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Toronto-based DEI content writer and equity educator Kimberley John-Morgan says there’s a gap between how corporations look at DEI and 'what it needs to be.'Tijana Martin

Conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in Canadian workplaces aren’t new. Many discussions have been had, reports have been written and promises have been made – but has there been any real change for marginalized groups in the workplace over the past 20 years?

How close are we to implementing practical, measurable solutions to create equitable and just workplaces?

“There’s such a gap between how corporate spaces look at [DEI] versus what it needs to be,” says Kimberley John-Morgan, a Toronto-based DEI content writer and equity educator. “I feel like corporate culture is stuck. It’s stuck trying to appease the powers that be. DEI is looked at like a professional development activity, when really it’s a human rights mandate.”

Many organizations started the discussion by talking about the business case for diversity in the workplace – the idea that DEI wasn’t just a nice thing to do, but a business imperative due to globalization and the changing face of the talent pool.

It’s an argument that many people, including Ms. John-Morgan, take issue with.

“Are you kidding me?” says Ms. John-Morgan. “We have to have a quantifiable, monetarily-based reason for which we are going to treat people like humans? That’s disgusting. That just shows how much they don’t know and how much work they haven’t done.”

Besides, the business case for diversity isn’t enough since most workplaces have stopped at the awareness-building phase of DEI without implementing any real solutions, she adds.

Olivia Nuamah, national inclusion, diversity and belonging leader at PwC Canada, points out that these conversations and their outcomes are relatively young – pretty much in their infancy. Ms. Nuamah has spent much of her career in the non-profit and government sectors where there is a greater commitment to representation, but things continue to evolve in the corporate sector, she says.

“Twenty years ago, DEI was the ‘tick box’ exercise. It was ‘make sure you have a statement,’” she explains. “Now there is the notion of what it means to belong, which is one layer deeper. It feels like there is a desire to want to aim for more than just that kind of surface, performative initiative.”

Although this desire to change is emerging, there is also a lot of pushback bubbling up across the country.

Andrea Moffat, founder and lead facilitator at Divercity Consultants, says that the discussion of critical race theory and “woke” culture is breeding a resistance to more meaningful DEI conversations and action.

“People are saying, ‘I don’t even want your social justice warrior woke crap,’” says Ms. Moffat. “I’m seeing this rebellion where we didn’t have that before, even 10 years ago.”

DEI efforts ‘drying up’

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 had many Canadians thinking about racism, specifically anti-Black racism, within our own borders. Black Canadians began sharing their stories of microaggressions and overt anti-Blackness at work.

Many in corporate Canada composed well-worded statements of support for Black employees and posted black squares on social media, but those sentiments didn’t last, says Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder of Feminuity, a full-service DEI consulting firm.

“After the murder of George Floyd, all of a sudden, organizations were keen on DEI initiatives and money was flowing very quickly. Fast forward two and half-ish years later, we’re in this wake of an impending recession and the pipeline is drying up all over again because social spend is always the first thing to go,” says Dr. Saska.

“A lot of DEI efforts, programs, initiatives, everything, they’re not built with longevity in mind. They continue to be viewed as one-offs. Do it when it’s good for PR or when you have the political pressure. But we know that any type of social justice-related work must be continual and sustainable.”

Ms. John-Morgan believes the shock of George Floyd’s murder has worn off for many non-Black people in the workplace and their priorities have changed.

“Black people are still talking and doing all the things. We have all these initiatives, programs and services, access to grants, but what’s not happening is collective and ongoing outrage of non-Black communities,” she says. “That’s what needs to happen.”

Movement can feel incremental at best or stagnant at worst, but overall we’re moving in the right direction, says Ms. Nuamah.

“If you think about the conversations we’re having today, you would have never imagined those conversations 10 years ago,” she says. “Of course, you don’t feel it because when you are living in the age of it, it doesn’t feel like change. It’s amorphous, so sometimes it doesn’t move, it just changes shape.”

Making diversity, equity and inclusion ‘an everybody thing’

Culture change doesn’t happen unless organizations are intentional. To move from simple conversations to concrete solutions, DEI initiatives need to be fully integrated into business-wide strategy, says Dr. Saska.

“If they’re integrated, it’s a lot more difficult to put them on the chopping block when things get difficult.”

Another effective way to sustain DEI action is for employers to create a decentralized group of people to implement DEI strategy across the organization, equipping them with the necessary skills.

“We want this to be an everybody thing where the DEI strategy and its implementation touches every team member’s role and their work. All of a sudden, that’s a lot of people power,” says Dr. Saska.

“The cumulative effect of that is significant, rather than having one or two people and looking at them as a veritable silver bullet to save the day.”

There is true frustration for groups who feel that movement or change is happening too slowly in corporate culture, says Ms. John-Morgan. No one wants another report explaining what is already known – that racism, bias, discrimination and oppression exist. Folks want to know: What are the next steps?

“[Corporate leaders] are standing around, staring at their shoes, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m so overwhelmed.’ You read all the books and you didn’t learn a thing? It’s that willful ignorance that needs to change,” says Ms. John-Morgan. “Once people can get past that, hopefully we can see some real change.”

Leaders need to stop being scared of making mistakes and be a catalyst for authentic change, says Ms. Moffat. Finding real solutions is about changing corporate culture.

“Nobody loses when we actually have proper diversity and inclusion,” she says. “Giving someone else food doesn’t take away your meal. There’s enough for everybody.”

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