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Oscars So White? Welcome to the Film Industry!

davidlivermore | February 28th, 2016 No Comments

Guest post by Emily Livermore


As a first year film student, I’ve been watching the controversy surrounding the whiteness of the Oscars with great interest. Media is accessible all over the world by people from all backgrounds and cultures. When I spent time in Asia as a child, I was struck by seeing the same movie posters from the U.S., displayed on the sides of buses and billboards across cities in Asia. It was bizarre to watch thousands of Malaysians walking by life size images of Reese Witherspoon on a Legally Blonde poster. Back then however, the number of locals who actually saw the advertised movies was more limited, because it required the resources to go to a movie theatre or have a television.

Today, people from every age group, culture, and socio-economic status are watching the latest movies on their smart phones in any given environment. In doing so, they enter a world where white men are in charge, women are sexualized, and people of color are rarely seen much less heard. It is unlikely that Hollywood is consciously trying to create this kind of world any more than the Academy is intentionally trying to focus on awarding white actors. But the consequences are real and the Oscars look a whole lot like the world of Hollywood as a whole.

Consider just a few alarming statistics from this study:

  • 12% of the protagonists in the top 100 films of 2014 were women.
  • 4% of speaking roles done by women are Latinas.
  • You’re more likely to see an alien on screen than an Asian or Latina female,

It all seems somewhat unimportant when thinking about a single film or series but when you think about an entire industry built around an image where white males are in charge, women’s primary role is to be sexualized, and other ethnicities are virtually invisible, it becomes deeply problematic. Therefore, placing diverse people in key positions on and off the screen is more than just good and right…it’s literally creating the world in which we all live.

The field of social psychology sheds some light on all this. Our brains and bodies are hard wired to perceive people as friends or foes and we implicitly categorize people largely based on appearance, something researchers describe as unconscious bias. This explains the difficulty of obtaining equal representation for underrepresented groups on and off the screen. When directors are making casting decisions or when studios are looking for a director, their unconscious biases impact their decisions. Particularly if directors need to make a decision under high stress, unless they consciously manage their implicit biases, they will hire based on instinct, which will inevitably favor people like them.

Stereotype threat, another interesting idea I learned about last semester in a book by Fiske and Taylor is when the expectations of a certain group, positive or negative, determine how the group members behave in reality. For example, people often lack confidence in women’s ability to lead. Knowing this stereotype adds pressure to female directors and can negatively impact their performance. When hired, women may get caught directing dramas or romance films because these are the types of films that require less special effects and a smaller crew, resulting in fewer factors for the woman to lead.

One of favorite classes so far at USC was with Dr. Stacy Smith who is a leading researcher examining diversity in the media. Dr. Smith led an extensive study, which analyzed the characters and directors of the top 100 films from 2007-2014. Of the 779 directors of the films included, only 28 were women. In the most recent year of films examined (2014), 27% of the characters were non-white and 28% of the speaking characters were female. In the real world, half the world is female and 85% can be classified as non-white.

Smith addresses the recurring argument that there just aren’t enough diverse candidates in the film pipeline and the person most competent for the job has to be hired. When a scarcity of talent is assumed, it impacts the hiring of female directors in a couple of ways. First, when a position becomes available, the people who find out about it are usually in the same network of the people hiring. If the person who is hiring happens to be a white male, then the majority of his network and the people that interview for the job will be other white men. In addition, producers want the most competent individuals and assume they must know which women are competent for the role since they assume there are so few to even consider. In the interviews done for this portion of Smith and team’s research, 12% of the people interviewed (film executives, filmmakers, buyers, and sellers) brought up the fact that women may not be able to handle large productions, especially ones with large crews that she would then have to control. This uncertainty in women’s abilities or competence diminishes the number of females that get hired to direct. This is the same reason many women do not get to play certain roles on-screen. Women are less likely than men to be cast in action/adventure films. From a sample of the top 100 films in 2014, Smith’s research revealed that women only played 21.8% of the speaking characters in action/adventure films. This likely stems from the stereotypes people have about the appropriate role of women in general and the implicit biases of the casting directors.

