New research provides insight into the BIPOC experience in Canadian marketing

Fully one-third (33%) of BIPOC professionals working in advertising and marketing in Canada have experienced harassment on the job, and 56% have faced discrimination, according to new research from the industry group People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing.

The study, “Visible & Vocal,” is based on a survey of more than 300 BIPOC individuals, who answered questions about their lived experience in Canadian advertising and marketing.

Aside from the more overt experiences with discrimination and harassment at work, 83% also reported dealing with microaggressions—defined as casual questions, remarks and actions, based on stereotypes that cause harm. “Microaggressions are really taking a serious toll on BIPOC  people working in Canada in creative industries,” said Chasson Gracie, director of insights and analytics for John St., who led the research for POCAM.

Almost one-third of respondents (30%) reported negative mental health impacts stemming from racist experiences at work. Many who experience poor workplace environments endure wide ranging repercussions: they become more sensitive to the racial injustices around them, they feel more guarded, and report a variety of mental health impacts.

“These things, which might seem kind of trivial to certain people, should not be thought of as trivial,” said Gracie. “It’s not just about what happens to our folks when they are in the workplace. They take these things when they are leaving the office, when they’re getting on the train, when they’re going to their communities. It continues. So this is a very serious thing.”

In general the BIPOC advertising and marketing workforce is highly educated and from middle-class or higher backgrounds. Its workers are also relatively young, with 56% of respondents having 10 years of experience or less, and only 10% of respondents holding management or executive positions.

That inexperience highlights another significant challenge in the industry, with 78% of respondents saying they have no BIPOC mentors or sponsors at work. That can lead to increased feelings of alienation and pressure to assimilate. “That is telling us there is systemic bias in the system,” said Gracie.

“I don’t bring myself to work, I bring what is expected of me to work,” said one respondent. “I don’t have the same level of confidence to say/do things as my white colleagues.”

“If you don’t have a lot of experience, you’re trying to get to that next level, and then you don’t see people who are like you at those higher levels, at those leadership positions or executive positions, you start to think is this the right industry for [me]?” said Gracie. Too many decide it’s not for them, which leaves fewer leaders to inspire the next young BIPOC cohort coming behind them.

In terms of place of birth, about 52% of respondents were born outside of Canada, said Gracie. That is higher than the Canadian population—for now.

Immigration will drive population growth in the years ahead, and so the perspective of non-Canadians across the industry will become more valuable. The default depictions of Canadiana that brands have long relied on will become increasingly irrelevant.

Among the other key findings:

  • While 33% have experienced racial harassment, 41% have witnessed harassment of another BIPOC. And where 56% have faced racial discrimination, 60% have witnessed it;
  • Problems appear more pronounced on the client side than in agencies. Forty per cent of those working client side reported experiencing harassment, compared to 28% in agencies; 58% of those working client side experienced discrimination, compared to 53% in an agency; 85% of client side employees experienced microaggression, compared to 77% in an agency;
  • Just 12% of respondents think race relations in Canada are good, and 64% strongly agree that anti-indigenous racism is most strongly felt;
  • 93% agree anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism exists, while 89% agree anti-Asian racism exists;
  • 41% feel their experiences at work are not the same as the Caucasian experience;
  • 87% of BIPOC feel they must be “on guard” just to make it through the day in peace

That experience of being “on guard” makes it more difficult for BIPOC professionals to simply do their job every day. “Rather than just thinking about what do I need to do for my client, or what do I need to do for my agency, you’ve also got to be worried about these microaggressions, racial discrimination, harassment, and so forth,” said Gracie.

Despite widespread evidence of bias and discrimination, Gracie also said he was hopeful about where the industry is going.

“I personally feel optimistic, cautiously optimistic,” he said, pointing to data showing that 66% of respondents said their agencies are taking positive steps. Among the most common actions are improved diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; attempts to hire more BIPOC; and having more BIPOC in leadership. Nearly all respondents said a lack of diversity in executive levels remains a problem, however.

The survey validates what many BIPOC working in the industry already know, said Joshua Richards, director, creative technology at John St. and part of the POCAM steering committee, who touched on some of the findings’ key implications. While this has been on ongoing discussion within the BIPOC community, Richards said that data was necessary to bring about real change.

“Employers must take the impact of microaggressions in the workplace on BIPOC mental health seriously,” said Richards. “From my personal experience, I can tell you how frustrating, how exhausting and how embarrassing it is to be singled out or insulted because of your race and ethnicity. It makes it difficult to be comfortable sharing ideas authentically, especially when those microaggressions are from people you report to or from people in leadership.”

Employers need to develop training and policies to create safe workplaces that allow BIPOC employees to feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work, he said.

There is also a need for more sponsors and mentors, said Richards. “Mentors to teach the skills and provide feedback, and sponsors to really assist in navigating the politics and the systems that stop you from moving ahead,” he said.

Third, companies need to be held accountable for the lack BIPOC in executive roles. “We need to remind our companies and executive teams that it is their responsibility to ensure their agencies are safe spaces, with equal opportunities given BIPOC professionals.”

Introducing the study, Julian Franklin, a member of the POCAM steering committee, explained that the motivation underlying the research was to better understand the lived experience for BIPOC professionals in Canada. “It was to fill a gap that we saw in not having the industry properly showcase what our voices meant in advertising and marketing. There was nothing there when we said ‘What are our voices saying? What are our perspectives,'” he said. “This is your story… It’s now the industry’s job to listen.”

David Brown