Earlier this month, I was given the opportunity to attend the 3% Conference. In its sixth year, this year’s conference was centered around a single theme–Beyond Gender. While the name and history of the event speak to the rise of women in our industry, this year’s theme was broader in how it defined minority.This year, it wasn’t only about the need for more women in our industry, but rather, the need to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce, one that accounts for different genders, races, sexual orientations, religions, disabilities, and numerous other unique traits. As noted by 3% founder, Kat Gordon, “diversity of thought comes from diversity of people,” and having a diverse workforce allows for more impactful work than well-received work.

As a minority woman, this year’s theme was especially significant for me. I come from what I would consider a pretty inclusive agency, and I’ve never felt that I’ve been outwardly discriminated against, whether it be for my gender, race, or beliefs. That said, it’s still disheartening to look up at the senior level team and see very few minorities. We have a number of women at the C-level, but there’s a stark lack of racial diversity at that level. people.”

I walked into this conference with an expectation on the types of panels and topics I’d be listening in on; panels that covered how to break the barrier and keynotes that described personal struggles and accomplishments. While these expectations were contentedly met, it was Luvvie Ajayi’s keynote opener that really made me question how I perceived privilege and its influence on a diverse workforce.

Titled “The Many Faces of Privilege,” Ajayi’s interactive segment kicked off with ten diverse, pre-selected attendees standing shoulder to shoulder on stage. Ajayi instructed them to place their right hand on their neighbor’s shoulder before providing them with a series of prompts:

-Take a step forward if you are right-handed.

-Take a step forward if English is your first language.

-Go forward if one or both of your parents have a college degree.

-Move forward if you can walk into a drugstore and easily find Band-Aids that match your skin tone.

-Step forward if you studied the culture of your ancestors in grade school.

-Take a step backward if you’ve ever been made fun of or bullied for something beyond your control.

-Move forward if you can assume physical access to most buildings.

-Step back if anyone in your family left their homeland, not of their free will.

-Step forward if you can see yourself readily represented in mainstream media.

-Move back if you think twice about calling the cops when trouble happens.

-Move back if you’ve ever skipped a meal or gone hungry because you didn’t have enough money.

-Step back if you suffer from a physical illness.

-Step back if you suffer from an invisible illness.

-Take a step back if you go by a different name in public because people can’t pronounce your given name.

-Take a step forward if you always assumed you’d go to college.

-Step forward if your religious community wouldn’t exclude you for your sexuality.

-Step forward if your religious community wouldn’t exclude you because of your race or ethnicity.

-Move forward if you have at least one stamp in your passport.

After the final prompt, Ajayi asked the participants to observe their place on the stage in comparison to the others. While some were standing where they expected, most were surprised to find themselves either way in the back or right up in front. Ajayi herself noted that as a Nigerian American woman, she expected to find herself in the back and was surprised when she ended up in the middle ahead of one of her white classmates.

As a minority woman, I myself expected to end up somewhere close to the back, however, as I followed along with the exercise, I was quickly reminded that being a minority didn’t exclude me from privilege. I found myself closer to the front than I anticipated, and this forced me to truly recognize the unique privileges that have provided me with certain advantages that propelled me to where I am today.

What was perhaps the most surprising was how few participants were left holding onto their neighbor’s shoulder. One participant pointed out, “As you break apart from one another, I was struck that I literally couldn’t see the people behind me. I didn’t know how far back they were. They were just gone from view.” As an observer, I was able to see how quickly this happened as well as the level of ease at which people let go of those in front or behind them.

This exercise was clearly eye-opening for many, and it encouraged us in the audience to take a deeper dive into the perceived dichotomy between diversity and privilege and what we can do to ensure we’re addressing the issues preventing us from creating a more diverse workspace.

We need to be able to address the struggles and disadvantages of those standing behind us and work together to bridge the gaps to create a fully inclusive and diverse workforce. Those who find themselves “at the front of the stage” need to make a conscious effort to turn around and figure out how to bring those behind them with them. Creating a more diverse environment cannot be a personal effort, but rather a group effort by those at all levels of privilege to ensure we’re working towards a common goal.

On the industry level, this means not only hiring diverse candidates, but also actively empowering them to speak up without fear of consequence or retribution. A diverse workforce only goes so far without open communication.

As Ajayi noted in her closing remarks, the results of this exercise have changed dramatically over the past 10 years, as the gaps have gotten smaller. However, there’s still quite the way to go before we can all comfortably stand side by side and embrace the differences that will ultimately help us create our best work.