As an aspiring film director, it’s a bit daunting to enter the male-dominated world of Hollywood. But I’m resolved to do whatever it takes. Someday, I hope to hire, cast, and direct a diverse set of actors who create award winning films. I want to use my time in film school to be the best filmmaker I can be. And tonight, I’ll be watching the Oscars with my classmates from around the world. Alongside our laughter and dialogue, our diversity will undoubtedly make the conversation richer. And together, we will be a generation of filmmakers that will create a film industry that more accurately displays the colorful, diverse mosaic of the world….and hopefully make the world a better place at the same time.

Emily Livermore is a film student at University of Southern California and is inspired by the power of film to communicate globally. She grew up getting to travel the world and views herself as a global citizen. When she’s not making films and studying, she loves to make music, go rock climbing, and explore LA with her friends.

The Dilemmas of a Traveling White Guy

davidlivermore | October 19th, 2015 33 Comments

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Last week I walked into the Mumbai airport to check-in for my flight to Abu Dhabi. I was flying economy but as I entered the queue, the airline representative immediately said, “Right this way sir.” And just like that, I was escorted to the posh lobby and check-in section for Etihad business class passengers.

This hardly sounds like a dilemma, right? I was all too grateful to avoid the long lines winding around to the economy counter. But I felt a bit hypocritical. So I stopped the guy and said, “Actually sir. I’m flying economy today so I can just check in there.” To which he emphatically protested that this was where I belonged.

Throughout the next several steps in the process—baggage check, security screening, passport control, boarding etc.—I was directed through special lines for people “like me” with no one questioning why I was there while holding an ECONOMY boarding pass. This is a stark contrast from what happens when I stand in the premier boarding lines in the U.S. and some of my fellow passengers take it on themselves to police whether an interloper has slipped into the wrong line.

Earlier this month, I was staying in a luxury hotel in Dubai and I was walking with a Jordanian woman who was attending the same conference as me. She was also staying at the hotel and as we walked together to return to our respective guest rooms, the hotel staff stopped her and said, “Excuse me ma’am. This section is only for hotel guests.” She pulled out her room key to verify that she was staying there while I showed them nothing. And as we walked away, she said to me, “They think I’m a prostitute.” What?! I was determined to go back and set the record straight or see if maybe it was just that they recognized me and not her. She laughed and said, “No, No…I’m very sure that’s what they thought. But don’t go talk to them about it. It will just cause me more grief.”

The examples keep going. Some of the hotels where I stay overseas have an x-ray machine you have to walk through as you enter the hotel…unless you look like me. I’m consistently waved around the machine while my Chinese, Indian, and Arab colleagues are directed to go through it. And I’m routinely given the best places to sit in restaurants and cafes and granted access to exclusive lounges I haven’t paid to visit. (And this is one reason my family loves traveling with me!). Before I know it, I start to think I deserve this kind of treatment.

I’m not automatically given these kinds of perks back home. But the benefits I receive are often as real.

  • Many of my African American friends worry about whether their sons will be shot dead because they “looked” like they were up to no good.
  • People with “white sounding names” on a resume are 50% more likely to receive an interview in a U.S. company.
  • The average “attractive male” will earn $250,000 more in his lifetime than the average “unattractive male” will.
  • And people with northern U.S. accents are perceived to be smarter and more in charge than people with southern accents are.

My daughter just started film school at USC. She tells me that we’re more likely to see an “other worldly character” in a mainstream movie than we are to see an Asian woman. Aliens have more visibility in the “progressive” world of Hollywood than Asian females do, even though Asians make up 60% of the global population. The on-screen representation of Latinas is similar.

I’m equally troubled by the more subversive forms of bias that benefit me. I was very conscious that I did nothing to merit the business class perks I received last week. I knew I had only paid for an economy ticket. But when I get called back for an interview or look back at my accomplishments, it’s harder to know how much of it I earned and how much of it was enhanced by implicit assumptions that I’m a competent, successful guy.

