The Oscars: Art Imitating (Corporate) Life?

This Sunday’s ceremony underscores the determined but bumpy road both Hollywood and the corporate world are taking toward diversity.

It may become yet one more key milestone at the Oscars Sunday if Jordan Peele, director of the thriller Get Out, becomes the first black male to win Best Director. And yet with that step forward comes the reality that three years after a social media firestorm, Hollywood still has a ways to go toward a younger and more racially diverse voting membership. 

All of which sounds strikingly familiar to a corporate world facing similar challenges, and leaves open the question: Which is diversifying faster? Certainly both are recognizing diversity’s key value. “Whether you are making a movie or something else, you have to have products that reflect your customer base,” says William Simon, global sector leader for Media & Entertainment at Korn Ferry. “Hollywood is finally acknowledging that you have to have people making and starring in movies that your audience can identify with, just like corporations are acknowledging that they have to have talent in their companies that can relate to their customers.” 

For Hollywood, that means producing movies like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, which respectively cast a female lead and an all-black ensemble to carry a superhero franchise for the first time ever. (Both films, perhaps unsurprisingly, shattered box-office records.) For corporations, it means increasing investments in diversity and inclusion programs and focusing hiring attention on a wider pool of candidates, particularly for board and C-suite roles. According to Louis Montgomery, who specializes in executive search and co-leads Korn Ferry’s Chief Diversity Officer practice, about 60% of Fortune 500 companies now have a head of diversity and inclusion, or a similar position.

But, despite the efforts of Hollywood and the corporate world, both still have a long way to go on diversity and inclusion. At the same time Hollywood is celebrating major diversity breakthroughs, it is also facing heavy criticism over pay inequality and harassment, for instance. A recent San Diego State University study found women accounted for 24% of protagonist roles in the 100 top-grossing domestic films last year, a decline of 5%, and a University of Southern California Annenberg study of 1,100 films from 2007 to 2017 found that more than 90% of the directors were white. 

On the corporate side, though women account for 45% of the S&P 500 workforce, just 27% of the S&P 500’s senior leadership positions are held by women, and fewer than 6% of the nation’s biggest corporations are run by women, according to the nonprofit research group Catalyst. And 42% of respondents to a Korn Ferry survey said they feel there is an element of unconscious bias in their workforce when it comes to diverse backgrounds such as religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation. 

“What you see in Hollywood is a microcosm of unconscious bias writ large,” says Henry Topping, a senior client partner specializing in media and entertainment at Korn Ferry. “The good news is that Hollywood is so public that focusing on these issues will cause further societal reflection as a whole on how we think about fairness, equality, diversity, and inclusion.”