Recording Academy's Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion Releases Its Final Report

Courtesy Photo
Deborah Dugan

"Let's just say out loud we've known for a long time that as an industry we have a monumental problem with women's equality."

The Recording Academy's 18-member Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion issued its final report on Thursday (Dec. 12). The report focuses on forward-thinking recommendations, but also includes some blunt language. In calling for the academy to hire a diversity and inclusion officer at the executive level, the report notes, "That step is critical to ensuring the academy prioritizes diversity, and not merely a box to be checked as part of a public relations campaign."

The report notes that there was some backsliding on the percentages of women on the academy's nomination review and national governance committees this year, compared to a year ago, when the "the task force was involved and providing feedback."  The percentage of female members of each of those committees dropped by 7% in one year, to 44% and 41%, respectively. The report notes: "These statistics demonstrate the need to be constantly vigilant on these issues."

Deborah Dugan, who joined the academy as president/CEO on Aug. 1, notes, "My reactions are really positive even though it's tough. I read it and I thought, 'Whew. Should I go back and ask that they soften this or look at it in a different way, and the answer is no. It's the facts. Let's just say out loud we've known for a long time that as an industry we have a monumental problem with women's equality."

Dugan has committed to adding 2,500 female voting members by 2025.

Tina Tchen, who headed the task force, notes that this was a cooperative effort with the academy. "This wasn't a gotcha game," she says. "We're weren't trying to find things out and do some sort of expose. We wanted to make change and you make change by working together.

"Any institution that took the step that they did—to appoint an outside, independent group—they were coming from a place of good faith, wanting to fully understand what the barriers were and how to fix it. We were not an investigative body. That would have been an entirely different function. That was really a remedy-focused function."

The task force was established in March 2018. This was in the wake of a Grammy telecast where only one female artist (Lorde) was nominated for record or album of the year—and she wasn't offered a solo performance slot. On top of that, former academy president/CEO Neil Portnow made a clumsy comment that women needed to "step up." As the report notes, "In the wake of the 60th Grammy Awards, the academy faced a public relations crisis with respect to its commitment to diversity."

The report notes that task force broadened its focus as it went along. "While the Task Force was initially formed in response to concerns about underrepresentation of women in the industry, throughout our work, we deliberately sought to make sure we were intersectional in our approach, and applied a broad lens that included groups that were underrepresented in terms of race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and disability, in addition to gender and gender identity."

Dugan applauds "the outreach to underrepresented constituencies—all of those unheard voices. I think there has been a little bit of an attitude of 'come to us and participate,' and I'm like 'no, we've got to go to them.' Because we represent everybody in this industry."

Was Dugan referring obliquely to Portnow's comment? "This is a conversation that needed to be had at all levels of this industry," she says, and then offers, "I'm not opining about the past because there are many great things that led to this place, where we have this brand, and this organization. I'm just saying, going forward, you'll feel a [different] tone. "

The committee made 18 recommendations. Dugan notes that the academy has already implemented or is in some way addressing all but one of them. Among the key recommendations:

* Reform the way that members of the board of trustees are selected. Currently, they are elected exclusively by the governors of the academy's 12 chapters. The task force proposes that one-third of the trustees continue to be elected that way, one-third be elected by the voting membership, and one-third be appointed through at-large selections. On the current composition of the board, the report is blunt: "The board is not diverse or representative."

* Adopt a formal diversity target to meet in the next five years. "The task force recommends that the academy commit to doubling the number of female voting members in the next five years."

* Clarify that members no longer have to accrue 12 credits, the former requirement, if they have "impressive letters of recommendation, career substantiation and other qualities the academy values in members."

The academy did not commit to the task force's full plan for changing the way the board of trustees will be selected, but it gave Tchen a partial victory. Going forward, 32 of the 40 trustees will still be elected by the local chapters, but the final eight slots will be filled by a committee with an eye to ensuring diversity. They will come up with a slate, which will be ratified by the full membership—both voting and professional (non-voting) members.