What’s a culturally intelligent way to respond to these dilemmas? My typical modus operandi in these articles is to offer 4-5 practical takeaways. I’m not short on suggestions for how to respond to these kinds of realities—don’t be a bystander, use privilege to open doors for others, work for systemic change, etc. I’ve written broadly about these points and we teach seminars on it. But I spend so much time researching, teaching, and writing about this topic that it sometimes starts to become depersonalized for me.

So for today, I’m compelled to delay my impulse to teach other people what they should do and instead, to simply sit with the dilemma for a bit. I refuse to become paralyzed with shame for something that is much bigger than me; but neither do I want to too quickly assuage my responsibility. I want to keep feeling the rub of my experience versus the experience of most people in the world. And I never want to lose sight of the shared humanity that exists among all of us—from the sheik to the taxi driver.

Ironically, as I sat at my gate waiting to board my flight to Abu Dhabi, I was staring at an advertisement that says “Brown is in”, with a picture of a Bollywood actress and a magnum ice cream bar. I applaud Unilever for this kind of ad campaign and I hope they expand it to include darker faces (the woman in the ad looks as white as she does brown). But either way, it’s going to take a lot more than an ad campaign or 4 simple steps to address the ways our implicit assumptions limit our potential as individuals, organizations, and the world at large.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back to strategizing ways that cultural intelligence can better address these dilemmas. But for today—I’m sitting with the tension to think critically about how to responsibly steward the privileges I inevitably receive most anywhere I go. And I invite you to do the same.


[Stats from the research on implicit bias at Harvard University and the Media, Diversity and Social Change initiative at University of Southern California]

What Diversity Matters Most?

davidlivermore | September 15th, 2015 2 Comments


I welcome the way many organizations have broadened the definition of “diversity” to go beyond skin color and nationality. Diversity of thought, work style, function, age, and much more are all relevant forms of difference. But not all diversity is equal.

The two forms of diversity that typically create the most challenges and opportunities for workplaces and schools are visible diversity and underrepresentation. That doesn’t mean that other forms of diversity are irrelevant. But two forms of diversity are most important.

1. Visible Diversity
First, visible diversity, which refers to those differences, which can immediately be observed when looking at someone. This includes differences that stem from ethnicity, gender, age, physical disabilities, and sometimes religion—such as a woman wearing a head covering. It’s very difficult to disguise these differences and as a result, they immediately influence the snap judgments that are made.

An individual with low CQ may claim that one’s visible differences are irrelevant to him. Did she do her job competently or not? But thousands of studies consistently confirm that we implicitly favor people who look similar to us. It’s not so much that we feel explicit hatred or dislike toward others, it’s that we reserve our admiration, sympathy and trust for our in-group.

What’s remarkable is how slight the similarity needs to be for a sense of trust and attraction to occur. Brett Pelham is renowned for his research on this tendency to favor people with even the slightest similarities to ourselves. Women are more likely to marry men who share the first letter of their maiden name. People named Louis are more likely to live in St. Louis, just as people named Paul, Mary, and Helen are more likely to live in St. Paul, St. Mary, and St. Helen. So when we see people who “look like us”, our default response is to view them as more trustworthy than individuals who look different from us.

This is why the research and training on unconscious bias is incredibly relevant for developing cultural intelligence. By becoming more aware of our unconscious biases, we can better manage our implicit assumptions.

2. Underrepresentation
The second form of diversity that is most relevant is any person from a culture that is underrepresented in a group, something Rosabeth Kanter calls tokenism. Tokens are members of a subgroup that represent less than 15 percent of the whole group and the disproportionate representation skews the ways they’re perceived. Being the only Southerner on a team of Northerners, the only marketer on a team of engineers, or the only “foreigner” in a department highlights cultural differences that might otherwise be overlooked. The dominant group will be inclined to assume that an unusual behavior by an individual from an underrepresented group is “cultural” but that might not be the case at all.

