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INTA New York: What Barbie can teach firms about diversity

Panellists said lawyers should consider where they’re posting jobs and how to give everyone a chance to speak

Panellists at a virtual INTA conference yesterday reflected on how businesses can improve on diversity, using Mattel’s Barbie as a case study, while speaking on a panel called ‘Diversity and inclusion: how to live your values to the benefit of your people and your brand’.

Kim Culmone, global head of design of Barbie and fashion dolls at Mattel in California, spoke about how the company worked to feature more diversity in body types, race and disability in its Barbie dolls. The company also developed Creatable World, a line of customisable, gender-neutral dolls.

Culmone said that when the business worked to expand the diversity of its dolls, it didn’t initially get the feedback it wanted from consumers. “When we would do testing and they would talk about their feelings about the brand, it was on a very surface level. That certainly wasn’t our intention,” she said.

She added that brands need to decide what to do next when they get feedback like this.

“You can think they just don’t get it, and keep doing what you’re doing. Or you can take that on board and get to the next step of the process, which is doing that assessment or personal inventory about what you can do to change what you’re putting out in the world,” she said.

Other panellists said that Mattel’s story had lessons for all firms that want to improve their diversity measures.

Peter Dernbach, partner at Winkler Partners in Taiwan, noted that many firms might be impressed with their own reputations. “But none of us are iconic brands like Barbie. To be able to achieve diversity at that level with such an iconic brand is much harder than for those of us who are at law firms,” he said.

Dernbach added that just as Mattel took feedback into account, firms also need to look at how they receive feedback on diversity matters.

He noted that when firms get feedback from clients, it’s easy for them as professionals to take it on and ask themselves how they can do better. But sometimes firms get more defensive if they get critical feedback from members of their own teams, he said.

“If we get feedback that we’re excluding people or limiting people’s ability to contribute, we need to take that on. We don’t necessarily need to feel guilty, but we do need to feel responsible for actually taking a hard look and seeing if there’s something we can do that would enable people to contribute more in the future.”

Michael Moore, senior director of trademarks and copyright at Mattel, said that lawyers should take stock of what actions they can take to improve diversity.

“Can you post jobs in different places? There’s Corporate Counsel Women of Color, which has a job board. What can you do to ask the right questions? Can you be a mentor? You can take an active role in this,” he said.

“As lawyers, we have a special obligation to society. We should take this obligation seriously. One of the things that I’ve been impressed with, with Kim [Culmone], is that she does bring purpose to what she does, and this is what we can do too. We’re not just in-house lawyers. We can really do something good.”

Dernbach said firms and companies should also take communication styles into account. “I think everybody sitting around the table, brainstorming great ideas and putting them up on the white board is great. But there are people who might have a different communication style and they might not jump in and cut someone off.”

To address this, his firm will sometimes go around the table to give everyone a chance to speak, he said. “If you don’t want to say anything, that’s totally fine and that’s your prerogative. But we value everyone who is sitting there and not just the people who will jump in as eagerly as some of us will.”

Sanjana Sharma, Chicago-based associate general counsel at safety certification organisation UL, moderated the panel. 

The INTA 2020 New York Conference, Brands in Society: Their Influence and Responsibility ended yesterday, June 23.

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