CDO’s See Challenges & Progress In Promoting Diversity – The Hollywood Reporter | #emailsecurity | #phishing | #ransomware

This is the first in an ongoing series on the status of progress with inclusion in Hollywood.


Latasha Gillespie remembers having a doctor’s appointment on May 30, 2020. It was five days after George Floyd was suffocated by a police officer, his excruciating nine-minute, 29-second death — captured on video and witnessed by millions around the world — igniting an unprecedented social response of outrage and horror. Gillespie, like many other heads of inclusion in Hollywood and at companies across the country, had been working nonstop since that moment, meeting with leadership to provide guidance and messaging and with employees to listen and hold space.

“I was in heavy mode doing this,” says the Amazon Studios head of global diversity, equity and inclusion of her state of mind upon showing up at the doctor’s office. The last section of her new patient forms, on mental health, gave her pause: Are you feeling anxiety? Do you feel depressed? Are you having trouble sleeping? “Every question, my answer was yes,” she says. “I’d been in go-go-go mode; I hadn’t stopped to acknowledge I wasn’t OK. Not from a human perspective — as a daughter of a Black father, wife of a Black man, mother of two Black boys. But I also understood: When things like this happen, you have a window to make real change, not just performative stuff.”

Many of her counterparts around town were feeling the same way. “We evolved into counselors and therapists, trying to help people make sense of what is happening out in the world and how it impacts them in the workplace. Individually, we were forced to compartmentalize our own feelings,” says Sony Pictures chief diversity officer Paul Martin. “I had feelings about watching [Floyd’s murder] and how to explain this to my son, but my feelings had to become less of a priority as I began to deal with this from a more organizational business lens.”

CDOs found their responsibilities suddenly amplified in the summer of 2020. “My schedule exploded,” says NBCUniversal CDO Craig Robinson. “Within a week’s time, I had 25 invitations to speak to virtual town halls across the company. I spoke to eight or nine thousand of our employees over about 10 days.”

In the early months of a pandemic that physically blurred the boundaries of work and home life, many people turned to their companies not just to help navigate their thoughts and emotions, but also to demand action. “Folks wanted to make us social justice experts. That’s not my lane, but our partners are,” says Motion Picture Association vp external and multicultural affairs John Gibson, who works with 56 media equity groups as part of his job.

And organizations without a CDO scrambled to get one. “I’ve never had more job offers in my life,” says Jeanell English, an operations and human resources veteran at Discovery who left in November 2020 to expand the office of representation, inclusion and equity at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, we need someone who knows what they’re doing and can help us think about diversity.’ “

Whether motivated by mounting pressure from employees and consumers to reflect certain ideals — a 2020 Glassdoor study found “culture and values” as the top driver of employee satisfaction, well above “business outlook,” “work-life balance” and “compensation and benefits” — or by the evidence that diverse businesses yield greater returns, organizations are seeking out and leaning on chief diversity officers more than ever. But whether the CDO becomes a vital member of executive leadership or is simply a shield or scapegoat when criticism arises depends on how the role is deployed. “You cannot hire one person and expect them to change an organization,” Gillespie says. “If you’re not ready to staff them up with a team and give them resources and a budget, it’s performative, disheartening and you’re setting that person up for failure. Usually that person is a woman, from an LGBTQ community or a person of color, and when it doesn’t go well, then that person is the problem, not the organization. It’s dangerous.”

The C-Suite’s Hottest Seat

The number of diversity heads across organizations worldwide rose 107 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to LinkedIn, which also reported a spike in D&I-related job posts in June 2020 following Floyd’s killing, 4.3 times the number of openings listed 60 months prior.

In Hollywood, the major studios and most of the big guilds and streamers already had CDOs for at least a few years before that, thanks in part to earlier industry-specific inflection points, like #OscarsSoWhite in 2016. “While [inclusion] is everyone’s job, we need a professional just like we would with finance, legal or content,” says Netflix vp inclusion strategy and former outside consultant Vernā Myers of the streamer’s decision to bring her in-house in 2018. The past two years have seen agencies and awards bodies adopt the role as well. CAA and WME hired heads of inclusion in November 2020 (WME parent Endeavor created a chief inclusion officer role in 2019, during its first attempt to go public), while UTA added its first chief diversity officer in January.