Humans of New York recently featured a young Pakistani woman who describes her experience studying at a small college in Minnesota:

“I never feel completely at ease because there are only three Pakistanis at my school, and I feel that everything I do reflects on my family, my religion, and my country. I feel pressured to always be exceedingly polite and well behaved, even when I don’t feel like it…[in Pakistan] I feel like my actions only reflect on me.”

Many individuals reflect both forms of diversity, such as being the only person of color on a team, and thereby finding yourself to be both visibly different and as one of the underrepresented team members. But underrepresentation is also a factor for people with cultural differences that aren’t as visible, such as a having a sexual orientation, ideology, socioeconomic status or level of tenure that deviates from the dominant norm in a group. An underrepresented group could also be a majority group that has limited power and voice such as what black South Africans experienced for many years. Underrepresentation is context-specific. Men are underrepresented among HR professionals and women are underrepresented among engineers. Each organization and team will need to consider what groups are underrepresented in their contexts.

What ultimately matters is not the source of diversity but the different values and perspectives that emerge from it. The more diversity you have within an organization, the more ideas there are for how things should be done. The differences that most strongly influence innovation, project management, and accomplishing objectives are the varied approaches for communicating, planning, and executing tasks. How do you align the values, expectations, and work styles of four generations, dozens of nationalities, and endless subcultures toward a universal vision and strategy for the organization? Answering that question is at the crux of our work on cultural intelligence because our interest has been to improve effectiveness working across cultural value differences. And it’s why our CQ Assessments include feedback on one’s individual cultural value orientations.

A broadened understanding of diversity is useful. Just beware. If diversity includes everything, it ends up meaning nothing. Organizations that intentionally develop a strategy for drawing on the insights and perspectives of staff who are visibly different and underrepresented have a key advantage for knowing how to effectively serve culturally diverse populations.

**Portions of this article excepted from David Livermore’s upcoming book Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation through Diversity (AMACOM, releases early 2016). The book features our latest research on the connections between diversity, CQ, and innovation.

I get it. I’m biased. So now what?

davidlivermore | September 15th, 2014 5 Comments

Admit it. You like some cultures more than others.

• Headscarves—Yes or No?
• Senior Citizens—Out of Touch or Insightful?
• Southern Accent—Annoying or Charming?

It might not be these differences. But we all have implicit assumptions about certain cultures. And those preferences profoundly influence our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. We’re all biased. And we need bias to survive. It’s the way our brains are wired to alert us to danger. But whether we act upon a bias is another thing altogether.

Unconscious bias training is all the rage these days. Left unchecked, unconscious biases are detrimental to leading effectively in the 21st Century—whether it’s hiring, marketing, or strategic planning. So companies, governments, and universities are investing millions of dollars in teaching staff about the implicit preferences they have for certain groups of people. In 2013, more than 13,000 of Google’s 46,000 employees attended unconscious bias training to expose staff to ways they unwittingly favor certain types of people based upon their upbringing, experiences, and values. Dow Chemical, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Novartis are also seeing this as one of the most important ways to equip their increasingly diverse workforces; and governments and military forces have jumped on the bandwagon too. A great deal of our work at the Cultural Intelligence Center is working with these kinds of organizations to integrate unconscious bias training with building a more culturally intelligent and inclusive organization.

Awareness of one’s own culture and the potential biases one may have toward others is the first step toward improving your effectiveness with diverse colleagues and customers. But it’s not enough. Awareness doesn’t automatically lead to cross-border results. The inevitable question after unconscious bias training is “Now what? I know I’m biased and so is everyone else. So what am I supposed to do about it?”

I’m a huge supporter of training people about unconscious bias. But it can’t stop there. You have to develop cultural intelligence to move from awareness to intercultural effectiveness. Here are a few ways to do so:

1. Identify your blind spots
If you haven’t been exposed to the groundbreaking work on unconscious bias, start there. Take one of the tests at Project Implicit and consider which groups of people you find most difficult to trust. How might that difficultly connect to a deeply rooted bias? Don’t be too quick to answer. And read Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, the best book I’ve read on this fascinating subject.

