Insights — We Need to Talk about Diversity in Higher Ed Marketing

We Need to Talk about Diversity in Higher Ed Marketing

Thought leadership / October 22, 2022
Jason Simon
Jason Simon

We have a few sayings that have stuck over the past several years as we've evolved our agency, added services and talent, and participated in a lot of self-reflection. Among those frequently repeated is Senior Research Analyst Hira Siddiqui's "be soft on people but hard on ideas" and Strategist Eryka Wallace's "let's create a brave (not just safe) space." Those words say a lot about two of my thoughtful and talented colleagues, and they say even more about the intention of our agency. Since 2020, we've committed to do better, be more deliberate in creating the kind of agency we want to be, and make necessary changes to shape a more diverse and inclusive SimpsonScarborough. Looking at our agency today, I can see how those efforts have led to positive change. However, I know we have so much we can and plan to do.

Last fall, we shared our biennial Higher Ed CMO Study findings. During the webinar, one attendee raised a question about the racial demographics of the CMOs we surveyed, and we, unfortunately, did not ask this crucial question of our respondents. In addition, our team (and others) noted the lack of diversity in the panel of CMOs that joined us for the post-webinar discussion. We pledged to change. 

In our 2022 Higher Ed MarCom Professional Development and Salary Study, we included a question about race as a part of our demographic questions. And again, we found ourselves in a similar position as we reviewed preliminary findings internally (in a brave space). Why, of 875 respondents, did we have a little more than 100 non-white respondents? Did we reach enough people? Did we need to be in the field longer? Are our lists high enough quality? Perhaps, to all those questions. But there is another reality at play.

There is not enough diversity among marketing communications professionals, and it's worse in higher ed. We must change that or face the consequences of being out of touch, undervalued, and irrelevant.

According to a study by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) that examined 747 client-side marketers and more than 23,000 individual marketers, African-American and Hispanic professionals each make up just 7% of marketing roles. According to the ANA Member CMO study, African Americans have just 3% of CMO or CMO-equivalent level positions; Hispanics have 5% of those positions. Yet African Americans and Hispanics account for 13% and 18% of the total U.S. population, respectively, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

In good news, recent data from McKinsey and ANA show that women represent nearly 60% of professional marketing roles and account for 53% of director-level or higher positions. Yet, while 52% of Chief Marketing Officers are women, only 13% of all CMOs have racially diverse backgrounds (a number that declined from 2019 to 2020). ANA's 2021 Diversity Report showed that of women who are CMOs, just 4% are Latina, 5% are Black women, and 6% are Asian women.

Despite the many professed ideals and values, things aren't much better in higher education. According to a McKinsey study, as of 2020, 88% of not-for-profit colleges and universities have full-time faculties that are less diverse than the U.S. population. That number rises to 99% for institutions defined as R1. And while there isn't an organization that exclusively tracks marketing roles in higher ed, a recent CUPA-HR report showed that while 60% of employees in External Affairs are women, just 13% are racial/ethnic minorities, and just 6% are Black or Hispanic women. (By the way, it's not much better in fundraising where, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, just 9% of professionals are people of color, and only 4% are African American.)

So what can we—as higher ed marketing communications professionals—do about it? Here are some initial thoughts:

Institutional leadership needs to understand that this is a business (and survival) priority. 

While the demographic cliff is well documented (and weaponized to some extent), the reality is that it is only part of a complex picture. By 2036, more than 50% of US high school graduates will be people of color. And as Oregon State's Jon Boeckenstedt pointed out in this terrific Chronicle of Higher Ed essay, white high school graduates are no longer the majority as of 2022. If authentically communicating to and serving an increasingly diverse student population isn't enough of a business motivator, your institution's leaders should know that the bright minds at McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group provide direct correlations in financial performance and revenue at companies with above-average diversity in their employee and leadership makeup.  

Do the hard work on your campus

All the tactical marketing, social storytelling, or perfunctory actions through photography or other visual choices will mean nothing if your campus is not committed to substantive change. There is a lot of good work going on across campuses. Marketers must be passionate about upholding the goals and efforts of campus DEI leadership, amplifying student voices, honestly addressing troubled histories, and collaborating across the institution. And it's not just about recruiting new minority students and faculty but about regularly retaining and celebrating those voices and talents.

Recruit, retain, and elevate diverse talent on your teams

We must make recruiting diverse candidates for campus marketing roles a priority. Many RFPs ask us to provide diversity statements, yet the teams that review them rarely reflect the diversity of our team. Work with your H.R. colleagues to determine channels to recruit talent and build a long-term pipeline for diverse marketing professionals. This can begin with internships on your campus and within your department.

On a recent episode of the Confessions of a Higher Ed CMO podcast, Wheaton's Anice Barbosa gave some terrific tips on building more equitable practices in student hiring. And your hiring must be more than student workers and interns. Hire talented, diverse, experienced professionals. Mentor and support those qualified, diverse, young professionals. Adjust your requirements for experience (or other factors) that might limit your ability to attract talent in equitable ways. Settle for nothing less - these professionals will not only bring their talent but will also push your team to answer new questions and set new expectations for yourself and others on campus. This is undoubtedly an area SimpsonScarborough has benefited from as we settle into our brave space and push our assumptions. Look for other communities to recruit talent, like Hue, WhereAreTheBlackDesigners, BlacksWhoDesign, Black Marketers Association of America, and LatinxsWhoDesign

Sit down. Be humble

Writing this article was a tough assignment for me. I'm hardly an expert, and I also recognize my privilege as the white male CEO of the agency. This privilege allows me to help facilitate these brave spaces to help our team learn and improve. In the past few years, we have hired professionals to lead our team in learning Dominant Culture Norms and other shared reading, podcasts, and learning opportunities.

Admittedly, we have not done as much as I'd like at SimpsonScarborough (much less with our clients). We must learn more about diversity in media channels and build intentional partnerships with ethnic media outlets. We must consider identity, diversity, and inclusivity in all its forms, and stay humble in acknowledging our intention to improve. We're making diversity and inclusion a central part of our long-term business goals. And we have more planned.

As stated above, we are hard on ideas and are intentional about creating brave spaces to help us learn and do better. And I hope that higher ed works together to help create a more equitable and diverse industry from which we can all benefit. 

Jason is CEO & Partner at SimpsonScarborough. Before coming to SimpsonScarborough in 2014, Jason led the marketing communications teams for the University of California System and North Carolina State University. In 2013, he was named Higher Education Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association. Known for being our chief Peloton evangelist, he and his wife, Meredith, live in Oakland CA with their daughter, Amelia. Learn more about Jason here.

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