a truly diverse workplace requires a firm level of support from the highest ranks of the organization, and those efforts must be visible. Top executives should set aside funding and resources for diversity initiatives, appear at diversity events and establish metrics that hold managers accountable for promoting diversity and maintaining a fair workplace. Managers have a direct and significant effect on the employee experience. Their ability to recognize, reduce and rectify biases will boost retention, worker satisfaction and productivity. This is critical considering that over two million employees leave jobs each year because of instances involving unfair prejudices or outright discriminatory practices.
Track and report data. An organization can’t plan, meet or exceed diversity goals without determining standards for measuring them and processes for reporting compliance. Include the results in standard corporate reports: quarterly reviews, annual statements, department updates and more. Sheer numbers are only a fraction of the story, however. The data should delve deeper into the actual work being performed by members of underrepresented groups, the contributions they’re making in their roles, innovations they have brought, their representation in leadership and more.
Restructure job descriptions. Employment experts and analysts have found that subtle context clues and wording in job descriptions can unintentionally deter diversity candidates from applying to a position. For example, researchers from the American Psychological Association conducted a study of 4,000 job descriptions that revealed a subconscious gender bias toward men. The job postings that contained overly masculine phrasing were also those positions that recruiting professionals found hard to fill when sourcing women candidates.
One challenging description read: “We are a dominant engineering firm that boasts many leading clients. We are determined to stand apart from the competition.” However, more women began to apply when the researchers re-worded the description to say: “We are a community of engineers who have effective relationships with many satisfied clients. We are committed to understanding the engineer sector intimately.”
Restructure corporate language and communications. Attention to using language with a broad appeal shouldn’t end with job descriptions. Corporate communications must also champion an inclusive lexicon that’s friendly to talent of all backgrounds. Consider the 2013 example of Dropbox. One female worker, under condition of anonymity, told The Washington Post: “When I interviewed for Dropbox, I was interviewed in a room called ‘The Break-up Room,’ by a male. It was right next to a room called the ‘Bromance Chamber.’ It felt weird I would be interviewed in such a strangely named conference room.”
She also said that “every time the company holds an all hands ‘goals’ meeting, the only people who talk are men.” To ensure greater degrees of participation and productivity, team-centric organizations would benefit from taking deliberate steps to solicit feedback in meetings from a wider array of talent, particularly those who may remain silent for fear that their voices or opinions won’t be heard by leadership.
Infuse flexibility into the work culture. Workplace flexibility isn’t merely a motivating factor for professionals considering contingent work, it’s particularly important for both women and men who must balance multiple roles at home and on the job. More and more men are assuming active positions in the home. Yet Modern Family Index noted that nearly 50 percent of working parents expressed fears about being terminated over family obligations. A quarter of the parents in the study further confessed to lying about family responsibilities that could be perceived as interfering with work.
And we also can’t ignore the needs of talent with deeply held religious beliefs, who may require accommodations for dress code exceptions and time off for faith-based observances that fall outside American holidays, which are deeply rooted in one specific belief system.
Focus on representation. As Fast Company’s Catherine Ashcraft astutely observed, representation in the workplace is not a women’s issue, a person-of-color’s issue, an LGBT person’s issue, and so forth; “it is a human issue and a business issue.” Society benefits when diverse voices are included as instrumental forces in the design of future technologies and innovations. However, to drive real change, diverse talent must be embraced and mentored by those workers who represent a company’s “majority population.” The visible support and acceptance shown by the company’s largest groups go a long way toward helping traditionally underrepresented talent feel included, vital and productive in their contributions.
Talk to a staffing professional. It’s virtually impossible to think of staffing agencies without considering diversity. Not only do staffing professionals actively cultivate diverse workers, many of them began their businesses to support diversity. It’s not just a philosophy they embrace, it’s an integral component in their operating models. Staffing curators can easily help any business spearhead or augment its diversity initiatives. They can provide consultative guidance for creating diversity plans, and they excel at specialized recruiting. You’ll discover that many staffing providers have devoted themselves to representing underrepresented niches, while showcasing the unique qualities and skills that those talented workers bring. And with the flexible scheduling and enhanced attention to the candidate experience that staffing professionals offer, these prospects may already be working on contingent assignments — an arrangement that benefits your organization and the needs of these exceptional workers.