SMPTE 2017: Q&A—Kylee Peña and Meaghan Wilbur

Shortly before the start of SMPTE 2017 Technical Conference & Exhibition, TV Technology spoke with Kylee Peña, president at Blue Collar Post Collective, and Meaghan Wilbur, editor and executive committee member at Blue Collar Post Collective, about their Wednesday session “Why Diversity Programs Fail—and How to Fix Them.”

TV TECHNOLOGY: Who should attend this session?

Kylee Peña

KYLEE PEÑA/MEAGHAN WILBUR: There will be plenty to take in for anyone who works in entertainment engineering, whether they’re hiring managers, executives, managers or entry-level to mid-career workers. For those in positions of influence or hiring, we’ll present actionable solutions an organization can begin to implement right away. It’s especially important that people who think there’s no issue with diversity attend this session. We need people who are already present in the industry to hear the stories of underrepresented individuals and become allies for them.

TVT: How would you characterize the current industry challenges/obstacles in building a more diverse workforce?

Meaghan Wilbur

PEÑA/WILBUR: The current challenges and obstacles that exist in the industry are extremely complex issues with many layers, and we take a deep dive into them in our paper. At the highest level, diversity remains an issue because we keep trying to do the same things repeatedly without acknowledging the lack of impact: over two decades of data, increased awareness and initiatives have led to no significant change in the experiences of underrepresented working professionals in our industry.

Many of the current programs and initiatives do not account for the differences that exist in people from different socioeconomic backgrounds (for example). Many programs require significant unpaid time off, provide no living stipend or travel assistance, and invite very few people to take part. They also focus on higher level or above-the-line roles, trying to place underrepresented people into environments where they historically have not been able to thrive, and provide little preparation and support to those in these positions.

The obstacles that exist are almost entirely in the way we think about diversity: through a haze of single-issue activism, implicit bias and privilege, which affect our assumptions about what prevents different kinds of people from being able to succeed in mid-career. The programs are not acknowledging that the biggest barriers exist in the path that leads to the top.

TVT: What are alternatives to existing diversity initiatives?

PEÑA/WILBUR: Instead of a “diversity program” that finds a few “diverse people” and places them into an organization, a diversity initiative should expand its focus to the entire organization’s approach to hiring and developing talent. Instead of unpaid internships as entry points to the company, provide entry-level jobs. Instead of blind résumé hiring, provide tools and training on implicit bias. Make connections to universities and groups where emerging talent is beginning to network in the working world. Seek out people who aren’t applying to positions and figure out what it is that makes job descriptions unwelcoming to them.

Our research demonstrates that the first five years of a person’s career is most likely to determine how far their career will go. It is in this first five years that the complex and nuanced system of “privilege” has the greatest impact on their long-term success. Instead of focusing on people who have already made it to mid-career, focus on people who are still in the first five years of their working life where a strong foundation is critical and data has shown high exit rates.

TVT: What are some examples of changes that companies/institutions/associations have made that can lead to more diversity?

PEÑA/WILBUR: There are some organizations who are leading the charge toward moving diversity efforts away from compartmentalized initiatives and making it a priority for the entire organization. For example, Deloitte has completely done away with “affinity groups” —such as women’s committees or advisory groups made up of black employees. Instead of separating these groups from networks of influence and putting the burden on them to come up with solutions alone, the focus has shifted toward making inclusiveness everyone’s priority—most notably, a priority for the white men who typically dominate leadership and decision-making roles in STEM and entertainment organizations. To make real change happen, these individuals need to see and hear the stories and challenges of underrepresented individuals and become invested in making the workplace more inclusive to everyone.

TVT: How can/should companies make investments towards being more inclusive?

PEÑA/WILBUR: Companies should redirect resources they’ve already placed into diversity programs toward the entire organization, and they should understand that these investments in inclusive leadership strategies often have a direct impact on their bottom line. For example, a 2015 study from Bersin by Deloitte showed that companies with established and successful strategies for inclusion and diversity reported 2.3x higher cash flow per employee. Another 2013 study from McKinsey found that gender diverse companies were 15 percent more likely to outperform other companies, while ethnically diverse companies were 35 percent more likely.

But most of all, making an organization more inclusive is the right thing to do. Women and people of color are good at STEM and entertainment roles, they’re interested in the positions, and they’re graduating from college at increasing rates only to find a workforce that is hostile to them. That hostility is often not intentional. It’s the result of decades of the workplace being shaped and dictated by people who aren’t at all like them. As our industry becomes more globalized and democratized with many new perspectives, the future of the entertainment engineering field is going to depend on whether we’re able to open the door wider today.