Robotics Barbie joins corporate chorus calling for diversity

Washington • Robotics Barbie is a lab-coat-and-glasses-wearing robotics engineer, a far cry from the 1992 “math class is tough” version.

Appropriately, she’s also part of a Mattel Inc initiative to promote new jobs for girls, in line with a public pledge the company made earlier this year.

In February, Mattel senior VP Lisa McKnight joined 40 executives onstage at the Makers women’s diversity conference to make a range of commitments toward improving women’s professional lives.

McKnight promised 10 such dolls this year; advertising group UM said it would double the number of women of colour at every level of its organisation; LinkedIn said it will add job coaching for returning mothers.

These kinds of public diversity pledges have in recent years become a kind of progressive calling card for companies looking to keep and attract young talent.

There’s a promise for every interest group, with a wide range of commitment and accountability.

Some 300 CEOs have signed on to the CEO Action coalition, which seeks to share successful diversity initiatives. Many members of that group are also part of Paradigm for Parity and, which have similar missions to increase all forms of workplace diversity.

The 30% Coalition, 3% Movement, and 2020 Women on Boards ask signees for a commitment to specific levels of female representation.

Others focus singly on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, or ethnicity, veterans or the disabled, or in a specific field such as the Tech Inclusion Pledge.

“There are strong social norms right now around committing to these kinds of goals,” said Dolly Chugh, an associate professor of management and organisation at the NYU Stern School of Business.

She has studied how public pressure changes diversity behaviour. “If you’re among the minority of CEOs who isn’t signing the pledge or promise, you’re violating a norm and norm violations make people very uncomfortable.”

By most measures, two decades of increased efforts to improve diversity have slowed or stalled. Parity for women in boardrooms is still at least three decades away.

Women and people of colour are dramatically underrepresented in top management. At the CEO level, white men still occupy 95% of the seats.

In some specific areas, though, public commitments have prompted change. Formed in 2011, the 3% Movement was named after the ratio of women creative directors in the advertising world to men. (They now make up 29%.)

The 2020 Women On Boards and the 30% Club also said they’re close to success. (Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP, is the founding chairman of the US 30% Club, and Bloomberg LP has participated in several diversity pledges.)

The more the merrier, says Shannon Schuyler, who heads up corporate responsibility at PricewaterhouseCoopers. The professional services company started CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion a year ago. Almost 90% of the organisations either have or are planning to add unconscious bias training.

“This is about the CEO saying that they will put themselves out there, to really be able to make the change happen,” Schuyler said. “They’re the ones we believe can move the lever.”

An important aspect of any pledge is that it be tangible and measurable, said Mark Lipscomb, who heads up human resources at 23andMe Inc.

The consumer genetic testing company also pledged in February to raise the share of women in its science and technology jobs to roughly 50% from 38% today.

“If you look at our overall gender diversity, the company is very strong in pretty much every area except engineering,” Lipscomb said.

“I didn’t want to do a pledge that was just soft and fluffy. For us, this is a hard one, but it’s also measurable, so we can see if we’re getting better.”

Robotics Engineer Barbie, which comes with a humanoid robot and laptop, will partner with the Tynker game platform and Black Girls CODE to encourage girls to embrace computer science, according to Mattel.

The company said it’s introduced 17 dolls focused on careers and female role models, more than the 10 promised.

Among the other companies on the Makers stage with specific goals included Adobe Systems Inc, which promises gender pay parity at all locations by the end of this year, and is at least 80% there already, said Donna Morris, executive VP of the customer and employee experience at the maker of Photoshop.

AT&T Inc and L’Oreal SA promised at Makers to improve their representation of women in their advertisements, as measured by progress on the score- card generated by #SeeHer, an organisation that has its own pledge to improve the portrayal of women by 20%, as measured by viewers, by 2020.

So far, 70 companies with US$45 billion (RM181.8 billion) in advertising spending have signed up for that goal.

“People really, really, really value keeping a promise,” said Ayelet Gneezy, an associate professor at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied how people react to promises honoured and broken.

“It’s really about the value of trust-worthiness and reliability,” Gneezy said. “So, there’s also a risk to not keeping the promise. I don’t really care what they tried to do, I care what they did.” — Bloomberg