Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In a room full of business people, it’s almost a certainty that most of them would have attended some sort of diversity workshop in the past. In fact, diversity has been, and continues to be, a priority for organisations across the board. Yet despite much being known about diversity, and even though it is a fundamental aspect of organisational success, we’re still not getting it right.

This is the view of Samu Makhathini, associate account director at Kantar Millward Brown, speaking at a Kantar Millward Brown event. She pointed out that organisations are sacrificing their goals and wasting their money by not implementing diversity effectively, or not implementing it at all.

Take the scandal earlier this year around an H&M ad which depicted a black child modelling a hoodie bearing the slogan “coolest monkey in the jungle” as one example. The clothing retailer was accused of being racist and lacking diversity in its advertising team for its failure to recognise that the image caused offense. German personal care brand Nivea has come in for similar accusations of racism after launching an ad for a skin lightening cream in Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal which equated lighter skin with youth and beauty. Or Billabong’s offer of R8,000 to the male winner of a surfing competition, yet prize money of R4,000 to the female winner of that same competition.

“Advertising is expensive, and yet clients – and their agencies – make the same mistakes over and over again,” Makhathini said. “Why do we not have people on our teams to check the blind spots and caution us against possible pitfalls?” She said that by not having these checks in place, organisations have a fundamental problem.

It’s not only organisations that are not implementing diversity effectively, Makhathini said. Brands using artificial intelligence (AI) are also failing to ensure the necessary diversity in their algorithms. The iPhone X works on facial recognition, supposedly the most stringent security measure of all. Yet it was not tested on Chinese people, working on the assumption that they look too much alike, said Makhathini, adding that in her own car, she can use voice commands to ask for the radio to be tuned to 702 or  94.7 – in fact any English station –  with no problem whatsoever. Yet if she asks for Umhlobo Wenene FM the request is simply not understood. “AI and algorithms are starting to reflect the unconscious biases and discrimination that exist offline,” she said.

The big take out

Not only is there a business and legal case for diversity, it is a moral issue; yet it is still not being implemented effectively in most businesses.

And yet, there is a growing realisation that diversity is good for business. When adverts are tested on whether they are reflective of society (progressive) or stereotypical, those scored as progressive are 25% more effective, Makhathini said. On the other hand, the ads seen to be least progressive generate negative reactions and are given the lowest scores for effectiveness. Hence the business case for diversity.

Given that diversity is legislated, there is no avoiding it, but as Makhathini points out, there is more to diversity than ticking boxes. True diversity, she argues, is about looking authentically at people for who they are and ensuring they are empowered to make the right decisions and perform to their full potential. “True diversity is about normalising the concept – it’s about people, at the end of the day,” she said, adding that true diversity helps organisations to retain staff and make more sales.

Not only is there a business and legal case for diversity, it is a moral issue and something that secures our future as an economy and a country, she adds.

Yet how do organisations ensure that they are implementing authentic diversity? “Immersion in their markets is the first step,” said Makhathini. “If we’re going to target a certain group of people, we should be watching the content they watch and speaking the languages they speak. And it goes beyond having one black person on the team to represent all black people.”

The next step is to identify an entirely new talent pool, she said. “Throw away the job specs – they’re no longer relevant. Hire talent where your consumers are. There is merit in getting a statistician to do a marketing job – it brings a new way of thinking to the table. We need to stop hiring clones and recognise that team thinking is the enemy of diversity.”

Creating authentic workplaces allows people to be themselves, she said. When people feel valued, they are more engaged and produce better results. “Resist ticking boxes, and create workplaces that reflect the world we live in and the world we want.”

As an example of shifting the way diversity is approached, Makhathini explained how a group of her FMCG clients have come together to create #unstereotype, where they check and test each other’s creative output. “This is what all clients should be doing – looking critically at their advertising, testing it on consumers and looking for blind spots,” she added.

So instead of annual diversity workshops, is it not time to simply start putting these diversity lessons to work?