By guest author Jasmin Malik Chua from Vogue Business
The role of the chief diversity officer is new to fashion — and potentially fleeting.
- Fashion brands — particularly those who have come under fire on social media for public missteps — are making chief diversity officers a priority hire.
- These executives oversee internal matters like inclusion and growth opportunities and are also involved in marketing and product decisions.
- A chief diversity officer’s influence is heavily dependent on wider executive and institutional support.
- For the world’s leading fashion brands, chief diversity officers have become a hot hire. And with good reason.
H&M appointed Annie Wu to the role after an image of a black boy wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” sparked allegations of racism in 2018. Gucci hired its first chief diversity officer following outrage in February over a black balaclava sweater with a cutout mouth resembling oversized red lips. Prada assembled a diversity and inclusion council after a Manhattan storefront displayed monkey figures that were said to evoke blackface stereotypes last December. Nike, Macy’s, Burberry and Chanel have all appointed diversity hires in the past two years.
Within the fashion industry, the role is relatively new. Of the 47 per cent of S&P 500 companies with chief diversity officers, 63 per cent were appointed within the past three years, according to Russell Reynolds Associates. (Reps at Burberry, Chanel and Gucci declined to make their diversity chiefs available for interviews, citing the recentness of their appointments.)
Brands may first enlist chief diversity officers to save face or make amends. But the role is increasingly crucial to meet customer and shareholder needs. “Diversity matters to different stakeholders. It matters to employees, to suppliers, to customers, [and] it matters to the different channels you sell into,” says Oliver Chen, senior equity analyst at Cowen.
Talent recruitment and retention
What a chief diversity officer does varies by brand. It is often broken down into managing the inclusion and management of people, as well as leading company-wide initiatives that focus on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender, says Toya Mitchell, multicultural analyst at Mintel.
Shawn Outler was named the first chief diversity officer at Macy’s in October after working across a variety of roles over 13 years at the retailer. So far, she’s helped provide unconscious-bias training to 130000 employees across Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. She helped update the Macy’s customer bill of rights, which is posted at every store and “is a declaration of how we will welcome, accept and respect everyone”, Outler says.
Another initiative is steering the company towards its goal to reach 30 per cent minority representation at senior director level by 2025. “Today’s customers want to see themselves reflected not only in our marketing but also in the leadership,” she says.
The hope is that such programmes create better workplaces that attract and retain talent. An ongoing priority at H&M is making staffers aware of their implicit biases, examining existing diversity and inclusion policies and upgrading them where necessary, says H&M’s Wu, noting that her team is currently working on measurable performance indicators.
A 2018 McKinsey report found that organisations with ethnic and gender-diverse executive teams outperformed their less diverse counterparts by up to 35 per cent because of increased innovation and customer insight.
But, the commercial impact of grooming diverse talent can take time to show up on a balance sheet. That may be why many time-pressed business leaders treat diversity and inclusion goals as low priorities in practice despite their public support, Russell Reynolds Associates has found.
However, public backlash against missteps have prompted chief diversity officers and their teams to provide input into customer-facing fields like marketing and branding. One possible reason brands keep making gaffes with commercial implications is that they’ve lost sight of their core customer and how decisions play out in the social media age, says Alexis DeSalva, senior research analyst at Mintel. The hope is that diversity teams can avert problems before they happen.
Chief diversity officers traditionally have backgrounds in human resources because managing employees is part of the job description — but that often meant being left out of bigger decisions. “If you sit in HR, you’re going to be lost in HR,” says Ronald Milon, chief diversity officer at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who reports directly to the school’s president. “But if you sit at the head table, you’re going to be able to work with designers… you’ll be able to make decisions that have an impact.”
The officers that tend to have the most impact are those whose top leaders know diversity and inclusion are linked to business. Ralph Lauren, for instance, has largely avoided the cultural missteps that many competitors face. It has long embedded voluntary diversity councils throughout the company who monitor everything from product design to recruitment.
Prada’s new diversity and inclusion advisory council, led by director Ava DuVernay and artist and activist Theaster Gates, sits outside of the brand to advise on things like talent development. (It is soon hiring a diversity and inclusion director for its New York office, according to a spokesperson.) The council also has a mandate to help the company stay abreast of issues around race, culture and politics and ensure it’s “more reflective” of the wider world, the representative adds.
The work of the diversity officer can help a brand build “social currency” so that even if a brand does make a mistake in the future, customers will more easily forgive it, says Jill Standish, senior managing director of global retail at Accenture.
The disappearing diversity officer
Many CEOs say they see a future when companies would not need a chief diversity officer since diversity and inclusion will naturally be a part of their DNA, says Standish. Placing someone in charge for now, however, provides focus.
“Right now, most chief diversity officers are saying, ‘It’s our job to make sure that this is part of the business, not just a sideline job,’” Standish says. “It has to be a part of what brands do.”