More Black women executives are leaving industry
An unexpected byproduct of the Supreme Court decision to sharply curtail the use of affirmative action in college admissions and professional employment has resulted in Hollywood witnessing an exodus in recent weeks of senior-level African-American women in executive positions. The departures could signal a wider problem for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the entertainment industry.
The issue led a group of state legislators in the California Legislative Black Caucus to conduct a press conference last week to express their concern about the abrupt departures. The legislators have called on the (currently embattled) film studios to meet with the Black Caucus to explain the sudden removals–particularly since they have occurred days after the State Legislature approved a $1.6 billion in Film Tax Credit initiative to provide tax incentives to increased filming in California.
The legislators who spoke at the press conference were Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson), Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood), Senator Dave Min (D-Orange County), Assemblymembger Luz Rivas (D-San Fernando Valley), Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember Phil Tin (D-San Francisco).
Many of the women oversaw DEI initiatives at their respective companies. Karen Horne was senior vice president of North America DEI at Warner Bros. Discovery. Jeanell English was executive vice president of impact and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Verna Myers was Netflix’s first head of inclusion, while LaTondra Newsom was Disney’s chief diversity officer and senior vice president. Also, Terra Potts formerly served as executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros. While in her position, Potts was instrumental in helping the studio french a more diverse and broader audience.
Industry sources have been quoted in media outlets that more women executives of color will likely be eliminated in the coming months. The departures come as a “one-two” punch as some observers say corporate America is failing to live up to its diversity commitments.
“It’s alarming to say the least,” said Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.org, a nonprofit that fosters women’s leadership and inclusion with corporations. “We need as many strong leaders of all identities running DEI in organizations. The fact that we’re seeing so many prominent Black women either stepping away or being relieved of their positions should be a wake-up call that whoever is in those positions receive the necessary support and investment they need for senior leadership.”
The 2022 Women in the Workforce report by McKinsey & Co. looked at data and insights from 333 participating organizations (not just Hollywood) which employed more than 12 million people. They collected survey responses from more than 40,000 workers. The report revealed that only one in four G-Suite leaders is a woman. Only one in 20 (roughly 5%) is a woman of color. The report concluded: “We’re amid a ‘great breakup.’ Women are demanding more from work and leaving in unprecedented numbers to get it.”
The Black Caucus held the press conference to call on the film studios to (1) Explain the removals of the executives; (2) Provide evidence on how they will commit to increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in al levels of their workforce, and (3) Adopt a diversity, equity and inclusion workforce retention tracking program to ensure their ability to certify their progress toward effective and lasting inclusion.
“One executive removal could be a fluke, but four more?,” asked Senator Smallwood-Cuevas. “And we’re hearing there’s more to come. This a troubling pattern that suggests diversity, equity and inclusion is no longer a priority at the highest levels of the film industry. These are positions where instrumental decisions are made and where institutional change can happen. We want these studios to come to the table and discuss how they plan to grow a more inclusive workforce that better reflects the diversity of California.”
Multiple sources have said the exits are being prompted by a mixture of frustrations over a lack of financial support and resources. There are reported “unnecessary roadblocks” that prevent these executives from having a meaningful impact and, more importantly, an overwhelming “cultural exhaustion” that has plagued Black leaders across all professions. As an example, when Netflix implemented its first round of layoffs following subscriber decreases, the company significantly reduced staff support for some of the streamer’s DEI initiatives that targeted underrepresented communities.
One female Hollywood executive–who spoke to Variety on the condition of anonymity–put it a little more bluntly: “Black women are not allowed to be ‘difficult.’ We can’t be vulnerable, weak and certainly not ‘challenging.’ We must be perfect, have unlimited understanding and continuously validate a White person’s guilt and empty gestures on how we’re fixing things. It’s exhausting and I’m f*cking tired.”