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What We Learned About Diversity At The 3% Conference

by Carolyn Connolly and Hayden Lockaby

While diversity and gender equality in the workplace has always been a priority at T3 and the other agency jobs we’ve held, 2017 certainly put an emphasis on it. The subject of race has loomed large in the country’s political discussions in the past 12 months, and the #MeToo movement toward the end of the year has shaken the establishment like never before. This backdrop proved to be the perfect one for November’s 3% Conference in New York.

This annual gathering by creatives and business leaders is the centerpiece conference of The 3% Movement, an initiative that started 6 years ago to combat the troubling fact that only 3 percent of creative directors at advertising agencies were women, even though women made up 80 percent of consumer spending (happily, the number of women in creative leadership roles has increased to 29 percent but there’s still work to be done). The focus of the movement and the conference has shifted to focus on diversity in general, the argument being that more diversity is better for business.

Having been to the 3% Conference in 2016, we came in prepared and excited, but we didn’t know what to expect from the theme this year: Beyond Gender. Honestly, we weren’t sure exactly how it would apply directly to us. But herein lies the issue. One of the key messages the movement and the conference is trying to send is that most people in positions of privilege don’t think gender equality and diversity applies to them. This year’s conference drove that theme home.

As humans, we’re inclined to assume that others see the world as we do. That was true for the two of us; more than we realized. When that bubble was burst at the conference, it was a profoundly humbling experience.

Glenn Singleton underlined that theme with his session on “Courageous Conversations.” This was perhaps the most important speech at the event—the one talk around which many of the other tracks, workshops, and talks revolved. Courageous Conversation is a tool and protocol created by Singleton for engaging in and deepening interracial dialogue. The tool was created for school districts and educational programs to help students, but it can be effectively applied to the workplace as well.  

Glenn’s conference session made us realize that not only had we been wearing blinders to important issues, but that we had been taking part in a system that discourages diversity. We thought we’d been fighting the good fight for women, and by doing that we were doing the right thing. But as Glenn says, “You can’t deal with gender disparity without dealing with race.” And he’s right. As two women in creative professions, we’d only been focused on one part of a larger systemic problem.

According to Glenn, here are the three truths we need to embrace:

  1. Race matters.
  2. Courageous conversation precedes courageous leadership.
  3. There is a difference between systemic equality transformation and random acts of equity (diversity).

That last point—about systemic transformation vs. random acts of equity—was particularly profound. The fact is, we’re building systems that are exclusive, not just non-inclusive, and those systems are set up for disparity. Those of us in the systems buy and feed into the ethos of the system—whether we know it or not—because it is comfortable and familiar. What’s more is that any system we’re a part of teaches us to fight for it, and it will fight back when we challenge it.

“If you don’t see or experience equality,” Singleton said, “we have a problem with the system.” This thought was pervasive throughout the conference and it stays with us now as we reflect on the systems we’re a part of every day. What roles do we play in our own workplace, for example? To what degree are we the perpetrators of the system? And, how are we going to practice equality and diversity to the degree that it changes behavior for us and others?

When you have privilege, it is often invisible to you. We’ve been blind. Many of us have. So many more of us continue to be.

So, what are we going to do about it? We have to embrace the idea that we’re going to be uncomfortable as we confront this issue. We have to push each other with courageous conversations that must be had because it’s the right thing to do. We have to create “brave spaces over safe spaces,” and we have to encourage, accommodate, and hold each other accountable as we do this. That’s how we start to systemically shift behavior and create an environment for change, from top to bottom.

Awareness is just the beginning. We can’t erase our pasts and where we come from, even if it has been privileged. But at least our eyes are now open.

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