But not all CDO jobs are created equal, and how the role is structured varies widely. The corporate D&I practice originally served to monitor compliance with workplace anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws signed in the 1960s, but now encompasses wider functions. “We’re starting to move outside of just counting heads to figuring out how to make every head count,” says Martin. “Where we started was trying to help our creative execs stay out of trouble; we were program administrators, whereas now we’ve evolved into strategic partners.”

DEI objectives at entertainment and media companies have developed a robust focus on content. “We have the ability to inform social and political narratives with a single piece of content, and that is a lot of power,” says English, who began her career at Lockheed Martin. The purviews of Hollywood CDOs cover some version of what the industry sees as the front lines of the issue: staff diversity metrics, inclusive work culture, supplier diversity and representative content. DEI teams (not including volunteer employee diversity groups) at the biggest companies are often organized like a wheel, with a central hub and staffers specializing within geographic regions and/or business units, as is the case with Netflix’s team of 25.

Endeavor head of impact and inclusion Romola Ratnam oversees a staff of 16, split into three teams to tackle people-centered hiring and retention; systemic research on pipeline and compensation structures; and workplace cultural programming. “It’s three different groups that are synergistic but have different responsibilities,” she says. “Inclusion means so many things, and there are so many jobs to do.”

Team sizes vary: Gillespie leads 20 DEI heads across Amazon Studios, Prime Video and IMDb, while Gennean Scott, who became the Broadway League’s first director of equity, diversity and inclusion in July 2021, describes herself as an executive who freely moves among departments. “One of the things we talked about is that EDI should not be separate,” says Scott of the trade association, which has only about 20 total employees. “I utilize every staff — communications, marketing, education, union, IT and social media. It lets me know that the organization understands EDI is part of everything we do.”

While today’s DEI specialists universally caution against companies confining their work within a silo, D&I practitioners have traditionally sat inside HR departments, a positioning that still exists in some companies. “A lot of people feel that can be a great model, and others feel that can be difficult,” says CAA head of global inclusion strategy Sharoni Little, who reports to the agency’s chief HR officer. “For me, because we’re people-centered, I think it’s a natural place to be partnered.” As senior vp HR at Starz, Jamila Daniel reports to the CEO, and after Floyd’s death she took on a second role as CDO of parent company Lionsgate, through which she reports to the studio’s chief HR officer.

There is an emerging belief among business management strategists that the head of diversity position is best served directly reporting to the CEO. At a salon dinner hosted by WarnerMedia equity and inclusion execs in December at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills, the then-company’s then-chief enterprise inclusion officer Christy Haubegger touted the significance of reporting directly to the CEO, calling it evidence of the studio’s prioritization of the 50-plus E&I team. But after Discovery closed on its merger with Warners in April, Haubegger and her CEO were out, leaving the new Warner Bros. Discovery as the only major in town with a CDO vacancy. WBD CEO David Zaslav is seeking to fill a position that will report to him and chief people and culture officer Adria Alpert Romm, a dual structure that some remaining E&I staffers fear will be a demotion and potentially diminish their work.

“In general, I think CDOs should report to the CEO,” says Gillespie, who reports to Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke. “A lot of times the hard work is actually in HR, so it’s harder when you’re [there] versus being agnostic. When you solely relegate diversity to HR, you send a clear message how you think about it. There’s this rut when we think about DEI from an HR perspective: How many times are you going to unconscious-bias train people to death?”

Adds Robinson, who reports to NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, “There’s the advantage of having a direct line to the person that runs the company, which facilitates and makes conversations easier.” Like other members of Shell’s executive team, Robinson is expected to give a report at every leadership meeting: “Making [diversity] a recurring item just as you would a financial update keeps it top of mind, not something that one only talks about at times of crisis.”

