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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Can awards influence industry diversity?

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Daphne Baldassari

In 2015, outrage gripped the Oscars. For the second year in a row, only white actors were nominated in the best acting categories. #OscarsSoWhite took over social media as the public and acting community demanded change.

In response, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the voting body that determines the Oscar nominees and winners – committed to diversifying itself. In 2023, six actors, or roughly 30 per cent of best acting nominees, identify as part of a racial minority.

“I think this is a very positive signal for all racial minority workers in those categories,” says Rotman Ph.D. candidate and film enthusiast Daphne Baldassari.

In the past couple of years, many industries have reckoned with racial discrimination in their ranks and made efforts to diversify their workforces. But few industries have dealt with the issue as publicly as film and television. Following the 2015 backlash, the Academy added 683 new members to its 5,700-plus voting body, 46 per cent of whom were women and 41 per cent of whom were from underrepresented racial groups. (The Academy was previously 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male, according to the Los Angeles Times.)

The impact of this diversification goes beyond a more diverse nominee group, according to a Baldassari’s dissertation chapter, “Oscars so White? Hiring Effects of an Evaluator’s Diversity Intervention.”

Many film companies seek the reputational bump from the Academy, and after its membership changed its make-up to be more inclusive, studios looking to score an Oscar were more likely to be diverse in their hiring practices, Baldassari found.

Working with Luminate Film & TV – a subsidiary of Hollywood trade publication Variety – Baldassari analyzed the hiring data of 6,999 feature-length films released in the U.S. between 2010 and 2021. Overall, she examined more than 193,000 staffing choices in the industry.

She approached the research with three hypotheses. First, she posited that following the decision to create a more diverse judging committee, award-seeking companies would be more likely to do the same. Second, she believed that the positive hiring effect would be most prominent in visible roles – such as the top-billed or above-the-line positions like producers, actors and directors. (These are in comparison to “below-the-line” roles, such cinematographers and costume designers.) And third, she believed that people already affiliated with an award body (such as existing members and nominees) were most likely to see the benefits than those who were not.

Overall, her theories proved accurate. Following the 2016 diversification efforts, there was an increase in overall racial diversity of the makeup of film crews — with some caveats. Across the board, women and racial minorities were about five per cent more likely to be hired to work on a film.  

However, those in above-the-line roles saw their chance of getting hired increase by 3.3 percentage points, while those in below-the-line positions saw no statistical change to their chances of being hired.

“Change here is not necessarily driven by an intrinsic motivation of driving diversity,” says Baldassari. “Award-seeking films seek to appeal to the Academy, so positive hiring effects stay in the most visible occupations.”

Women and racial minorities who had previously worked on award-seeking films saw a 1.6 per cent increase in the chance that they’d be re-hired, while those who had not worked on an award-seeking film saw no change.

But however small the changes were, they have made a difference to what audiences see on screen and which movies get recognition.

“Recently, we’ve really been seeing new depictions of lots of people on screen, such as Asian Americans, with movies like Minari (2020) and Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022),” Baldassari says. “These movies are totally different, from what we would have seen 20 years ago, and we’re moving away from the stereotypes.”

While she cautions against creating awards specifically to respond to this research, Baldassari believes her findings can be applied to other industries that have existing third-party evaluators or awards bodies. It is especially relevant for subjective work, such as the culinary or literary industries, she says, which have the James Beard Award and Pulitzer Prize, respectively, for example.

As a first step, industries and companies should consider how their evaluation may sustain existing racial and gender inequalities. Baldassari suggest first taking steps to measure and assess how an award evaluation processes can be biased. Then, consider potential changes — such as diversifying evaluation bodies or adding new qualification requirements — and measure their impact. “By changing the awards committees, you are opening up to more preferences and changing the standards, especially for companies that are super driven by earning these awards.”


Daphne Baldassari is a PhD candidate at the Rotman School of Management.