As many of us reflect on the recent 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, it is refreshing to hear so many voices champion intersectional feminism and recognize who actually benefitted from the ratification back then—that is to say, white women. With a more honest assessment of our own history, we can still celebrate these milestones and intentionally create spaces of inclusivity. But it’s not going to be easy.
For me personally, this reflection takes me back to a life-changing event and resource I’ve referred to continually since then. In 2011, only 3% of creative directors in the U.S. were women—and even fewer were people of color. Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% conference and movement, is determined to get that number up to 50%. I had the privilege of attending the conference in 2017 and joined again for their 9th annual conference this past July virtually, around the theme of “The Radically Inclusive Future of Work.” As those of us fortunate enough to have the option to work remotely grow more accustomed to it each week and timely conversations around race and inclusion are no longer trending, we all need to be extra intentional in our own actions and holding others accountable.
I challenge leaders, creative directors and account managers to examine the themes below and ask yourself if you’re actively creating a more inclusive workplace or not. And if you’re not, pick an area to focus on and do something about it.
I challenge emerging creatives to hold those leaders and your clients accountable. Ask questions and challenge assumptions being made about our audiences and the work you’re being asked to produce.
1. The most diverse multi-generational workforce
With increased life expectancy, employees are remaining in the workforce longer, both in full- and part-time capacities. This means we’re experiencing the most diverse multi-generational workforce to date. It also means that climbing the corporate ladder and rising through the ranks is an outdated approach compared to learning new skills and carving out more personalized, agile career tracks. As technological capabilities grow and employer expectations become more demanding, we need to consistently learn new skills, which can be self-taught or through other certified programs. The prestige of four-year degrees from academic institutions will no longer be the primary qualification, opening the door for diverse candidates with equivalent skills and experiences.
As highlighted by the 3% movement, creative directors have been predominantly older, white men. But being able to embrace ideas across generations and cultures results in better solutions, especially when it comes to creative and complex problems. A simple thing to implement, two-way mentorship can be a powerful tool when both parties are open-minded, and egos are set aside. It can create opportunities for emerging creatives to learn from senior leaders’ experience, especially in an ageist industry. Likewise, there is a lot to learn from emerging creatives who are more skeptical of the way things have always been done. The creative director of the future should be open-minded to non-traditional design educations like online programs, specialized training courses and even on-the-job learned experience. They should embrace the tools that help us understand our audiences, and insist on bringing in authentic perspectives and expertise, rather than making assumptions under the subjective guise of artistry or creative genius. As Lily Zheng proposes, if you challenged your leaders, creative directors and account managers to re-apply to their current positions with D&I KPIs attached to the role, would they still get the job? Are they going out of their way to diversify project teams? Are they fostering brainstorms that are truly inclusive, especially for introverted or more junior employees?
2. Destigmatize sending work out of house
As with any profit-centric business, creating efficiencies within the company is a core part of making money. However, in an inclusive future, suppliers and contractors play an equally important part in a company’s D&I mission. These relationships influence brand reputation and are an often-overlooked pipeline for new talent. D&I should be a core competency that’s part of the business case to bring on a contractor, whether someone brings a particular skillset we don’t have in-house, or a perspective/voice that is authentic to the audience we’re trying to reach. We must scrutinize if we’re sourcing talent from the same places over and over again. Adding talent through contractors also alleviates full-time staff from taking on too much work, leading to an unsustainable habit of burnout. A speaker at the conference, We Are Rosie founder Stephanie Nadi Olson says they try “to get the best out of their people, not the most” by offering flexibility and ample benefits with inclusion in mind.
And as the workforce changes to encourage learning and re-learning skills throughout careers, the importance of titles is waning, and the value of impact is growing more prominent. Simply reframing the question of “what do you do?” to “what’s something exciting you’re working on?” moves us away from old school hierarchies and prompts answers that convey passions and expertise with context. The same shift in thinking can be applied to searching for outside help, getting to know our suppliers and freelancers through an intersectional lens that values their experiences—both professional and personal—and ultimately bringing in the right people for the job.
3. Performative D&I
Over and over again, panelists at the 3% conference encouraged companies to publish their diversity data. Taking a look at companies’ employee composition can reveal a lot about their commitment to D&I and whether or not it’s truly been embraced in their culture and hiring/promotion processes. Another important caveat: it’s not about shaming where companies are right now. It’s about making measurable progress and being honest about shortcomings and where you hope to go. By externalizing benchmarks, companies can be held accountable in the long-term, ensuring that not only is their composition diverse, but that retention and leadership roles are equitable across the different dimensions of diversity.
This year’s 3% conference offered more sessions than ever before, including on-demand content and more intimate discussions with panelists, covering a wide variety of topics. And while the focus of those conversations varied and showcased countless perspectives—both of speakers and attendees—the above themes consistently emerged. In the never-ending journey seeking parity and inclusion, these are things we can focus on immediately. However, the workplace of the future is still being defined and anyone can play a role in shaping it, at any point. Shame and embarrassment won’t move us forward in our individual and collective D&I journeys as significantly as intentionality and empathy.
No matter if you’re an established leader or still finding your career track (both can be true), we must hold ourselves and each other accountable. So, find one thing you can do this week to hold yourself, or your boss, accountable to creating a more inclusive workplace.