A Balancing Act Like No Other

One side effect of 2020’s corporate embrace of black squares and justice pledges has been increased expectation among the public and staffers that companies should make business decisions in line with cultural values they’ve heartily espoused. Emboldened employees and a more vigilant audience are quicker to hold organizations accountable to their publicity-friendly commitments, leaving CDOs in the position of pushing for progress internally while serving as, literally, the organization’s face of diversity externally.

This year, after Florida’s legislature passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill banning teachers from discussing gender and sexual orientation in classrooms, Disney (given its theme parks and significant investment in the state) came under pressure from its employees for its financial contributions to anti-gay Florida officials as well as its initial silence over the legislation. On March 2, CDO Latondra Newton sent out an internal statement, titled “Showing Support for Our LGBTQ+ Community,” promising that the company would discuss the “issues of concern” at gatherings scheduled for March 22 and April 13. “Our hope in having a CDO would be to hold the company to account, rather than release statements that toe the company line,” read a response to Disney leadership signed by “the queer/LGBTQIA+ employees of The Walt Disney Co. and their allies” that was posted on social media March 8. “We need an advocate, not a figurehead.”

Disney declined to make Newton available for comment, but her counterparts acknowledge the skepticism that surrounds the job. “We’re trying to make a change within a capitalist corporate situation, so you have to be a lot of different people for a lot of different people,” says Netflix’s Myers. “I try to stay close to the people experiencing the most direct impact, and you have to come up and down [the organizational ranks]. As a leader, to the extent I can, [I] communicate the stakes and details. [Sometimes] you have to call people out, but you’ve got to do it in a compassionate way that they still want to be part of the change.”

Netflix experienced its own public employee protest in October over transphobic content in its Dave Chappelle special The Closer. “How do you hold space when people are coming with real hurts? It was a lot about translating, being empathetic and making sure the very difficult conversations could happen,” says Myers, whose role was to provide a two-way conduit of communication between aggrieved employees and the business leaders. “There are differences in power, representation and lived experiences, and trying to create a bridge for people to actually see each other as human beings is the hardest work I’ve ever done. We weren’t able to make everybody happy, but we were there for all the many stakeholders.”

Shortly after Robinson succeeded Paula Madison as NBCUniversal’s diversity head 11 years ago, some employees told him he wasn’t fighting hard enough for progress. “By some you’re seen as the company watchdog, by others as somebody who’s not doing enough to push this or that agenda. I found sometimes privately speaking truth to power could be more effective because you also need to have the trust of your bosses, and if they feel you are an external advocate, that’s not going to be a winning strategy in the long run. It’s a constant balancing act with a lot of stakeholders, and you must build equity and credibility with each of them every day.”

Martin sees his function as an advisory one. “When we’ve had our own crises, my role has always been to give the senior-most leader all of the pertinent information to help them make the most informed decision,” says the exec, whose first big test as Sony’s inaugural CDO was dealing with some of the racially insensitive emails revealed in the studio’s 2014 email hack, which occurred mere months after he started the job. “In that room, the head of external policy, legal, CHRO are all there, and we’re different lenses. The leader is being paid to make very tough, very important decisions, and if they make one I wouldn’t have and a crisis happens, I’m still here as a resource on how to move forward.”

Paramount global head of inclusion Marva Smalls sometimes calls herself a “double agent,” but one in which her various interests are laid bare, and she is “not just responding to the company and shareholders, but also helping our employees understand there are tension points in a stance and balancing how you will say it and engage around it.” The veteran exec has offered her resignation to every new CEO since the first time the company was known as Viacom: “I can operate in gray, but [a CEO and I] have got to be clear that we share an equal commitment in diversity, equity and inclusion. I am not here to window-dress, because my personal reputation in this space means more to me.” Adds Gillespie: “There’s a freedom that comes when you understand that you have lived half your career [and you can say], ‘I’m aligned to my values first, and I’m OK speaking truth to power when they don’t align with where we’re going.’ “

