Seeing Is Believing: Why Does Diversity at the Oscars Matter?

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by Laurie Jakobsen

The spotlight on gender and ethnic diversity has never been harsher, as people are demanding real change. Last Friday, in response to the backlash regarding the all-white nominee slate for the 2016 Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced changes to its board and voting structure to double the number of women and minorities in the organization. Mind you, that will still be a pretty small number, as a 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times found the organization was almost 94% Caucasian and 77% male, with both Blacks and Latinos at about 2% each.

Earlier in the day, I was greeted with the new issue of Bloomberg Businessweek on my doorstep, with the cover story “Coders Like Us,” looking at the efforts of the historically black college Howard University to get its students into Silicon Valley jobs, where only 1% of the technical employees at companies like Google and Facebook are African American. In two years, only three graduates have been hired: two at Google and one at Pandora. Professor Charles Pratt notes that, on the one hand, it may take Howard years to gets its program to be a top “feeder school” for tech. However, he also feels that there may be an “unconscious racial bias” because the students don’t “fit the profile of what they think of engineers. Even though people think of Silicon Valley as a big meritocracy, I don’t think that’s how it works.”

Then there was the Sunday New York Times, the story with the headline in the print edition, “Why Aren’t Women Doing Better on Wall Street?,” an appalling first-person account of the institutionalized harassment of women on the trading floor and the corporate systems that prevent a public view into just how bad it is for women at these firms. Writer Maureen Sherry wants to see a change in the mandatory arbitration policies that prevent these stories from getting an airing in court. She feels this “would be a more effective cure for discrimination than their [the banks] current habit of writing checks too meager to hurt them and too useless to root out the problem.”

You might say that the Silicon Valley and Banking issues are much more important than who takes home a gold statue for a movie. However, the difference for the movie industry is that the input (the qualification of the candidates) as well as the result (the awards nominations) are completely transparent to the public in a way that corporate hiring is not. We can watch the movies ourselves, we can read the reviews, and we can see that the nominations don’t reflect the movies that came out this year. However, outside of a handful of news articles, we don’t “see” the lack of diversity in Silicon Alley or the mistreatment of women on Wall Street. We can’t judge for ourselves because the information isn’t readily available or, in some cases, being hidden. And that’s the problem.

The American public is getting to see the Academy’s process to transform itself, and we will see in the coming years if their approach does result in a more diverse organization and nominee pool. At its best, art performs as a mirror for society, and it can inspire change. When I asked my 9-year-old daughter what she thought of the new Star Wars movie, she said, “I liked how there were women in every scene. Even the head of the Stormtroopers was a woman!” We’re looking to see ourselves in these epic characters, even as we go along on a journey through an imaginary world. With more diversity applauded on the big screen, perhaps people will be able to see bigger roles for everyone in the real world as well.

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