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Address Bias in the Workplace to Attract and Retain Top Talent

June 02, 2020
Poster for "High Performers vs. High Potentials" webinar featuring headshots of each panelist.


The Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, external link hosted "High Performers vs. High Potentials: Creating an Inclusive Talent Pipeline" in partnership with the Rotman Intercultural Skills Lab, external link on May 12, 2020. Dr. Wendy Cukier was joined by Mary Ann Mendes, Managing Director at BMO, external link, Lisa Sohanpal, Founder and CEO of Nom Noms World Food, external link, and Nadine Spencer, CEO of BrandEQ Group Inc, external link.

White women outnumber racialized women 17 to one in corporate leadership roles in Toronto. This is despite the fact that for every white woman in the GTA there is a racialized woman. Dr. Wendy Cukier, Founder and Academic Lead of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, argues that extensive bias in the workplace is behind this staggering statistic.

Research conducted by the Diversity Institute finds that racialized people of all genders remain significantly underrepresented in senior leadership positions across Canada. Only 8% of corporate senior leadership roles were filled by racialized people in Toronto, external link in 2019, and just 2% in Montreal.

Canadian enterprises must commit to building more diverse and inclusive workplaces in order to compete in an ever-changing world. We know that immigrants drive economic success in Canada. A more diverse workforce can address skills shortages, better serve increasingly diverse markets, generate more new ideas, and mitigate legal and reputational costs. Research has also shown that inclusion, engagement and performance are linked.

A panel discussion hosted by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, external link in partnership with the Rotman Intercultural Skills Lab, external link on May 12, 2020 holds several insights for business owners and leaders working to better manage and encourage diverse talent. Dr. Cukier was joined by Mary Ann Mendes, Managing Director at BMO, external link, Lisa Sohanpal, Founder and CEO of Nom Noms World Food, external link, and Nadine Spencer, CEO of BrandEQ Group Inc, external link.

Address Bias

Immigrant women and racialized people face significant barriers accessing the jobs they are qualified for because of bias. In Toronto, two-thirds of immigrant women holding university degrees were underemployed in 2016. Job applicants with “foreign sounding” names and identical qualifications to those with traditionally “American” names are statistically less likely to get to the interview stage.

Bias can also have a negative effect on employee engagement within your business. For employees striving to grow beyond their immediate role, bias can halt their progress.

“Immigrant women in Canada are marginalized a lot in the workplace—overlooked, discriminated against and pushed to the periphery through exclusions and sometimes exploitation. Overall, discrimination dehumanizes people,” Spencer explains.

Addressing this bias begins with leaders. Dr. Cukier explains that it is critically important that people in leadership positions recognize their privilege. This privilege may be a result of one’s position of power in workplaces and sectors, ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender identity and ability. Failing to do so could result in the loss of high potential diverse talent to more inclusive workplaces.

Sohanpal remembers meetings with prospective investors that turned sour when she was asked gendered questions that pushed her to defend her skills and abilities. “If you get that kind of indication, just get up and leave and go to someone that really does respect and value where you come from, and how you got to where you are,” she says.

It is important, however, that organizations do not rely on individuals from marginalized groups in non-leadership positions to address bias in the workplace. Leaders must step-in wherever bias is present, and ideally, long before discrimination occurs to ensure that their employees are protected.

“Being a bystander is probably one of the worst things that people can do,” Dr. Cukier says.

Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Building inclusive organizations begins in the recruitment process. Dr. Cukier notes that leaders must be aware of homophily in recruitment processes, or the tendency for people to gravitate to those that are just like them. This tendency may lead to homogenous workplaces where bias can flourish. Empowering a diverse hiring team is one way to counter this.

Rather than springing for obvious candidates who meet all defined criteria, for example, panelists suggest that managers consider softer skills and attributes like personal traits and core values that align with organizational goals.

Bias can also seep into performance reviews where norms are highly gendered. Women are often held to different standards and are reviewed based on “performance,” having to constantly prove their competence. Men, on the other hand, are presumed to be competent and are thus judged on their “potential.” Managers must challenge their own gendered assumptions about skills to assess talent in an equitable way.

In order to do so, leaders must recognize that women and people from marginalized groups face additional stresses outside of work that white men may not encounter—especially amid the COVID-19 crisis. Closures of schools and daycares have made working from home difficult for many women, particularly immigrant and newcomer women, now responsible for around-the-clock childcare and homeschooling. Be empathetic to this fact and make your workplace accessible to people with different needs by implementing inclusive policies and practices.

“When we talk about inclusivity it is recognizing the different levels of skillsets, the different styles, bringing it out when we see it, and having the space where it’s allowed to have your voice and show your skillsets,” Spencer says.

Systems Approach to Change

The Diversity Institute has developed a Systems Approach to Change to address bias by working at the Societal, Organization, and Individual levels. Such an approach can help deepen our understanding of the barriers that marginalized people face, as well as the drivers that may create change.

At the societal level, this approach interrogates cultural values and policies including media representations of leaders, stereotypes, and access to infrastructure and funding. The Diversity Institute’s Diversity Assessment Tool (DAT) can help organizations address bias from within by examining factors like leadership and governance, measurement, and accountability. Individually, mentoring and sponsorship can be a powerful way to help women and racialized people enter and progress in the workplace.

Learn More

Learn more about the Diversity Institute’s research and the Systems Approach to Change by reviewing Dr. Cukier’s PowerPoint presentation here, external link.

You can also view a recording of the webinar by following this link, external link. Access password: 3C+9ql%h

If you are looking for ways to support a diverse talent pool, you can contact Valerie Gow, Recruitment, Outreach and Alumni Officer for the Intercultural Skills Lab, external link (ISL) at Rotman School of Management.