More BIPOC ad professionals see bias at work: POCAM

BIPOC advertising professionals are feeling higher levels of stress this year, even as employers make some—slow—progress to tackle systemic biases and improve representation, according to the latest research from POCAM.

The group’s third annual Visible & Vocal study found, for example, an increase in the number of workplaces that added BIPOC executives to the senior leadership team in the last year, and an overall drop in outward discrimination.

But more than two-thirds of respondents (69%) who work in mostly white organizations say racial bias exists at that workplace, up from just 59% last year, though just 18% of those working at mostly BIPOC agencies feel that way. Overall, female BIPOC respondents were 1.8x more likely than men to say racial bias exists at their work.

“Discrimination went down a little bit. But then you’ve got this stress going up,” said Ken Gamage, one of the lead authors of the research for POCAM, and vice-president, analytics, insights and strategy, at Cossette.

The research also showed sharp differences between the lived reality beyond the office for BIPOC working in Canadian advertising and the rest of white Canada. Just 18% of Visible & Vocal respondents say race relations are good in Canada, but when Environics posed a similar question in different research, 65% of white Canadians said that  race relations are good.

“Workplace stress is definitely something that continues to be on the rise,” said Julian Franklin, who also led the study for POCAM, and is vice-president, partnership development and strategy for MLSE. Everyone is dealing with stresses at work, but if you’re BIPOC you have the added expectations to contribute or lead on the introduction of DEI programs, continuing to face microaggressions and even outright racism on the job. “It just becomes exponentially that much more if you’re a BIPOC professional or leader,” he said.

In terms of positive actions taken, 33% of companies delivered unconscious bias training last year and 45% introduced DEI policies (though both were down 9% from the year before). And while 60% of respondents experienced racial discrimination by a colleague in 2021, that number dropped 14% to 46% in 2022. And strong majorities of BIPOC continue to endure microaggressions at work: 82% of Black respondents, 69% of East Asian respondents, and 57% of South Asian respondents.

POCAM first conducted the study in late 2020, in the months after the murder of George Floyd sparked new conversations and commitments to do something to improve BIPOC representation in the industry.

This year’s survey found signs of increased numbers of BIPOC executives, with 48% of respondents saying their workplace added BIPOC executives in the previous 12 months, compared to 40% in the year before.

Part of that improvement reflects a widening net of survey respondents, with more coming from predominantly BIPOC, said Franklin.

“I think that predominantly white agencies still have a ways to go [when it comes to] inclusive hiring, and allowing those [BIPOC employees] who are maybe at the mid to lower levels to become executives,” he said. “There are some incremental positive moves, but there still is a long way to go.”

And one of the respondents explained how just reaching the executive ranks doesn’t solve systemic issues. “When in leadership meetings, I feel my voice is less heard, less respected, and perceived as having less authority,” they said. “I am demonstrably less influential than my white counterparts in those settings.”

The survey also found fewer respondents (77% in 2022, compared to 89% in 2021) felt the need to be “on guard” for bias like microaggressions and outright discrimination, and the added burden which makes it more difficult for people to simply do their job.

And as one respondent pointed out, the systemic discrimination that comes from working in a mostly white industry leaves BIPOC professionals at a disadvantage. “Many white folks are well-connected within the industry allowing them to be referred and considered for more roles,” they said.

POCAM also provided a number of conclusions and recommendation for how the industry employers can improve diversity and representation, and remove barriers faced by BIPOC:

  • DEI in the workplace remains a priority;
  • The lack of mid- and senior-level BIPOC leaders threatens career longevity;
  • The lack of BIPOC in the C-suite creates a sense of a ceiling in place for BIPOC upward mobility;
  • BIPOC professionals need mentors and sponsors to help with career advancement;
  • Employers must invest in mental health programs for BIPOC professionals and deconstruct workplace traumas;
  • Specific needs of female BIPOC professionals must be investigated.
David Brown