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When DreamWorks Animation executives wanted a fresh perspective on character designs for one of their TV shows recently, they sent the illustrations to Janine Jones-Clark, senior vp of parent Universal’s global talent development and inclusion department. “They were creating an African American character,” Jones-Clark recalls. “My suggestion had to do with authenticity in hairstyle and texture.”
Her note is one of the small ways in which Jones-Clark — and others in Hollywood with the word “diversity,” “inclusion” or “multicultural” in their job title — are increasingly making an impact on not only who their companies hire but also the content they create. Chief diversity officer (CDO) is a relatively new job title; 47 percent of companies in the S&P 500 index have a CDO or equivalent, and 63 percent of those have been appointed or promoted to the role in the past three years, according to a recent study by executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. It’s a job with growing prominence in a Hollywood rocked by such social movements as #MeToo and Time’s Up, not to mention evolving audience demographics, and it’s one that requires a unique kind of emotional ambidexterity. Publicly, CDOs cheer on their companies’ progress and tout their inclusion programs, while privately they must nudge the most powerful people inside their organizations toward uncomfortable conversations about workforce and creative decisions.
“In any organization, everybody is in a different place when it comes to inclusion, and you have to meet people where they are,” says Julie Ann Crommett, vp multicultural audience engagement at Disney. “You build trust with a leader or employee that you are a safe person to have a conversation with. Then you can get on the real-real and hear something that they might not express in a wider room. It’s tiring, but it’s rewarding.”
The role has evolved, says Tina Shah Paikeday, one of the Russell Reynolds study’s authors and leader of the firm’s global diversity and consulting services practice. “Historically there was a focus on compliance [with federal laws],” she explains. “But today the successful CDO is able to chip away at the problem, to use data to tell the narrative within an organization.”
CDOs rely on a bag of tricks to get their perspectives across. Tiffany Smith Anoa’i, executive vp entertainment diversity, inclusion and communications at CBS Entertainment, has given dozens of her colleagues copies of the book The Hidden Brain, a data-driven exploration of unconscious bias by Shankar Vedantam. Once a publicist at CBS, Smith Anoa’i pitched the idea of her current role to former CBS executive Nina Tassler with a PowerPoint presentation featuring data on who’s watching TV and who’s buying the products advertised. “At the end of my pitch, Nina said, ‘We would be crazy not to make his happen.’ “
There are triumphs in the job — Crommett points to Disney’s hiring of more women directors and directors of color, Jones-Clark to Universal’s creation of a program for female composers, one of the moviemaking roles in which women are especially scarce. But there can be disappointments, particularly, CDOs say quietly, when virtually the only people of color in a company are those working in the diversity and inclusion departments.
Whitney Davis, who recently wrote for Variety about her decision to leave a diversity-focused role at CBS, says she grew tired of fighting what felt like a losing battle, particularly when inclusion initiatives discovered talent like Tiffany Haddish, KiKi Layne, Kate McKinnon and Hasan Minhaj, but the company ultimately did not hire them. “It became taxing,” Davis says. “I was working to try to introduce my colleagues to these creatives and they weren’t getting jobs at CBS. I started to question my taste. And then I’d see them go to other networks and be very successful.” Davis sees the value of CDOs’ efforts. At CBS, for example, two of last fall’s new scripted series, God Friended Me and Magnum P.I., feature people of color in the lead roles. “I can’t imagine how far back we’d be without inclusion and diversity departments,” she adds. “But just having people in these departments, that’s not cutting it. Not if your board isn’t inclusive. Not if the people in power aren’t inclusive. If that’s the case, what’s the point?”
This story first appeared in the April 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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