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Spotlight: Sam Turner of Champions of Change Coalition on gender equality and inclusivity in marketing

  • 8 Minutes
Inclusivity consultant Sam Turner explains why the marketing and advertising industry has more work to do to become genuinely inclusive and representative.

In film, literature and music – as well as endless feel-good quotations shared to social media – we are constantly being told to embrace who we are, to celebrate our differences and those of the people around us.

As noble as the sentiment is, the reality of being different – whether by gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, or religion – is … well … different.

Sam Turner currently works for the Champions of Change Coalition as program leader for the Global Tech and Microsoft Partners groups. She works with major Australian and global brands – such as Microsoft, Condé Nast, the BBC and the world’s largest marketing and advertising agency WPP – as they strive to improve gender equality, inclusivity and representation. I spoke with Turner about how companies are slowly rising to the challenge, and what individuals can do to improve their own inclusiveness. 

How has 2020 impacted inclusivity? Will any gains be undone when businesses try to return to pre-pandemic habits?

2020 hasn’t necessarily escalated the need for change. We’ve long known that we need to change. But in the last 12 to 24 months, the momentum and visibility has accelerated.

It’s no longer good enough to have targets for 2025. What are you doing now?

Early on in the pandemic I joked about how ironic it was that diversity practitioners, human resource practitioners and people who work in this space have been banging on about the benefits and need for greater flexibility of work for years, but when everyone, including those who hold power (mostly white men) have to work from home, all of a sudden, it’s okay. They can achieve these amazing outcomes and productivity doesn’t drop. In fact, studies show people have been working harder and longer and that productivity has increased.

What most organisations have done, or certainly the ones I work with, is they’ve surveyed their people about coming back to work. Overwhelmingly, people don’t want to come back full time. They want to maintain some aspects of flexibility.

And it’s not just women. We have an opportunity to flip this notion that flexible work is primarily for women. Flexible work enables everyone. If men can work just as flexibly as women, and that becomes acceptable and normal, then we’ll start to see changes in terms of gender quality in society. In a heterosexual couple, for example, a man could be enabled to do school pickups and drop-offs just as flexibly as a woman. And that also creates a whole bunch of space for blended families, single families, same-sex families and so on.

I’m still hopeful and optimistic that we won’t go back to presenteeism and this expectation that someone has to be physically in front of me for me to know that they are working and productive.

The marketing and advertising industry gets a lot of flak for the way it reinforces stereotypes in pursuit of certain customer personas. A particular type of bloke buys a ute, a particular type of mum makes packed lunches. How can marketers improve representation?

It’s a really relevant question. I think they’re a lot more conscious, but I also think they’ve got a long way to go.

I did an inclusion session with a small agency in Sydney, after I read an article about transitioning in the workplace. After seeing some of the language they used, I reached out to them and said, “Hey, you might want to think about how you could make these articles more inclusive. Maybe consult the trans community or whichever community you’re writing about or profiling.”

It sounds really obvious. If you’re writing about disability, talk to a disability advocate. But I think we get caught up in old processes and practices where we just write from research, or what we think we know about the topic.

You see it with panels at conferences. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a panel on diversity with four white, blonde women talking about what they’re doing, or panels of all-men in tech. Can we maybe represent and provide a platform for those people who are not cis able-bodied white humans?

There’s always an opportunity for advertising and media to get better. There’s always an opportunity to stop and reflect. When we have deadlines and we’re pushing things through, there need to be checks and balances in place. Before this thing goes out, before this thing is launched, before this campaign runs, have we taken a step back to consider if this is representative of the Australian population; is this representative of the audience I’m targeting? Is there something else we can do to make this a more inclusive piece?

What role do targets and quotas play in driving inclusive change?

There’s absolutely a role for targets. But any target or quota has to be part of a cultural change, particularly with organisations. It’s not like you can all of a sudden hire 50% women or 10% LGBTIQ to be representative.

Unless you’re actually creating the culture where people will stay and people will thrive, then you’re wasting your time. A lot of time, the underrepresented group is expected to create the change, as opposed to the dominant group realising that they need to do some of the work themselves to cultivate a more inclusive environment.

How prevalent is the fear that increased equality means another group of people have to lose something?

Absolutely, there are always going to be people who are afraid of this stuff. But equality is not a zero-sum game. Just because I empower and enable you doesn’t disempower me. Just because I provide you with an opportunity, it doesn’t take an opportunity away from me.

The argument assumes that everybody starts on the same level playing field. We don’t. Most women and most people of colour have so many more hurdles in their way because of structural inequality – because of bias, because of their socioeconomic status, because of literally the way they are treated in the workplace.

I often use myself as an example. If I wasn’t a woman, I would have been promoted to senior leadership in my banking career five years earlier than I was, without a doubt. And I’m a white, privileged woman. The reality is that we don’t all have the same opportunities, we don’t all have access to the same education, to the same networks or to the same freedoms.  We must put programs and mechanisms in place to support particular groups in order to create greater equality of opportunity and inclusion .

At the moment, only women’s bodies can give birth. If we want to have families, we need to think about what that means for women who need to take time away from the workforce for a period. As a leader, what do you say to a woman when she comes to you to say she’s pregnant? Hopefully, that conversation is “Congratulations, that’s really exciting. When would you like to take leave? How long do you think you’ll be off for? When do you think you’d like to come back?”

Conversely, how do we enable men to also take the time? When a man says, “My partner and I are having a baby,” or, “We’re bringing a child into our family,” it should be the same conversation.

I’m still surprised when I have conversations with women friends who say they want to have a baby, but they’re worried about what it’ll do to their career, or they’re worried about losing their job.

It’s 2020. We’re in a developed country. I mean, holy moly!

What can individuals do to make sure they’re part of the solution and not part of the problem?

Possibly the best trait around inclusion is for people to cultivate their own curiosity – become a little more curious and a little less judgey.

Not only would the world be a better place, but people would lead more fulfilling lives. Rather than, “That’s different and I’m afraid of it,” it becomes, “That’s different – and I’m curious why”. That should include why other humans are different – because we’re all different and diverse in some way.

Secondly, we underestimate the power of language. Take the time to think about what to say and how to act. What are the things that I can do today that are a little bit more inclusive than last week?

Am I saying “folks” or am I saying “guys”? Am I assuming that everybody wants to talk about weekend sport as opposed to broadening that conversation? Am I assuming that someone’s partner is a certain gender? Am I assuming ethnicity because of how a person looks?

We often rely on people from underrepresented groups to teach us about their experience and what we need to do, when actually we have no excuse. Even if your friendship circle and network is homogenous, there are podcasts, there are Ted Talks, there are books and articles. Find some that challenge your thinking and expand your views and thoughts!

If you have an interest in working in the space, or even just being a more inclusive human, the onus is on you to educate yourself. How can you get curious about people who don’t look or think or sound like you?

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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