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: The NFL isn’t alone in its diversity problem. How old boys’ clubs and box-checking keep tech, academia and more from real progress

When former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the National Football League and three football teams alleging racial discrimination that included an apparent sham interview, Jorge Caballero could empathize.

As a Mexican-American doctor and engineer, Caballero said he has had his share of sham interviews.

“You get a very motivated or rushed recruiter that’s trying to get you in the door,” he said. When he asks how many others have been interviewed for a position, he added, “the number indicates you’re at the tail end of the process.” That possibly allows a company or organization to say they checked the box and considered a diverse slate of candidates, he said.

In his lawsuit filed last month, Flores said some teams were using the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires them to interview candidates of color for coaching positions and senior football-operations jobs, as a smokescreen.

Flores said teams would interview Black coaches like him, but would already have a preferred white candidate. He presented as evidence a text message in which New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick mistakenly congratulated Flores on getting a head-coaching job before Flores was even interviewed, then realized he had the wrong Brian.

The lawsuit accuses the league of racial discrimination, which it says the statistics reflect: While 70% of NFL players are Black, there are zero Black team owners. Only one head coach, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is Black, and the numbers of Black assistant coaches are low. (Since Flores filed the lawsuit, the Steelers have hired him as an assistant coach.)

The NFL said in its response to the lawsuit that “diversity is core to everything” it does and has vowed to defend itself against the claims, which it said are without merit.

Lauren Tucker, the founder of an inclusion consultancy in the Chicago area, said NFL owners, executives and white sportscasters need to get past their old way of thinking that Black players can’t be smart quarterbacks or coaches, because they have been proven wrong.

“Flores’s claim of experiencing sham interviews is as unsurprising as it is central to the Black experience in America,” Tucker said. “For years, white corporate leaders hid behind the old chestnut, ‘We only hire the best talent.’ How would they know?”

Research throughout the years shows that companies and organizations may think they are making hiring decisions based purely on merit, but biases and sometimes stereotypes play a role.

“The streets of corporate America are littered with the failures of companies that did not, in the end, have ‘the best talent,’” Tucker said.

After all, the NFL isn’t the only industry failing to turn its diversity pledges into meaningful change. Other industries, like tech, have been accused of making promises they haven’t kept. Even when companies and organizations make progress that includes hiring people from underrepresented groups, they sometimes struggle to retain them for various reasons.

The same goes for Hollywood — though the entertainment industry has seen some notable gains in diversity in the past couple of years, at least by some measures.

Old boys’ clubs everywhere

“The NFL is an old boys’ club,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “Sadly, that is true in a lot of other industries as well: It’s a club. I see that in academia.”

So does Caballero, who was on the residency-selection committee at Stanford Medicine. He resigned last year after he said his outspokenness on diversity issues led his colleagues and superiors to withdraw their support for him at the departmental and institutional levels. That made it tough for him to secure research grants and advance beyond an entry-level faculty appointment, he wrote in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A spokeswoman said Stanford Medicine does not comment on personnel matters, and that Stanford Health Care and the School of Medicine are “committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

In both medicine and academia, Cabellero told MarketWatch, “there are public overtures and lip service to diversity and inclusion with a lack of substantive commitment at the institutional level.”

Pamela Newkirk discusses that type of lip service in her 2019 book, “Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business.” Newkirk, a New York University journalism professor, says corporations have “created a bloated apparatus that seems more concerned with optics of diversity than the realization of diversity.”

She cited a 2019 study by an executive-search consultancy that found most chief diversity officers don’t have access to their companies’ demographic data.

“If you can’t even see under the hood, you can’t fix the problem that has metastasized in the organization,” Newkirk said.

And even when there is diversity data, like in the tech industry, it doesn’t automatically mean progress will follow, or that it will be meaningful or sustained.

Almost a decade ago, tech became the first industry to begin to regularly disclose its workforce demographics. But the industry continues to have mostly low-single-digit percentages of Black and Latino employees and leadership. The lack of Black employees is “up and down the system, with almost no Black CEOs,” said Chakravorti.

Black STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates are teaching or working in academia and starting small businesses at higher rates than STEM graduates from other racial groups, research by Tufts’ Fletcher School shows — and not working in the more lucrative tech sector at the same rates as white and Asian STEM graduates.

Tech giant Google, whose diversity initiatives inspired backlash in the form of a manifesto from a since-fired white male engineer, has had its share of controversial departures of Black female employees. And late last week, former recruiter April Curley filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status, alleging the company fired her in 2020 after she “began to question white-dominant policies at Google, especially at the recruitment level ,” she said during a news conference Monday.

The lawsuit contends there is a high attrition rate among Black Google employees because “of the racially discriminatory and hostile environment at Google, as well as the underpayment and denial of advancement.” (Google did not return a request for comment on the lawsuit.)