2. Train yourself to think differently
Simply becoming aware of a bias reduces its power to shape our decisions. The conscious side of the brain is very capable of doing the necessary work to train our minds to think differently. Look for where the bias emerges in your thinking and decision-making. Stop yourself when resorting to an unchecked assumption and choose to think differently. And use the power of repetition to regularly remind you of your otherwise overlooked biases.

3. Create practices to prevent bias
CQ Strategy, one of the four capabilities consistently found in those who are culturally intelligent, includes intentional planning in light of cultural differences. This includes developing strategies that account for your default preferences. Have names removed from resumes so you can initially screen candidates without knowing their gender or ethnicity. And tap the power of a diverse team to assess people more holistically. For example, if you have a bent toward hiring outgoing people and overlooking their work experience, involve a co-worker who has more bent toward hiring people based upon their skills and experience. And together, determine the best candidate.

4. Beware your gut
Many point to the gut as a shockingly reliable mechanism for decision-making. And it can be. Our subconscious has been programmed over time and when assessing a familiar situation, the gut often leads to a better result than spending hours reviewing pros and cons. But when the decision involves people and situations from different cultural backgrounds, it’s dangerous to rely upon your gut. Draw upon research-based findings about tendencies among certain cultural groups. Consult with others and consciously suspend trusting your gut. We don’t know yet what happened in the Ferguson, Missouri case that led to a police officer shooting a minor last month. But it’s worth asking how the “gut” guided everyone’s behavior.

5. Develop your CQ™
For organizations that have done very little training on diversity or working cross-culturally, start with cultural awareness. The kinds of things highlighted through unconscious bias training or through assessments that measure ethnocentrism or cultural orientations can be an ideal way to get at this. But once you’ve built awareness, discover which intercultural skills need the most attention.

Developing the skills to work effectively across cultures has always been the focus of our work. We’re working with organizations around the world to provide an integrated training plan that starts with unconscious bias, moves toward cultural intelligence training, and leads toward building an inclusive, culturally intelligent organization.

Cultural intelligence is not simply a new label for cultural sensitivity or cultural competence. It’s a form of intelligence that is proven to correlate with how effectively you work and relate across cultures. Assess your development in the four CQ capabilities—CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Strategy, and CQ Action—and develop an action plan for addressing the areas that need the most improvement.

Intercultural conflicts and discrimination are rarely deliberate choices that are maliciously intended. They simply creep into everyday decisions. But as you account for your implicit biases and develop a plan for improving your CQ, you’ll find you can navigate through most any cultural situation with both respect and effectiveness.

My 1 hour interrogation at U.S. Customs

davidlivermore | November 22nd, 2010 6 Comments


Yesterday I was traveling by car from Toronto to New York to visit my family. Driving across one of the bridges between the U.S. and Canada is something I’ve been doing my entire life. My parents moved to the U.S. shortly before I was born and several times a year, we traveled back to visit family in Canada. The most I’ve ever been asked to do at these inspection points is open the trunk or one time, they even asked to see under the hood of my car. But the longest delays are usually just waiting for other cars to get through the line. As a kid, I always wondered what happened over in those stark, cement customs buildings where a few lone travelers were sent while the rest of us went on our way across the bridge.

This week I found out. The questioning at my car went on for several minutes. Then the officer put my passport in a red leather bag and directed me to drive my car over to the inspection area where I would be further questioned. I was taken into the customs hall and I looked with dread upon how full the room was of other detained travelers.

Of about 40 other travelers in the room, I was the only fair skinned one there. I knew this wasn’t going to go fast. And I noticed how this situation immediately put me on the defensive. I don’t have time for this. I’m no threat here. In fact, I just spent time with the Department of Justice and Homeland Security teaching some of them about cultural intelligence. Can’t I just go on my way?

My name was called and I was interrogated about all kinds of things: Where do you live? Who owns the car you’re driving? Why do you travel so much? How much money do you have with you? What exactly do you do when you travel to these places? Where’s your family? Can they ask me all these things? I wondered. Meanwhile, I see an officer take my car keys and head toward my vehicle. I wasn’t invited!

