BIPOC are getting weary of performative DEI actions

POCAM's second Visible & Vocal study shows a year of work hasn't made significant change on discrimination in the advertising and marketing industry.
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While some agencies have been taking steps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, that work is still coming up short – and bias, microaggressions and other forms of discrimination are still common in the industry, according to the findings of POCAM’s second annual Visible and Vocal survey.

The findings of the survey, presented as part of a virtual discussion on Thursday, collectively paint a very clear picture: even after a year of social unrest and one in which agencies and corporations throughout the industry sought to make changes on the DEI front, there is little statistical difference in the lived experiences of BIPOC employees within the industry.

“Basically everything has remained the same for BIPOC with regards to discrimination,” says Chasson Gracie, POCAM’s data scientist, who is responsible for compiling the findings of the survey. “For BIPOC who are working in the industry, discrimination still clearly exists.”

There is considerable pessimism among BIPOC within the industry. Only 10% of the study’s more than 250 respondents said they believe race relations are good in Canada, and among those who work in white-predominant workplaces, an “incredible” 89% feel they need to be on guard against microaggressions, bias and other forms of discrimination, Gracie says – compared to 83% who said they had experienced workplace microaggressions in last year’s version of the survey.

This is, at least in part, because in 2020 and 2021, “there was a lot of performative action that happened within agencies,” says Chino Nnadi, a member of POCAM’s steering committee. “A lot of agencies did some training or brought a short-term consultant on and that was it. They made it into a little PR stunt and that’s as far as it went.”

That bears out in the data, too: 42% of respondents said that the companies they belonged to had instituted unconscious bias training, while 54% of those respondents said that their companies had done more than that, through the creation of workplace policies and other clear DEI efforts. By comparison, 66% of respondents believed their companies were taking positive steps towards equity in last year’s study.

Further, BIPOC professionals are motivated to bring this change about, with 50% of respondents saying they’re more actively pursuing a workplace free of bias and microaggressions over the past 12 months.

“We didn’t know what to expect there, because 2020 was hard and so was 2021, so we were expecting for there to be some fatigue,” says Gracie. “There surely has been, that’s why that number is only 50%, but that’s still a lot of people who are working toward this.”

“People are becoming more emboldened and entrenched, and realizing that they want to create safe spaces for themselves within this industry,” notes Julian Franklin, co-founder of POCAM and also a member of the steering committee.

Unfortunately, there is another issue. While DEI has become a focus area for some agencies, many of the efforts that have been made to improve it are “pushed by BIPOC within the industry – we are the ones saying things need to change,” Gracie says.

“BIPOC are taking on more [DEI] work while Caucasian coworkers are taking on work that they can win awards for, earn more visibility from and include on their resumes as career boosters,” adds Nnadi.

So, what can agencies do to counteract the issues?

According to Nnadi, a key step would be to make a hire specifically for DEI work or, in the very least, a long-term consultant. Further, providing mentorship and sponsorship for BIPOC employees at the junior level “will allow people to grow into leaders,” which will counter another issue plaguing the industry: early exit by junior-level BIPOC employees who don’t see enough opportunity for advancement.

“There has been an increase in entry-level BIPOC hires, but there is a lack of BIPOC mid- and senior leaders,” says Franklin. “When there are a lot of people at the bottom and not many of us in the middle or at the top, that’s a recipe for BIPOC people to leave the industry or work in parallel to it, and that isn’t what we want – because then, the industry suffers.”

“Without that mentorship and training, we’re going to continue to see the same cycle of discrimination and systemic racism, and in two years we’ll come back for Visible and Vocal 4 and it will be the same story,” Nnadi adds.

The survey polled 259 respondents in total between November of last year and early this year. Participants had to be Canadian residents belonging to a race or ethnic classification exclusive of white or Caucasian, and they had to work within the advertising or marketing context at an agency or on client side. The full results of the survey will be made available on POCAM’s website.