“We’re talking about tech geniuses who can’t come up with a way to fix the problem,” Newkirk said.

Read more: ‘There’s a diversity grift right now’: Employees at center of racial controversies at tech companies speak out

Sometimes, the focus on diversity feels forced and can be a red flag for job candidates. Arianna, a woman from Washington state who requested that her last name not be used, is biracial — Black and white. She turned down a project management job at a tech company after feeling like the managers talked too much about wanting to diversify their workforce during the interview process.

“You want to have conversations and bring people in who have different experiences than those who are in your current talent pool,” she said, adding that managers should learn how to ask those questions with more skill. “It needs to be conversations about the work. The vibe I got was you check off this box.”

She continues to look for a job.

Hooray for Hollywood?

As for the entertainment industry, a recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative that examined diversity among film directors showed that even though the industry continues to be dominated by white male directors, there have been some gains over the years for women and directors from underrepresented racial groups.

The study found that white women and men of color directors saw their highest representation in the top-grossing films in 2020 and 2021, respectively. The study’s authors found, though, that women of color directors remain significantly underrepresented, making up less than 2% of the top-grossing directors from 2007 to 2021.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of efforts at inclusiveness in Hollywood. In 2015, lawyer April Reign tweeted #OscarsSoWhite, which went viral, sparking changes in the entertainment industry and changing the course of her life. Reign now advocates full-time for diversity in entertainment, and she’s optimistic about a couple of key things.

One is the inclusion rider, which started off as a way for influential actors to demand diversity within a production both in front of the camera and behind it. In addition, she said, “what gives me hope is seeing actors, actresses and others in the film industry no longer waiting for their seat at the table, but forming their own production companies.”

That includes actors like Michael B. Jordan, who is Black and whose production company, Outlier Society Productions, was among the first to adopt the inclusion rider. The production company Pearl Street Films, which is owned by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, has also adopted the inclusion rider.

Damon famously got diversity-related backlash after a 2015 episode of “Project Greenlight,” on which he served as an executive producer, after he suggested diversity only matters in front of the camera, not behind it.

In that episode of the reality show about aspiring filmmakers being given a chance to direct a movie, Damon was shown talking to Effie Brown, a Black producer, about her advocating for choosing a directing team made up of a white woman and a Vietnamese-American man. He told her, “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.” She replied, “Wow.” (Damon later apologized for his comments causing offense and said he believed “deeply” in creating greater diversity among filmmakers.)

Fanshen Cox, a co-author of the inclusion rider, told MarketWatch, “I work at Pearl Street because of Matt Damon’s Effie Brown moment.”

Cox said she “grew up with Matt and Ben” in Cambridge, Mass., where residents of the city thought of themselves as progressive. After that episode of “Project Greenlight,” she said, she “had a very important and transparent conversation with Matt and Ben.”

Now a Pearl Street project and one of Affleck’s upcoming movies, “Hypnotic,” has adopted an inclusion rider — and one of its executive producers, James Portolese, said the star will be surrounded by a diverse cast. Portolese said the team did its best with the rest of the production, but COVID-19 made things tough: Last summer, as case counts declined, the entertainment industry rushed into productions while there were no lockdowns.

“It was the Wild West,” he said. “I couldn’t hire an accountant to save my life.” What that meant, at times, was “we couldn’t be as mindful for underrepresented groups because we were so desperate for bodies.”

Portolese said productions are back at a normal pace now, and he thinks it will be easier to be more inclusive and mindful of diversity. “I want a rider on all of our projects,” he said. “I love having really diverse heads of departments and crew, and giving people a shot who might not always have it.”

Another big production that has adopted an inclusion rider: This year’s Grammy Awards, which are scheduled to air next month.

The inclusion rider involves four parts, Cox said: diversifying hiring, setting targets, collecting data and urging a production to make “a meaningful contribution” where it falls short of its targets, such as to organizations that help gaffers or crew members, or nurture storytellers.

The rider can be adopted and adapted by other industries, she said: “It got its start in Hollywood, but this is common-sense practice.”

NFL ‘feeling the heat’

The Flores lawsuit is only one of the NFL’s race-related controversies. Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started kneeling during the national anthem at football games in 2016 to protest racial injustice and police brutality, wasn’t signed by another NFL team the following season and hasn’t played professional football since.

Last year, the league agreed to stop use of “race-norming” in awards of a $1 billion settlement of concussion claims. The practice assumed Black players started out with lower cognitive function, making it more difficult for them to show they’re suffering from any mental deficit as a result of playing football.

The NFL did not return a request for comment for this story.

Add the Flores lawsuit to those and other controversies, and the NFL is “feeling the heat,” author Newkirk said. She pointed to the Super Bowl halftime show this year, which featured mostly Black artists.

“They care enough to try to appease the public,” Newkirk said. “But they know the halftime show isn’t going to be enough.”

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