The streaming giant issues its first inclusion report tracking its diversity gains.
Linda Yvette Chávez and Marvin Lemus had no shortage of networks and streaming services interested in their bilingual comedy about three Mexican cousins trying to save the family’s taco shop as a steady stream of moneyed outsiders encroach upon their East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
Gentefied’s creators chose Netflix
That the first-generation Chicano writers felt at home at Netflix is the ultimate expression of the streaming giant’s ongoing diversity efforts. The company released its first inclusion report to chart its progress since Netflix’s painful wake-up call in 2018, when Chief Executive Reed Hastings fired the company’s chief communications officer for using a racial slur. Women now make up about half of its workforce (47%), including its senior leadership. Nearly half of its U.S. workforce and 42% of its leadership (directors and above) come from racial or ethnic minorities.
The number of Black employees in the U.S. doubled in the last three years, to 8% of the workforce and 9% of the company’s leadership. An analysis of Netflix senior leaders shows it is more diverse than its peers. Of the 21 most-senior leaders at Netflix, 47% are women and 23% people of color.
“We’ve made good progress over the last three years,” says Netflix’s first inclusion officer, Vernā Myers. “But let’s be clear—we’re not where we want to be, and we need to do better.”
It’s seeking to chart a different course in an industry that remains in the pallid hands of white men, despite an audience—and a society—that increasingly looks nothing like them. This glaring lack of diversity came into sharp focus when the #OscarsSoWhite social justice campaign that began in 2015 highlighted the disparity between the multicultural image the industry loves to project and its monochrome reality. Netflix, which rewrote the industry’s economic model, is working to hit the reset button on parity in a way that goes beyond virtue-signaling.
“Diversity is being invited to the party,” Myers, a veteran diversity consultant, once memorably said in explaining how companies can best build on the unique strengths and differences that people bring to the workplace. “Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
At the moment, there isn’t a lot of dancing going on for people of color. Of all the chair/chief executive positions at television studios and networks, 92% are occupied by white executives, 68% of them male, according to the most recent UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, released in February, the seventh in a series of annual reports to examine relationships between diversity and the bottom line in entertainment. The same imbalance permeates the creative suites, as well, the people most responsible for affecting what—and whom—the world watches.
“This is probably the best time it has ever been to be a Black executive in Hollywood. I think there is certainly a great deal more openness than there has ever been,” said Nina Shaw, a lawyer who has negotiated deals for Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe and Lupita Nyong’o. “But again, the bar is low when people think getting off the ground and kneeling looks like you’re standing up.”
Myers traces her calling to work on inclusion and equity to the night before her eighth birthday in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, “and I saw my father cry for the first time.” The noted culture expert, author and Harvard-trained lawyer joined Netflix in July 2018, after the company’s head of communications was fired for using the n-word in company meetings while discussing offensive language in comedy. She delivered her initial assessment to the company’s C-suite and its lone Black director at the time, former Ambassador Susan Rice, in a way that embraced the company’s trademark candor: “You just aren’t as good as you think you are.”
Netflix is trying to do better, from working with its recruiters to spot bias in the interview process and to look for job candidates in nontraditional ways, to creating opportunities for Black candidates, who are underrepresented in the tech industry, through programs like its Netflix Virtual HBCU Boot Camp, where 130 students and alumni of Norfolk State University will be paired with Netflix’s own data scientists, engineers and design team for 16 weeks. It’s also partnering with organizations like Techqueria and Ghetto Film School to help its managers strengthen their bonds with Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and Asian American candidates.
As Netflix works to diversify its workforce, Myers and her team are striving to create an environment where everyone feels at home and can see themselves reflected in its policies, like its gender-blind approach to parental leave. She talks about helping the global firm, with its 8,000 employees, develop what she calls an “inclusion lens,” or a way of embracing difference, looking for bias and considering a decision’s impact on underrepresented groups.
“What my team tries to do is to really give people a lens, right? Because inclusion can’t be in the room every moment and every day,” says Myers.
