“I’ll change that before I leave.”
That was the simple, but loaded pledge made last September by Bob Iger, the Walt Disney Company’s former CEO and newly-minted executive chairman, when asked directly about his largely male, all-white executive leadership team.
Iger made this inclusion “vow,” as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it, last year while promoting his memoir “The Ride of a Lifetime.” It was a time when many in Hollywood and on Wall Street assumed Iger would ride out the remainder of his contract through 2021, and name a successor at the finish line of his astounding career.
Instead, the prolific dealmaker shocked Hollywood on Tuesday by announcing Bob Chapek as his replacement in the CEO role, effective immediately. Iger assured stockholders and analysts he would retain full creative control of the business and remain on the lot for the next 19 months.
But what of his pledge to implement inclusion at the very top of Disney, which earned a record-breaking $69 billion in 2019?
In the Times interview, Iger admitted diversity “was lacking” in his C-suite. There are 10 executive leadership roles that report directly to the office of CEO at Disney, some of the names are recognizable: Chief creative officer of Walt Disney Studios Alan Horn and his co-chair Alan Bergman, Walt Disney Television chairman and Disney Media Networks co-chair Peter Rice, international and direct-to-consumer chairman Kevin Mayer, and ESPN president James Pitaro.
Only three of the 10 direct CEO reports are women: Senior executive vice president and CFO Christine McCarthy, senior VP and chief of human resources Jayne Parker, and senior VP and chief communications officer Zenia Mucha. At current, there is only one open position to where the company might appoint a non-white male — head of parks, experiences and consumer products. It’s the role Chapek just vacated.
The issue is front of mind for Disney employees, as both Iger and Chapek were asked about it directly during a town hall meeting held Wednesday on the Disney lot, called to discuss the CEO transition.
Chapek took a question about inclusion, one person with knowledge of the town hall told Variety, and brought up his efforts to diversify staff while serving in his old job. Chapek spoke of an annual strategic gathering, where his division invites global Disney leadership to Los Angeles to discuss priorities.
“We actually devoted 50% of the meeting, the entire first half of the day, to talking about what we can do to actively bring more diversity and inclusion into our segment and affect our leadership,” Chapek said, according to one person present for the conversation.
“It will certainly continue throughout the rest of the company — this is not something that is a side project, this is not something that is peripheral or in any way tangential to what we do. We want to represent our audience, the way our audience looks, feels, sounds and is. And as a result, we take this very seriously,” Chapek concluded.
Disney is not bereft of diversity, and goes out of its way to inform shareholders of the strides it has made on the board of directors. At present, the board of nine individuals is close to gender parity: There are four women and five men. Three out of the nine are racially diverse, the company said in its proxy statement for 2020. Board members includes Oracle Corporation CEO Safra A. Catz, General Motors chairman Mary T. Barra and CVS Health executive vice president Derica W. Rice. Terms for all board members expire at this year’s board meeting, scheduled for March 11.
Efforts from Iger and Chapek should not stop at the executive level, noted one executive from a major production entity who has worked with Disney, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Citing the power and visibility of top creative jobs, the executive noted that strides could be made in leadership at Disney’s film, television and streaming properties. This will theoretically fall under Iger’s new, strictly-creative purview.
On the film side, high-profile leaders include studio global distribution chief Cathleen Taff, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, Marvel executive vice president of production Victoria Alonso, Searchlight Pictures co-head Nancy Utley, Walt Disney Animation chief Jennifer Lee and Fox Family head Vanessa Morrison. In television, Dana Walden wields considerable power as Disney Television Studios chairman.
Others warily pointed to the trio of powerful females ousted in the aftermath of Disney’s 20th Century Fox acquisition — including chairman and CEO Stacey Snider, Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler and recently Emma Watts, who left with the title of vice chairman and president of production. That’s a sign that more needs to be done, they argue.
In fairness, nearly all of Hollywood’s executive suites face similar issues. Even with increased expectations around representation and unprecedented calls for inclusion like #OscarsSoWhite, progress is slow.
“Even if there are many talented or capable people, it takes time to sift through and make sure there is some kind of a process, and this is not done haphazardly,” said Dr. Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
“It’s a considerable effort to take on in under two years, and shows how far removed we are in respect to actual diversity [in corporate America]. Frankly, it’s not enough to put a few people in the C-suite. You don’t want to give the impression that it’s window dressing,” said Tayur.