I was trying to use my cultural intelligence in how I responded to the questions. I looked them in the eye. I tried to disguise my defensive feelings. I answered as directly and to the point as possible. And as much as I wanted to lighten up the conversation with some humor and personal conversation, I didn’t think that would bode well for me.

About an hour later, I was on my way. Before leaving, I asked my primary interrogator, “Might I ask—Was this just a random stop?” He said, “Yes. Totally random. Most of these are.”

I’m not even sure mine really was but it was really hard to imagine that most of the people in the room were just randomly stopped. Being an effective customs official is harder than ever. They need to keep our nations secure and look for suspicious activity. I’m sure many people are detained for suspicious activity or for outright violations. But how do the assumptions of a customs officials—especially if they aren’t aware of them—impact which people they randomly check? Biases based upon people’s appearances are inevitable for all of us. But acting upon those biases is something we can control. Food for thought…

But the real lesson learned: While impatiently waiting in the line of cars waiting to go through, I noticed a new inspection lane opened up. So I darted out of my line into that one. Assuming my delay was “truly” random, it looks like my “no delay” line cost me an hour. But my family will be the first to tell you, I’ll probably never stop waging bets on which line is moving fast and inevitably make us wait longer because of my efficient way of keeping us moving!

Does political correctness promote or hinder CQ?

davidlivermore | May 20th, 2010 3 Comments

I often wince when I hear managers from outside the U.S. who are committed to the values of cultural intelligence frequently make reference to the “black man”, the “gal” at the office, or the “marketing guys”. (Of course I hear this plenty from U.S. managers too but that’s another story for right now).

I prefer more inclusive language like an “African American man,” (assuming it’s someone in the U.S.) a “woman” at the office, and the “marketing personnel”.

But these same managers who may use what I consider to be less than ideal words to promote the values of cultural sensitivity and effectiveness are usually as passionate about inclusion, diversity, and cultural sensitivity as I am. In fact, I was recently with a group of global managers who laughed at my constant care to say things like “people of color” and “men and women”. One of them said, Sometimes you Americans are so caught up with your political correctness that it impedes having a real conversation about the issues of inclusion and diversity. And by the way Dave—are you not also a person of color in some way yourself?!”

As a white, privileged male, I’m not going to abandon what I think is more respectful, inclusive language. And I don’t think we have to have one without the other—more inclusive, respectful language OR honest conversation about inclusion and diversity. But their point is well taken. Sometimes our en vogue terms for how we refer to one another have us walking on egg shells to avoid offending anyone and may keep us from having honest, frank interactions about the ways we’re struggling to figure this all out in our own relationships and work teams.

I’m struck by the abundance of diversity training we’ve had in most North American organizations over the last decade. Yet I wonder how much has really changed in workplace behavior as a whole in terms of multicultural interactions. Most research indicates that prejudiced, conflict-laden perspectives continue to hover over most culturally diverse teams. Using respectful, inclusive language is a start. But might our politically correct terms sometimes mask the ongoing biases and frustrations that lurk beneath our polite labels?

Managers who want to truly promote an inclusive work environment need to find constructive, appropriate ways to honestly discuss the implicit biases that exist—including their own. Rather than pretending we’re color blind, let’s face our implicit biases. We all have them. Not convinced? Check out these fascinating, implicit association tests researched from Harvard. You’ll be hard pressed to demonstrate that you’re bias-free. While bias and prejudice is inevitable, acting upon them isn’t. The first step is honest acknowledgement of the cultural groups that most significantly challenge us and then consciously choosing to stop from acting upon those biases.

Academic research has continually validated the bottom line benefits for companies that promote inclusion and diversity. I’m not ready to toss aside a new and improved vocabulary as a part of being a culturally intelligent organization that promotes these values. But more significant work needed is beneath the surface so that our language reflects the ways we think and behave as well.

I’m off to meet a follicly challenged friend to discuss undocumented workers living in a nearby under-resourced neighborhood…