Behind the Creative: Diversity, equity and inclusion in the creative industry
For our third instalment of Behind the Creative – the series where we chat with senior creative professionals about our industry, their experiences and some of the pressing issues facing creatives – we’re talking everything diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the creative industry, with Lauren Chibert, a DEI consultant.
Lauren, as someone who is “obsessed with inclusive creative work”, tell us a bit about how you got into DEI and why you’re focusing on the creative industry.
I’ve worked in client service/production roles across marketing, creative and branding agencies for my entire career.
Pretty early on I was faced with an internal moral dilemma producing work that didn’t fully align with my values. One day I was introduced to diversity and inclusion and it kinda clicked – I realised there was a way to bring my passion for social justice and equality outside of work, into my work. I felt so connected with this type of work that I started doing more in this space and it sparked a real drive in me.
I now offer DEI consulting where I work with agency leaders to help bring DEI into their business and the work they do. This might look like leadership training, reviewing policies or helping them improve the way they recruit. At the moment I’m working with D&AD to lead D&AD Shift in Sydney. It’s a creative night school that’s designed to remove barriers of entry to the industry. The programme helps underrepresented talent, who don’t have a degree or connections, build their skills and get the leg up they need to break into the industry.
And lastly, I just love the creative industry. I think that we have a real opportunity, and a responsibility, to produce clever, fair, inclusive work. It’s easy to get stuck in the day to day and forget the bigger impact our work has on culture and society. By making creative workplaces more diverse, equitable and inclusive, the work we produce in turn will be more representative and relevant, which means better work, happier staff, and greater impact.
People often use the words diversity, equity and inclusion interchangeably, so how do you define them in a workplace context?
People often refer to diversity and inclusion, yet they’re actually only talking about diversity. Diversity is about who is represented in the room, or in this case the workplace. This where things like quotas for women in leadership come into play.
Equity is often confused with equality, but it’s about fair treatment rather than equal treatment and acknowledges that not everyone starts at the same starting point. For example, Indigenous people face unique and cumulative discrimination in the workplace. There are many systemic barriers holding them back, so we need to ask what support can be put in place to provide them with the same opportunities. Peter Kirk makes the excellent case for agencies introducing Indigenous scholarships or paid internships to invite more Indigenous folk in the creative industry.
Inclusion is about the workplace experience. Sure, you might have a large diverse workforce, but what are you doing, make sure they feel included and safe while at work? Do you have space for people to breastfeed? Pray? Do you have social activities that include people who don’t drink?
Businesses are often so focused on diversity, that they forget that equity and inclusion are just equally important. By not including equity and inclusion, you’re setting workers up for failure and often capitalising off marginalised people being present but not looked after.
What are some of the common DEI issues that you see in the creative industry?
A big one that I see is that businesses assume they are diverse because they have people from marginalised backgrounds in junior roles. It’s fine to have diversity in junior roles, but as you look up the ladder at more senior roles, they tend to be filled with straight white men. This also creates a blind spot when looking at diversity stats, as companies tend to look at their workforce as a whole, rather than at each level.
Another issue is assuming that DEI stops at gender. More often than not, it’s white women that are accounted for – non-binary, trans or queer women and women of colour or with a disability are not included. International Women’s Day is coming up and there are a lot of conversations happening with people calling for the day to move beyond the white, girlboss feminism and instead apply an intersectional lens to it, so a larger and diverse group of women can be included. This needs to be applied in the workplace too.
Finally, the way agencies run so lean, it creates gaps and deficiencies in the campaign development process that impact DEI. In particular it doesn’t allow time for proper reflection and consultation from the groups that you are talking to. For instance, if you’re doing a campaign geared to migrant women, have the processes in place so you can actually take them time and go and speak to them. You shouldn’t just brainstorm ideas and assume what they might think.
What’s the state of DEI in the creative industry right now?
I pay particular attention to what’s happening overseas in the DEI space. The US is miles ahead of the rest of the world in terms of DEI representation in the creative industry. All major creative agencies have a DEI team, which sits separately from the HR team, so they can embed DEI in all aspects of the business. I’ve yet to see the Australian creative industry invest as heavily in DEI, I suspect we’re a few more years away.
Why should businesses care about improving DEI?
There are so many commercial benefits! Remember my background is in agency client service so I’m always thinking of how things work commercially. I read a report recently on the benefits of DEI in the workplace and the results were pretty wild. DEI results in greater employee satisfaction, creates more effective teams – teams are four times more likely to innovate, it drives better client service and increases staff retention. Perhaps most important to business leaders is that businesses who embedded DEI across the board were 35% more profitable than those who didn’t. Investing in DEI can feel like a big, upfront investment, but it’s a worthy one.
Clients are also starting to demand it from the agencies they work with. During pitches, clients are now requiring agencies to reveal their progress on diversity and inclusion – mostly gender equality, but with time this expectation will grow to other aspects. Clients don’t want to work and be associated with brands who are not doing well in this space. While it’s a bit of a slow burn at the moment, agencies who get on the front foot and invest early will reap the rewards.
Is there usually a catalyst or turning point where businesses get serious about DEI?
Generally the catalyst is when something goes wrong – either publicly and it’s a PR disaster, or internally, where an employee or client might complain about an unsafe workplace. I think with the Me Too movement, people are more willing to call out businesses who are doing something wrong.
Agencies will tell their clients to get on the front foot and take action before disaster strikes, but often forget to take their own advice! It’s the same with DEI – be proactive about DEI rather than reactive. It’s not just for your brand protection, but the health and safety of your people.
Do you have a couple of tips to help creative businesses improve DEI?
My first tip is don’t assume you have all of the answers – bring in an expert to help. A lot of businesses rely heavily on internal DEI committees or employee resource groups, and while they can be great drivers of change and it can be empowering for employees involved in those groups, it’s a heavy burden to bear. There’s often extra work on top of their regular workload and these groups don’t receive extra pay or receive extra support or time allocation. These internal groups are one piece of the puzzle, but you just can’t rely on them.
Secondly, don’t expect your staff from underrepresented backgrounds and groups to be your spokespeople. Some people will respond well to being asked, but some people want to just get on with their job and not be the spokesperson for their entire race or identity group.
Finally, be prepared to be uncomfortable and get it wrong. A lot of businesses are scared to start implementing DEI in their workplace as they’re afraid to say or do something wrong – and they will make mistakes, there’s no two ways about it. I’ve certainly made mistakes. However, the most important thing is how you and the business react. Do you come from a place of defence or are you open to listening to and learning from the feedback? We see public figures and brands who get called out for being wrong, but because of the way they respond, they’re able to rectify the situation and come back bigger and stronger than before. Expect to make mistakes and look at them as learning opportunities.
Anything else you want to add?
In DEI we often talk about passing the mic, or stepping back so others can step in. It might sound ambitious, but I would love to see more agencies passing on work and opportunities to the communities it directly affects. Does your male ECD need another speaking opportunity or could he pass it on to a rising female creative? Is your agency best to handle a campaign about First Nations issues, or could you pass it on to an Indigenous agency to respond? This is a tangible way we can use our privilege for good.