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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Can Fitness Sector Lead?

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Can Fitness Sector Lead?

Diversity, Equity and inclusion is one of the most important topics on the agendas of HR teams and their leaders across industries. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, companies are making declarative commitments and implementing critical programming to advance a more inclusive workplace. Has the fitness industry responded fast enough?

Having spent 15+ years working for large fashion brands as a merchant, I was accustomed to working with white women. Throughout my career I have had 15 bosses; of those managers, 2 were Black (interesting both were at the same company). My experience was indicative of the larger fashion industry. But, the fashion industry is waking up. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has been put on the agenda in boardrooms across the country and it appears that executives are making serious efforts to address racial issues within their four walls. They are hiring diverse managers, creating programming to understand racial issues and providing platforms to create a more inclusive workplace. 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and critical racial conversations occurring across our nation, companies like The Gap (where I worked for my 2 Black bosses), Sephora and West Elm are working to set targets to increase Black representation (the 15% pledge) in the workforce. The name — 15% — refers to the approximate percentage of black people in the U.S. population. It would make sense that when you walk into a store it should reflect the diversity of our population both on the shelves and in the human capacity that keeps those businesses operating. 

The Black Fashion Council was created to represent and secure the advancement of Black individuals in the fashion and beauty industry. At the end of 2020, there were only four Black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list: Roz Brewer at Starbucks, Ken Frazier at Merck, Marvin Ellison at Lowe’s, and René Jones at M&T Bank. The all-time high of 6 Black CEOs was reached in 2012. This raises the question, why aren’t there more? A recent Forbes article, points out that few Black business people are put on an early management track in their career creating a huge barrier to climbing into the C-suite. 

As I have moved to working primarily with fitness companies I see many Black trainers, gym managers and fitness enthusiasts. But it appears that representation stops at that stage for both large and small fitness corporations. Studies show less than 3% of venture dollars go to Black or Latinx entrepreneurs further discouraging minority groups from even exploring careers in that field and/or launching ventures within the fitness space. 

I have found numerous companies participating in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in meaningful ways. In May of 2020, Nike initiated a declarative ad addressing racism in America. The ad which begins, “For Once, Don’t Do It… Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America… Don’t turn your back on racism,” had more than 35,000 retweets and two million views within 24 hours. Nike and other fitness companies such as Adidas are pledging to “own up to our silence.” However, there is a great deal of hard work to be done. At Adidas, of the roughly 1,700 employees at its U.S. headquarters, less than 5% identified as Black (according to internal employment figures obtained in 2019 by The New York Times). Recruitment and retention of a diverse staff that reflects the community should be a priority.  

Peloton spoke out strongly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an open letter from CEO John Foley in June of 2020, Peloton pledged $100 million over four years to fight racial injustice and inequity. In addition to their financial commitment, the organization has taken numerous measures to fight racial injustice. These include addressing job opportunity gaps within their organization through the allocation of $20 million in L&D programs, increasing hourly wages of their workforce, making their products and services more accessible to underserved communities and using their platforms, voice and rhetoric to influence and promote a more equitable society.

Wellness lifestyle publication Well+Good has acknowledged that the wellness industry including their own company has work to do to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Last year they pledged to allocate a large portion of its freelance editorial budget for Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour (BIPOC) writers and content creators, amplify BIPOC voices and messages and pay them fairly for their work. They also committed to align with charities and organizations that are taking on similar initiatives and to work with its own HR team to move the needle on all BIPOC and marginalized group hirings to better represent the real world⁠.

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Black athletes in the twentieth century have used their celebrity status to continually bring attention to social justice issues. Lebron James has established a foundation that addresses system inequalities. The Lebron James Family Foundation provides students with programs, support and mentors essential to success in school, careers and life. Media has given increased attention to Black-owned businesses, finally giving them an opportunity to be recognized and flourish. 

The fitness sector, like all industries, can do more. In a recent McKinsey report, they point to “a silver lining of COVID-19 and the racially charged violence in 2020” being an opportune time when many large companies have launched programs to support Black-owned businesses. However, they also argue that “these individual actions will not in themselves be enough to affect the needed change. For this work to have a systemic impact, entire business ecosystems will need to be involved. Once successful, however, this effort would benefit not only the US economy but US society as a whole.” 

I see a great opportunity for the fitness industry to change their game. For an industry that promotes health and wellness, diversity, equity and inclusion must be an essential element of the equation. Can the fitness industry take the lead and demonstrate that diversity, equity and inclusion are paramount to a healthier society? I think if there is ever a place and time to lead the way, it is here and now.

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