Whitney Davis has spent the bulk of her career at CBS, starting fresh out of college with an entry-level role with the “CBS Evening News” weekend edition. But after fifteen years at the network, she’s called it quits, and very publicly.
“CBS has a white problem,” she says.
This is the key takeaway from her barn-burner of an exit interview, just published in Variety.
The former executive says she’d become convinced that the investigation into the sexual-misconduct allegations against then-CEO Leslie Moonves is not going to trigger necessary changes in how CBS operates.
She’d cooperated with investigators in good faith, she says. “In that heart-wrenching two-hour interview, I talked about a workplace fraught with systemic racism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.” When the final memo, missing vital testimony, was leaked to the media, she felt betrayed. “By sharing my experience, I hoped to shed desperately needed light on the truth that CBS, sadly, doesn’t value a diverse workplace.”
Davis describes an environment of casual racism, discrimination, gender bias, and harassment, and wrestles out loud with her inability to advocate for herself over the years.
Some of her stories are textbook micro-aggressions, which she found demeaning.
“There were two black women working in production on the broadcast — myself and another. We both held the lowest-ranking positions on staff. Not uncommon in most predominantly white institutions, most of our white colleagues had trouble keeping our names straight. As a joke, they began to call us We-Dra — short for Whitney and Deidra.”
While she thrived in some assignments, she was passed over for one important job which went to a less qualified white man.
Ultimately, she hit a dead end when she rotated into the entertainment division, where she was unable to make headway diversifying the slate of talent on the network as the company’s director of entertainment diversity and inclusion. “I managed CBS on Tour, the Writers Mentoring Program and the Directing Initiative, and helped to produce the annual CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase,” she writes. “The showcase is considered the best program of its kind in Hollywood, and has helped launch the careers of stars such as Kate McKinnon, Tiffany Haddish and Hasan Minhaj — though not on CBS.”
Kameka M. Dempsey, a consultant and former vice president in global talent management for BlackRock, says Davis’s words have a familiar ring. “The environment that Ms. Davis describes is similar to environments I have seen in various industries, not just entertainment/news,” she wrote on LinkedIn. “The reality is that this article is a classic example of inclusion being the hard work that is not being done in most organizations.”
You can’t hire your way out of a culture plagued by micro-inequities, discrimination, and bias, she says.
“Many leaders are happy to support a variety of diversity programs and recruiting endeavors, but it is inclusion that shifts behavior and organizational culture once people arrive,” Dempsey writes. “Inclusion is also the hard work that most shy away from because it challenges norms, many of which are embedded in organizational culture for decades.”
It’s exactly as hard as it sounds.
“Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of confusion about what inclusion is,” Dnika J. Travis, Vice President, Women of Color Research & Center Leader for Catalyst tells RaceAhead. She was one of the three researchers who contributed to an extensive report called “The Day-to-Day Experiences of Workplace Inclusion and Exclusion.” Culture change requires commitment from the very top and a plan to make sure leaders at every level are prepared to handle the human stuff, like creating an environment of psychological safety. “It’s one of the responsibilities of creating a diverse workforce.”
The researchers found that the cost of feeling excluded was cumulative, and ultimately, very painful.
“Most people can easily recall the stories about feeling dismissed at work, and they build up over time,” said Travis. The problem is that experiences of inclusion and exclusion often happen many times during the course of a workday. For women and people of color, that sense of feeling emotionally whipsawed becomes exhausting. “Bottom line, when inclusion works, you don’t see it. But when you feel excluded, it’s all you feel.”
And that’s partly why that despite some important achievements, it’s all Whitney Davis seems to feel now.
“I never went to HR to report the trauma and bias I experienced because I didn’t trust the process,” says Davis. “There was always the voice in my head of the powerful news executive telling me to ‘have thicker skin.’ I honestly thought if I just stuck it out, it would get better. Things would change if I just worked harder. They never did.”
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|Catching up with Dr. David Dao|
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|Handling the diversity question in a job interview|
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|The Chronicle of Higher Education|