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Women and visible minorities are not asking for special treatment in the workplace - just equal.

For years, scholarly studies have shown that women face a gender penalty when it comes to career advancement, and women from racially diverse backgrounds face a "double bias." Now an important new study analyzing the careers of 22,338 employees at an information and communications technology company in Canada has found that the rates of promotion of white men at all levels, from entry-level to middle managers to leaders, were consistently higher. On average, men were 4.5 per cent more likely to receive promotions at any level than white females, 7.9 per cent more likely to get promoted than minority males and 16.1 per cent more likely than minority women. These results remained true, even when controlled for age, education, years at the company and performance evaluation.

The reasons underlying this bias are complex - but not necessarily impossible to change. CEOs - still predominantly male and white - must become conscious of the value of broader pools of talent, and resist the urge to replicate themselves as leaders. Only then can they help close this gap. In Canada, only 3.8 per cent of the CEOs of the largest 500 companies are women, and women make up only 14 per cent of their boards.

Promoting women and visible minorities in middle management is vitally important in changing a company's organizational hierarchy, says Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. She coauthored the report, "Gender and Racial Differentials in Promotions," with Margaret Yap, at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management.

By dealing with the middle-management bottleneck, CEOs can build more diverse teams for succession, and groom capable women and employees from racial minority backgrounds in the same way they invest in high-potential white men. Some companies are already implementing such strategies, notes Prof. Konrad, by considering a diverse array of capable candidates for every vacancy or promotion. This isn't the same as preferential hiring, or establishing quotas. Rather, it is a way to counter systemic, if subconscious, prejudices. "To be biased isn't evil but human. Everyone is more comfortable with similar others," Prof. Konrad says.

The most innovative companies are those with diverse work forces. They are more responsive to demographic change, new markets and consumer desires. Basing promotions on merit and ability - and not race and gender - benefits everyone.

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