"I was surprised that they were able to step up so quickly on that one," Tchen says. "I give them a lot of credit for doing it."

The only recommendation that the academy wants more time to consider is a call for "ranked choice" voting, rather than the simpler method of "plurality voting," where the nominee with the most votes wins.

The Oscars have used "ranked choice" voting in their best picture category since they expanded the number of best picture nominees 10 years ago from five to as many as 10. This is a system where voters rank candidates in terms of preference. Under this complex—some might say convoluted—system, after the first round of votes is tabulated, if a candidate wins a majority first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. However, if no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes for that losing candidate are redistributed to those voters' next-preferred candidate. This process is repeated until a candidate wins a majority of the first-preference votes.

The report notes that the expansion last year of the number of nominees in the Big Four categories—album, record and song of the year plus best new artist—from five to eight has "exacerbated" the effect of the plurality voting system. Notes the report: "While this change had the benefit of allowing more nominees to be included, thereby expanding the opportunities for diverse nominees, it also had the downside effect of further splitting the votes of members, meaning that in a highly competitive field, the top vote-getter could win with as few as 13% of the total votes (as opposed to 20% when the field was limited to five nominees)."

(While Tchen takes a dim view of the plurality voting system, especially when there's a large field of candidates, that system produced a history-making winner for record and song of the year—Childish Gambino's "This Is America," the first hip-hop smash to win in either category.)

"That system works well in politics, but will it work well at rewarding excellence in the Grammys? We're not so sure," Dugan says. "We're working with Deloitte [the Academy's accounting firm] on that one. We don't want to screw something up. It might make it easy for somebody to game the system. A lot of times you're voting, you know some of them but you don't know [all] the other ones. Do we want people ranking things they don't know? It's complicated. It's under review."  

Harvey Mason Jr., the newly-elected chairman of board of trustees, agrees. “With regard to moving to a ranked-choice voting system, it’s not off the table, but it is something we need to study further. Ranked voting has been very effective in some circumstances, most notably politics, but we need to have a full understanding of how it would impact our process and our members, before we make a final decision."

As for the other changes, Mason says: "The new board structure will help ensure that music creators from the broadest range of backgrounds are well represented within the leadership of the Recording Academy. This, in addition to doubling our female voting membership by 2025, will help ensure that everything we do, including our educational, philanthropic, and advocacy efforts, truly serves our diverse and dynamic membership."

Tchen praises the academy for its cooperative spirit. "We found throughout the process that they were incredibly cooperative. We asked for a lot of data around membership composition and historical committee composition; the staff were incredibly responsive."

Tchen attended the academy's annual trustees meeting in May and briefed the trustees on the report, which was in draft form at that point. Dugan also attended those meetings, as a guest, because she hadn't yet assumed her role as president/CEO.

Tchen had never before headed a task force for diversity and inclusion, though she served on one that was chaired by attorney Roberta A. Kaplan "to help advise VICE when they were going through their issues," she says. She has worked on these issues for decades, most famously in the eight years she was executive director on the White House Council on Women & Girls during the Obama administration. On Nov. 1, she became president and CEO of Time's Up, an organization that provides legal services and support for victims of sexual harassment.

Dugan has already invited the task force to reconvene in one year to assess the academy's progress. The task force has accepted the invitation.

Dugan notes that the academy is far from the only company in the industry that has had problems with diversity and inclusion. "I don't know that labels are looking at their A&R departments and making sure that there's women representation, or Spotify looking at their playlists, and what's going on with radio in Nashville? It's something that's industry-wide, and so everybody should be doing it. In a weird way, we can challenge the industry because we're supposed to be ahead of the game and a model for how you do it."

Dugan says that Tchen "was a great partner. She has to be commended for workable solutions. She didn't ask us to do the impossible."

Dugan concludes with a rhetorical question. "Do I think the task [force] report and these 17 initiatives will makes us better? Damn right."

Assistance in preparing this story provided by Melinda Newman


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