That friction between company and CDO may be one reason turnover in the role now averages three years, according to The Wall Street Journal — or a matter of months, as was the case at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which, after the February 2021 Los Angeles Times exposé about its racial exclusion issues, cycled through a number of representatives, including a crisis manager and D&I adviser, before hiring its first CDO in November. “The role is very unique in that it requires you to be in two places,” says Neil Phillips, who might have the most scrutinized CDO job in town. “One of them is squarely invested in believing in the organization and its prospects, so I’ve got to be on Team HFPA. That said, I also have to maintain a significant, meaningful level of psychological distance and objectivity to be able to assess where we are as an organization, because I can’t let my confidence in the HFPA and its progress blind me to the work that needs to be done.”

For Phillips, some idealism is necessary to do his job. “We’re in trouble as a society if we get great at calling people out for transgressions but don’t leave room for them to grow,” he says. “The number of organizations that need to do deep dives around diversity, equity and inclusion is big, and the number actually doing the work is small, so I try to afford those a significant amount of grace, because we need them to prove it is possible.”

Keeping Progress Going

“At the end of last year, I realized that I had not put my own oxygen mask on,” says Smalls of hitting a state of exhaustion after 18 intense months of helping her company navigate social and cultural issues amid an ongoing pandemic. “I allowed a little bit of me to be chipped away by [not] taking the time to think about what these moments meant to me, versus always wanting to be on and be there for everybody.” She sent an email to Paramount Global CEO Bob Bakish and four of her critical partners, informing them she was going off the grid for a bit (a whole two days). “I’m recognizing that we’ve all got PTSD in this moment, and that I need to step away to deal with it so I can come back to be the best partner I can be for all the company stakeholders, and for my family and friends as well.”

D&I fatigue is real, say the CDOs, for individuals, organizations and the general public. “People are tired of being told what they’ve done is not enough. Then you add the stress of the pandemic, the possible recession, there’s a lot of different stressful points that the average person is dealing with, so if something has to be moved off your mental plate, D&I would be the first thing,” says Martin. “The challenge is finding a way to keep moving forward but not feel like you’re force-feeding an agenda.”

Multiple CDOs use “ebbs and flows” to describe public enthusiasm for equity, especially in 2022. “In the summer of 2020, with a global pandemic and racial reckoning, we were shaken out of our sleep and ‘woke,’ for lack of a better term,” says Recording Academy vp of DEI Ryan Butler. “For some, it’s been easier to go back to sleep than keep doing the work, so that is presenting new challenges in what CDOs are dealing with.” Adds Gillespie: “We all knew the window was going to close. You can name any movement — Stop Asian Hate, Black Lives Matter — there’s a fervor in the beginning, and then when things look like they’re back to normal, everybody goes back to their business. Those of us who wear marginalized identities know that systemic discrimination and bias is a system that will continue to perpetuate itself. It’s built on centuries of discrimination and doesn’t stop in one or two years. We’ve got to actively work every day to dismantle it.”

Ratnam notes that the slow pace of progress is sometimes inevitable. “If we’re doing the work correctly, it is an evolution,” she says, citing Endeavor’s efforts to add self-identification to its interview process, which may take a year to implement. “We’re tracking [Equal Employment Opportunity] data, and that takes a long time, but having that data will be a game-changer. The work will be slow, but it will be important, structural and permanent.”

In the meantime, what’s keeping CDOs going is seeing gradual change in their organizations. “We’re invited now to more meetings than we can get to; in the past we needed to push our way in,” says Martin. Robinson recently got a note from an NBCUniversal employee, an Asian American woman, expressing her pride over the work of the inclusion team. “You get about 10 on the other side to one like that,” he says with a laugh. “I sent that note to a colleague and said, ‘This will keep me going for a week.’ “

The Expert Panel

Courtesy Of Subject (11); Aaron Doggett For Visyoual Media; Richard Harbaugh, ©A.M.P.A.S.

This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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