Some advice from a good little Indian girl

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I got rejected from one of the first agencies I ever interviewed at due to ‘cultural fit’.

At the end of my next agency interview, they asked if there was anything I wanted to add. “Yup”, I said. “I know I answered all the questions well. But you should know, I’m not just a good little Indian girl”.

In hindsight that sounds a bit weird. But all I was trying to ask the man who interviewed me was to shake off the unconscious bias that we all have. He knew the stereotypes and so did I. (Come to mention it, so do you.)

Anyway, it worked. I landed my first job as an Account Exec and was thrilled. What followed was a lot of piss taking about not being a ‘good little Indian girl’ but I could handle that. It was in jest and I was a peer. My gran’s sarcasm training also helped.

I tell that story a lot, but it took me a while to fully understand the boundary there that I’d deliberately broken. I didn’t want to see it and didn’t want to believe it. But looking back I landed in an agency that didn’t represent anyone I’d grown up with – or any minority for that matter. I started to wonder why I didn’t call everyone by their surname, and worse, I tried to morph. Herd behaviour can be a dangerous thing.

If you’re reading this you’ll probably already know people march towards the status quo. Nothing changes if no-one changes. Some are blaming this institutional homogeneity for the blatant lack of diversity in advertising (agencies and communications alike).

But why are we still running ads that don’t reflect our audience? Are we really still filling research groups with people that represent us? Are our clients just as uniform as the people making the ads? And why is it taking intermediaries putting diversity on a pitch checklist for us all to notice?

All our audiences should be demanding we reflect our diverse society – not just people like them, but everyone. Charities are often faced with the dilemma between what works vs what’s right. When you know a certain type of image will get you more click-throughs, likes and income it might be very hard for you to lead the charge in terms of representation that reflects modern Britain, not just your traditional audiences.  One thing you might not know about Channel 4’s second Superhumans campaign was all their research told them people don’t really like seeing stumps. So, instead, they deliberately threw more in.

The funny thing is, all this talk of diversity is starting to look a lot like yet more herd behaviour. Talking about normalising diversity is in vogue, but just talking doesn’t make it any easier to actually implement in real life.

Here are three things that might just make all the difference:

  1. Think beyond your normal recruitment channels. Talent is hiding in plain sight but doesn’t know how to find you.
  2. Challenge your unconscious bias by surrounding yourself with people that aren’t just like you. Reverse mentoring could be a great way to do this. Have a sense of humour about your differences.
  3. Walk in someone else’s shoes when carrying out research. You won’t understand diversity or privilege until you do. Empathy can and will unlock creativity.

I can tell you now, forcing people to ‘do diversity’ isn’t going to work. I have a lot of fun with it. Embarrassing our MD by asking him which tone he thought I was on the Pantone tea chart in the kitchen was hilarious. But I can also laugh with my clients about why they always turn to me when they talk about women in the workplace, as if looking for some kind of virtual thumbs up. Humour can break boundaries quicker. Just ask Maltesers.

Being different from the rest of my Management team is a strength. We each bring something unique to the agency’s culture and we’re better for it.

And now I’m aware of my privilege. So perhaps what I should have said back in that first interview was I’m an Indian girl – and that’s good.