Marketing’s diversity issue needs to be addressed or we will fail customers and colleagues

The lack of diversity in marketing is more of a problem than we realise, we need to own up to it before we can deal with it.

Jan GoodingI recently appeared on a panel at the Festival of Marketing alongside Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, better known as The Black Farmer. He is about to launch his company’s first TV commercial, which is highly original. He told the audience that “the idea could only have come from the mind of a black man”. I was impressed by the refreshing bluntness of his statement. I am minded to agree and this is why we need greater diversity within the marketing community.

It is a great shame that people are not more comfortable talking about the importance of diversity in the marketing sector. We don’t even have any credible data on the make-up of the marketing profession. In an industry that prides itself on understanding attitudes and behaviours, this is shocking. Without this information it is impossible to know for certain – and herein lies the problem – where we are.

Our lack of diversity is more of a problem than we realise. At best, marketing leaders have been lazy about it. At worst, it has not been sufficiently in their interest to address it, perhaps because they remain unpersuaded that there is any business benefit to having a more diverse workforce.

As chair of Stonewall, I’m concerned about the lack of focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) diversity. People seem to find this one of the most difficult types of difference to talk about. There are a few reasons for this. First, you can’t tell a person’s sexuality by looking at them. Second, we Brits just find it uncomfortable talking about sex and sexual preference.

We need to change this. It’s not acceptable to assume that attitudes will change over time. LGBT equality is one of the more difficult areas to get right but I believe progress here engenders positive attitudes towards other minority groups. In order to do this, marketing companies should adopt policies that explicitly reference the provision for LGBT employees: writing LGBT-friendly clauses into policies that touch recruitment, grievance procedures and compensation. Provisions that reference couples, such as maternity and paternity leave, should have their equivalent for same-sex couples. This isn’t box-ticking, it’s part of the valuable process of making being gay unremarkable at work.

We also need strong role models. A recent study from OUTstanding showed that 62% of ‘Generation Y’ LGBT graduates go back into the closet when they start their first job. It can’t be right that young people perceive there to be a significant risk in being out at work. That’s why people in positions of seniority, both gay and straight, need to act as role models and help show that there is no need to fear detriment to career prospects if you are out at work. Some are already doing a great job, such as Annette King, CEO at Ogilvy & Mather, who was recognised among the Financial Times’ top 30 straight allies in October – a list that acknowledges business people championing gay rights – but more need to speak out.

Finally, an easy change we could make is to try harder to know our own industry better. I’m calling on the marketing industry to invest more in polling and surveys to properly understand how diverse we are. This means asking people for their sexual orientation and gender identity, and whether they are out at work. But it also means understanding what it is like to experience the sector as an LGBT person: have they witnessed homophobic bullying or language? What stops them being out at work? Are there any LGBT role models at their firm? Although we may not like all the answers, it’s a crucial first step in knowing how we can improve.

Of course, these will not solve the problem overnight but by taking steps now at least we will have got going. And it sends an important signal that the issues are being taken seriously. The Davies Commission into Women on Boards managed to persuade government that FTSE 100 companies should publish gender pay gaps. So it’s surely not beyond the marketing sector, an industry that prides itself on being nimble, to take steps to understand itself a little better and begin to change attitudes. By doing so, we will not only be benefiting our colleagues in the industry, but also the consumers we work to serve.

This is part of a series of columns written by our Vision 100 inductees, who will share their experiences, best practice and thoughts on what makes visionary marketers and organisations. Marketing Week’s Vision 100 in association with Adobe is an exclusive club of the brightest, best and most visionary executives.

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