This year’s Academy Award season has been marked by more than excitement about which of the year’s films will end up receiving one of cinema’s highest honors. Indeed, debates about whether or not Brooklyn is more deserving than Spotlight or Matt Damon is more deserving than Leonardo DiCaprio have been eclipsed by debates about the history, structure and current mandate of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself and more notably, the make up of the institution’s voting membership, which remains largely White. While there are many reasons to point blame at the Academy, its problems mirror those of private business and public sector institutions across the nation. This post examines how an institution can accelerate the drive to break down racial barriers when the root of the problem is the structure of the institution itself.

Promoting Diversity in the Face of Tradition

The Problem at the Root of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

As became strikingly obvious when this year’s award nominees were announced in January, the Academy continues to marginalize the work of Black actors, as well as other Black and visible minority professionals working in the film industry. If you haven’t already heard the news, when the Academy unveiled its nominations, all 20 nominees for acting awards were White. This fails to reflect demographics of the American population and more importantly, it fails to reflect the contemporary film industry and casting in this year’s top films.

To many industry insiders, the all-White nomination list unveiled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was not a surprise. As outspoken director Spike Lee fired back, “We cannot support it…how is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the acting category are white? And let’s not even get into the other branches.” Lee was not only fuming about the past two years, however, but also about the Academy’s entire history. In the first 50 years of the Academy’s existence (1929 to 1979) only two Black American actors won Oscars. From 1979 to 2016, only 11 Black American actors have won Academy Awards.

Not surprisingly, the composition of the Academy’s voting members—94% are White and 86% are over the age of 50—is being blamed for the marginalization of Black and other visible minority talent year after year. On this basis, however, the Academy is not entirely unique. In 2013, White men comprised nearly 70 percent of the 1,214 seats in Fortune 100 Companies, and 73.3 percent of the total 5,488 board seats in Fortune 500 Companies. In other words, while the Academy may be even less diverse than the boards of most Fortune 500 companies, it is evidently part of a much larger and systemic diversity problem that impacts voting boards across the United States in the private and public sector too (e.g., the composition of most university boards of governors is just as White).

Diversifying in the Face of Tradition

The Academy is not unlike many existing private businesses and even public sector institutions. In short, the Academy is an institution where tradition persists to such an extent that its voting members now fail to reflect the general population and even the industry. Of course, shaking up the board of a Fortune 500 company or the voting members of the Academy is by no means a simple or fast process. In the case of the Academy, efforts to change the profile of its voting membership has been hampered by the structure of the organization itself.

First, in order to become a member of the Academy, one needs to already be recognized as an “insider.” This means that one needs to be sponsored by two Academy members from the branch for which one is seeking membership (e.g., if one is an actor, two other actors need to recognize the candidate as an important figure in the field), or one needs to be an Academy Award nominee (in this case, you’re automatically considered for membership). Only under these two circumstances will the Academy’s Board of Governors review one’s application and decide whether or not to issue a formal invite. The problem is that with little diversity within the current membership, invitations and endorsement tend to perpetuate the status quo (White actors, directors and musicians nominate other White actors, directors, and musicians). Likewise, with Black and other visible minority actors and directors routinely overlooked for Academy Awards, few Black, Hispanic or Asian industry professionals end up being automatically eligible for Academy membership. Second, in the case of the Academy, one becomes a voting member for life. This means that the organization is naturally slow to change as its limited number of seats only open up as members die and in some cases are “retired” to emeritus status. To put it bluntly, the internal workings of the organization are designed to a.) Reproduce the status quo and b.) Slow change and both factors make diversification an uphill battle. So what strategies can the Academy or any other organization use to diversify?

Diversifying in the Face of Tradition

Strategy 1: Add New Voting Members to Diversify

On paper, this is a great idea but in the case of the Academy, it has already led to critical missteps. In response to the uproar over this year’s exclusively White nomination list, the Academy announced diversity-oriented institutional reforms. In an attempt to open up new seats, for example, the Academy announced plans to purge its membership roster by removing members who are no longer “active” in the industry (e.g., still working in the industry on a regular basis). In fact, these “retired” members would retain membership but lose voting rights and thereby, open up new voting seats that could theoretically be filled by visible minority industry insiders. The problem is that in the Academy’s hasty attempt to open up seats, questions have been raised about what really constitutes “active” membership. Likewise, there is no guarantee that purging inactive members will necessarily lead to a more diverse membership.

Strategy 2: Restructure from the Top Down–Add New Seats to the Board

Like it not, change often happens from the top down and as a result, changing the composition of one’s board can have a major impact on an organization. There is currently only one Black member on the Academy’s 51-person board. On Jan. 22, the Academy announced that it would “immediately increase diversity” by adding three seats to the board in an effort to diversify. In the past, nominees have stood for election via their individual branches, such as acting or directing. In this case, the procedure for appointments was changed but without altering any bylaws or consulting the presidents of the Academy’s individual branches. As a result, the Academy’s proactive response to accusations of racism is now being questioned as a move that also runs against the Academy’s own bylaws. This, of course, raises a larger question—should one simply ignore existing bylaws to correct diversity problems within an organization? While there is no clear answer, such moves certainly do open up organizations to other accusations and may prove counterproductive in the long-term, if not properly managed.

Strategy 3: Legislate Diversity

A final strategy, which the Academy has yet to take, is to simply legislate diversity by a.) creating new award categories focused on visible minority actors and professionals or b.) mandating quotas. Of course, legislating diversity—as we’ve seen in the case of Abigail Fisher v. The University of Texas (Fisher is a White student who claims affirmative action admission policies resulted in her not gaining a spot at UT Austin)—can be both a powerful way to bring about change and at times, result in a backlash against diversity initiatives. While this is by no means a reason to stop promoting diversity through legislative change, policies that appear to give special consideration to people who have traditionally had to work much harder to enter an institution continue to be considered controversial in any context. Any business instituting a policy designed to diversify through, for example, target recruitment strategies, is well advised to get cross-organization buy-in for the policy prior to its implementation.

How Workplace Training Promotes Diversity

How Workplace Training Promotes Diversity

The best way to avoid finding oneself in the Academy’s current mess is to tackle diversity head-on before it becomes a problem that a.) results in a loss of outstanding human talent, and b.) damages one’s brand. This can be done by embracing workplace training initiatives that seek to develop recruitment, onboarding, training, workplace culture and advancement strategies that put diversity at the center. For more on diversity in the workplace, also see the following eLeaP articles, white papers, and training courses:

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