Good for Marissa

26 Oct

You know the optimistic (or in denial, depending on your perspective) tendency to assume that the exception is the rule?

As in, if Obama is president, then racism is a thing of the past. If Ellen DeGeneres has a successful talk show and career, then homophobia is over. And if Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer can have a baby on the job, then workplace discrimination against pregnant women is kaput (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/opinion/sunday/why-women-hide-their-pregnancies.html).

It would be nice. And it is progress. Yet.

It’s telling that we can still count these individuals (on one hand) who supposedly represent the post-ism era. Note the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)’s victorious people-counting:

At the launch of the 2012-2013 television season, GLAAD estimates that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) scripted characters represent 4.4% of all scripted series regular characters on the five broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox, and NBC. This is an increase from last year, with 31 series regular characters identified as LGBT.  Additionally GLAAD counted 19 recurring characters on primetime broadcast scripted series.

The number of scripted LGBT series regulars found on mainstream cable is up to 35 in the upcoming season.  GLAAD counted 26 additional recurring characters on cable (http://greginhollywood.com/glaad-tv-report-highest-percentage-of-lgbt-characters-on-broadcast-television-ever-74969).

If you’re interested, 35 is 4.4% of almost 800. And if you try flipping that count to inventory all the heterosexual characters on TV, you’d get overwhelmed by the sheer volume.

This isn’t to downplay the progress we’re making against traditions and norms of exclusion and inequity (although, if we counted the number of those LGBT characters that really play to stereotypes, perhaps our yield wouldn’t be as much to brag about).

And it’s not to disparage counting. One of the issues with diversity and inclusion work is assessment. Numbers alone don’t do the job: numbers won’t tell us about people’s experiences and perceptions, and all the “soft” but real factors that tell us what change we’re really experiencing. But qualitative metrics along are just as flawed: stories and feelings are too easily ascribed to the individual to serve as a shared basis for measuring progress. In any serious diversity endeavor, we need both numbers and stories to hold ourselves accountable for realizing equity and inclusion.

And how many is enough? How many is the critical tipping point when we’re no longer counting individuals, but experiencing a consistent, systemic shift in equity and inclusion?

My guess is: too many to count. That’s a worthwhile goal to shoot for.

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