By Kendra MacDonald, CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster.
Growing up, my father was diagnosed with lupus. Without going into all the details, he had trouble walking around the block and was exhausted after a day’s work. Before he passed away, he spent his final years in a wheelchair. He could no longer work, and I watched him struggle to access care and transportation.
Despite having spent years as a child watching my dad struggle, it is as a mother, watching my daughter struggle in a different way, that I have started to really understand how hard that struggle can be. My daughter is adopted from Kazakhstan, and she has a cleft lip and palate. The first time she was called “flat nose,” she was five years old. I never imagined we would be having a conversation about bullying that soon. Children were scared of her cleft lip and were challenged to understand her, making it harder for her to fit in.
Accessible workplaces have come a long way since my dad struggled to get to his desk every morning. As I think about the world I hope my daughter will experience when she enters the workforce in another decade or so, we still have much work to do to truly embrace differences and ensure we can all bring our whole selves to work.
Our organization was recently involved in publishing a report on equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in Canada’s ocean sector. As I reflect on the findings of this report, I wanted to share three lessons I have learned on the journey toward greater ED&I:
Don’t assume you know others’ experiences.
If you haven’t experienced discrimination directly, it can be incredibly hard to understand the struggles faced by people who have been discriminated against for who they are. While I have experienced some gender bias throughout my career, it is not the same as what many others experience daily. I cannot presume to understand the experiences and perspectives of another person. Despite truly wanting and trying to understand, especially when I see my own daughter struggling, I simply have no frame of reference based on my own experience.
What we can all do is listen and ask questions. Instead of making assumptions — which can be easy to do — hear the perspectives of those impacted and involve them in developing solutions.
There is always more to learn.
Training and awareness are topics that continue to evolve, and they are becoming increasingly complex. Unconscious bias, cultural awareness, truth and reconciliation, privilege, mental health and psychological safety are examples of areas where training should be made available for employers and employees across all sectors. A leader may have many competing priorities and demands on their time, but modeling the behavior expected in the organization must be at the top of the list if others are expected to follow and play an active role in building more inclusive workplaces.
Training and awareness are critical to helping everyone in the organization understand the business benefits of diversity and inclusion as well as the strategies to be successful. These efforts can help attract and retain diverse workers and not only help address gaps but also improve outcomes. The challenge for us all is creating the right environment for continuous learning to support greater ED&I. Make the commitment to prioritize learning.
It’s about more than numbers.
Metrics are important as we try to increase the ED&I on our teams and boards, but it’s not about the numbers. In our research, we found that the over-reliance on labels and categorizations in the workplace can be counterproductive and promote a sense of “otherness.”
Ultimately, if a leader does not create an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and perspectives, the outcomes expected through an investment in ED&I are unlikely to be achieved. This means bringing an ED&I lens to all the choices you make — including everything from suppliers, customers and leadership to social media posts. If you are not genuinely committed to the change in culture that may be required for everyone to feel like they can bring their true selves to work every day, chances are those new faces and perspectives will leave your organization over time as they realize they will not be empowered to achieve their full potential.
Over the course of my career, I have seen much focus on gender equity. Now the conversation is so much broader than that, and it is up to us as leaders to understand that breadth and what it means for our organization’s culture, policies and practices. I hope that my daughter will grow up in an environment that embraces her differences, making her feel safe and valued so she is able to be her best self. I hope the investments we are making, and hope to make, to build a more inclusive workforce will benefit her and many others like her.
The world is facing significant challenges, and it will take all the perspectives we can bring to build the future we want for everyone.