Jennifer Wells: What Oscar-winner Frances McDormand can teach corporate Canada

To close the diversity gap in corporations, maybe CEOs should adopt the Oscar-winning actress’s ‘inclusion rider,’ writes Jennifer Wells.

If there was a single indelible moment at the Oscars, it was Frances McDormand wrapping up her speech with a call to arms to A-list entertainers with the power to effect change, writes Jennifer Wells.

Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP

If there was a single indelible moment at the Oscars, it was Frances McDormand wrapping up her speech with a call to arms to A-list entertainers with the power to effect change, writes Jennifer Wells.

“I have two words for you: inclusion rider.”

If there was a single indelible moment at the 90th Academy Awards celebration Sunday, it was the fierce Frances McDormand wrapping up her winning best actor speech with a call to arms to A-list entertainers with the power to effect change.

There was a great deal of clapping and cheering and, according to Twitter, a great many people wondering: what’s an inclusion rider?

It’s worth viewing Stacy Smith’s TED talk for the answer. Smith is a social scientist who teaches in the communication and journalism school at the University of Southern California. In a clear and swift 15 minutes she takes her audience through a set list of really dispiriting data. In what she deems the “inclusion crisis in Hollywood,” Smith’s statistics include this fact: not quite a third of movie roles go to women. (To qualify for inclusion in the data set, the actor needs to speak but a single word through the entire script.) Surprised? No, of course not. But Smith extrapolates this data to conclude that much has not changed in a half century.

How about power? Auditing 800 films between 2007 and 2015, Smith and her researchers found only 4.1 per cent were directed by women. A total of three films were directed by Black or African-American women. One lone film was directed by an Asian woman. The traits of leadership (commanding a crew, being a “visionary”) are seen to be male in nature, industry insiders confided. Hence the results, as Smith said in her talk, “pull male.” Left alone to its own devices, Hollywood does not change.

What does this remind us of?

That’s right, corporate Canada. As it happens, the Academy Awards came just days after the Senate voted down a proposed amendment to Bill C-25, that is, the Act to amend the Canada Business Corporations Act (and that of co-operatives and not-for-profits, too). That sounds like multiple acts and multiple amendments. The point to glean is this: in hauling the Act into the modern era a group of senators supported the view that publicly traded corporations be compelled to set internal targets to boost diversity, the very ethos of the governing Liberals. The Senate voted against the amendment, 37 to 30, in third reading last Wednesday.

Let’s think about this. Corporations would not be compelled to reach targets by a set date. Corporations would be free to establish for themselves time-lines for the increase of four under-represented groups: women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities. This is a step beyond the “comply-or-explain” declarations of diversity policy. As Senator Paul Massicotte pointed out in tabling the amendment, even with the comply-or-explain rule introduced by the Ontario Securities Commission, the progress of women in leadership roles has been unsatisfactory, budging modestly in board representation, and even more modestly in senior management positions.

Phrased another way, asking nicely doesn’t work.

The result: just as Stacy Smith’s work shows that Hollywood does not reflect the real world, so too corporate Canada.

In supporting the amendment Senator Ratna Omidvar made the case clearly: “This amendment does not ask anyone to climb Mount Everest. It asks for targets, the targets are voluntary, the corporations can set these according to their own history, their own context, their own region and their own industry. This is common business practice.”

The non-partisan bill nevertheless placed Massicotte’s supporters in one corner, and bill sponsor Howard Wetston in the opposing corner. Wetston, readers may recall, is the past chair of the Ontario Securities Commission.

Citing in part Canada’s fragmented securities landscape (can’t we fix that already?), Wetston supported the comply-or-explain model as a “legitimate choice to address diversity at the board and executive level in Canada.” Government can do more within that model, Wetston said in addressing the chamber last week. “They can provide guidelines. They can get the director of corporations candidate to do more. There can be more outreach. Basically, these categories allow for a great deal of opportunity by the government to do more within this model if it so chooses.”

In an interview, Omidvar wonders if part of the failure lies in a lack of clarity. “The lesson I take out of this is that we must do much better at explaining our point of view and making it extremely clear to people that our amendment would not have forced corporations to have quotas,” she says. “Our amendment was simply moving them toward a mature approach to developing strategies. We were told these business corporations have so much work, they can’t do this. That’s not true. Any business corporation that comes under this act is big enough to have people and departments who are devoted to human resources, change management, long-term planning.”

The distinction between the two positions is clear: a soft tap on the shoulder (Omidvar’s description of C-25 as written) and a firm nudge. It goes without saying that the senator is disappointed by the outcome, especially given the aspirations — the brand — of the government of the day.

Stacy Smith had a few suggestions to redress the historic and intractable imbalance in Hollywood. “Just Add Five,” was one, in which scriptwriters would up the presence of roles for women, five at a time. That strategy, Smith concluded, could achieve gender parity in casting in three years. So, goal setting. But remember, a “role” is defined as a single spoken word.

More powerfully, A-list actors could insist on inclusion riders in their contracts, and start to dictate directly how to fix the diversity gap.

That’s what Frances McDormand was advocating.

In corporate environments, this could be a call to arms. Does any incoming A-list CEO have the nerve to insist upon a diversity rider? Now that would be progressive. Ground-breaking, even.

In the meantime, the amendment-sponsoring senators will be stuck monitoring what progress is made as a result of C-25. I’m not holding my breath.

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