The most visible sign of its efforts are reflected through series like Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age story about a first-generation Indian American teenage girl, or Spike Lee’s film Da 5Bloods, about four Black vets who return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader or Selena: The Series, about the “Queen of Tejano’s” rise to fame.
Each builds on a foundation laid by one of Netflix’s earliest original series, Orange Is the New Black, which demonstrated that shows with a diverse cast could attract wide audiences in the U.S. and globally. Still, Netflix didn’t formalize this facet of its content strategy until 2015, when a group of Black employees produced a PowerPoint presentation obtained by The New York Times
The memo helped set the direction for Netflix’s originals, which came to include the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? and the Marvel superhero series, Luke Cage, whose Black title character has superstrength and unbreakable skin. It did deals with such prominent Black filmmakers as Lee and DuVernay and popular Black comedians like Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart. By 2018, it began promoting its growing collection of stories of the Black experience through a marketing campaign called Strong Black Lead.
As the streaming wars heated up, Netflix locked up two of the most successful Black showrunners in television with nine-figure overall deals—Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes and Black-ish’s Kenya Barris, who sources say plans to continue work on a documentary film about civil rights attorney Ben Crump for Netflix even as he prepares to launch a studio in partnership with ViacomCBS.
In an effort to widen the aperture of the types of stories that get told, Netflix began financing films from first-time directors. Its 2020 slate included eight female directors and 12 from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups—including Radha Blank’s acclaimed The Forty-Year-Old Version, about a struggling playwright turned rapper. Netflix has also started hosting networking events to help line producers find and hire crew members from underrepresented groups.
Netflix has been focused on cleaning its own house, whether it be working to increase the number of female engineers working in the product team or do a better job overall of recruiting Latinx candidates, who now account for a mere 5% of its leadership—a deficit that Myers calls “abysmal”—even before the brutal killing of George Floyd last spring forced the entertainment industry to examine its distorted portrayals of Black Americans, an event Hastings called “a tipping point in white consciousness.”
“I feel extremely proud of what we’ve done, a lot of times, and then other times I’m, like, ‘Whew! We have a lot to do,’” Myers said.
Indeed, Netflix’s C-suite is still dominated by white men, though the company last year added its first Black C-level executive, Bozoma Saint John—the dynamic veteran of Apple
But the door swings both ways, as competition intensifies for top talent in Hollywood. Channing Dungey, the former president of ABC Entertainment who was the first Black executive to run entertainment programming at a major network before leaping to Netflix in 2018, left in October to take over as chairman of Warner Bros. Television Group.
Netflix also has suffered backlash for canceling shows with women or minorities in the lead roles, including Hasan Minhaj’s satiric Patriot Act, which generated controversy when Netflix pulled an episode in which he criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Its decision to ax Jenji Kohan’s GLOW, a female-centered comedy about women wrestlers, and its reimagining of Norman Lear’s TV classic One Day At a Time, focusing on a newly single Latina mother raising her teen daughter and tween son, sparked social media blowback as white audiences saw themselves disappearing from the screen.
Each cancellation, says Myers, also opens up the opportunity for something new.
“When we take it down, we create more space for other possibilities,” Myers said. “And that, to me, is where we’re growing, is that our representation is going to get more and more authentic, more and more in depth.”
Take filmmaker and playwright David E. Talbert’s Christmas musical about a toymaker who rediscovers his creative spark when his granddaughter appears on his doorstep. The passion project, 20 years in the making, would fill what Talbert saw as a void in holiday celebrations for families of color: the opportunity to culminate a day filled with good food, family and fun with a movie featuring “anybody that looks like us.”
“The eyes of the studio heads, they lit up—and I thought they were clapping, cheering for me, but it was an eject button they were pushing,” said Talbert, who pitched the project for six months.
Netflix film chief Scott Stuber green-lighted Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story, which debuted in November, in time for Christmas, and landed in Netflix’s Top 10 Movies for a day or more in 92 countries.
“Netflix is not a national brand; it is a global brand,” said Talbert. “The world is filled with all shapes and sizes and cultures and communities. And that this film was not just for a community of people of color, it was for the world community that celebrates it as well.”
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