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8 ways to improve inclusivity in the workplace

8 ways to improve inclusivity in the workplace

Canada’s tech industry is an important source of employment — but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, it still has a long way to go.


There’s no denying that Canada’s tech industry is a key driver of our economy: over the past five years, 80,000 new tech jobs were created in Toronto — more than San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. combined. And this sector is playing a vital role in the post-COVID economic recovery. But here’s a harsh truth: it’s not a welcoming and accessible space for everyone.

According to Brookfield Institute, in 2016 — the most recent year for which data is available — people of colour made up less than a third of the Canadian tech workforce, and some groups were almost entirely absent. For example, Black people made up 2.6 percent of the workforce, Indigenous peoples made up 2.2 per cent, Arabs were 2 percent and Latin American and Filipino people were 1.7 percent each. Even when they are hired, BIPOC employees tend to be concentrated in more junior roles; a 2017 Innovate Inclusion report on government-funded entrepreneurship incubators found “there was no representation of African/Caribbean Canadian, Latin Canadian or Indigenous communities at the board level, and very few at the executive level or in mentorship teams.” And there was a significant pay gap for visible minorities, especially Black tech workers, who according to Brookfield Institute made $63,000 in 2016 — $13,000 less than the average across all visible minority groups in tech occupations, and $16,000 less than white or white-passing employees. (The disparity is even more profound for Black women and other women of colour.)

This is despite the fact that a diverse workforce directly correlates with business success; a study by McKinsey & Company found that businesses with racially- or gender-diverse executives and boards of directors are significantly more likely to see above-average profits. And in general, companies with a diverse range of employees, including people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community, are better positioned to attract top talent, tend to be more innovative and make better quality decisions and report higher employee satisfaction.

Many employers are now thinking about how they can do better when it comes to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. And honestly, it’s time. Here are eight proven ways to make your workplace more inclusive.

Get the numbers

It’s impossible to know what you need to do without accurate data on where you are. Collect disaggregated data on the demographics of your current workforce, from race to gender to sexuality to ability, then publish the results and repeat the exercise every year.

Most importantly: use this data to come up with a five-year plan that has quantifiable success factors.

That’s something big tech companies are still grappling with, especially when it comes to attracting more Black employees. According to Bloomberg News reporters Shelly Banjo and Ian King, “the world’s most valuable tech companies are still predominantly white and male,” despite publishing their diversity data and publicly committing to do better. At Apple, for example, only 6 percent of the company’s U.S. employees are Black, which is exactly the same percentage of employees who were Black in 2014. There has been a small jump at Google: according to their 2019 diversity report, 2.4 percent of the company’s U.S. workforce is Black, up from 1.5 percent six years prior.

Commit to real change

Lots of people say they want an inclusive workplace. But not everyone is willing to do the work on a long-term basis to make it happen. “It’s great to think of a couple of initiatives around your hiring practices, or doing an event focused for an underrepresented community group. But it’s another thing to build a thoughtful plan,” says Serena Nguyen, director of people experience and strategy at MaRS. The first step is for business leaders to publicly commit to diversifying their workforce. Then, companies must implement organization-wide policies and procedures. The goal, Nguyen says, is a plan that is embedded in an organization, not a one-off initiative led by one passionate person — because if that person leaves or gets too bogged down by their day-to-day, diversity and inclusion efforts will plummet on the list of priorities.

Pinterest is a great example of a tech company that publicly pledged to do better, then actually did so. The company has been publicly setting diversity goals since 2015 and surpassed its external hiring goals for the first time last year; of their full-time engineering hires, women made up 27 percent and underrepresented minorities made up 9 percent.

“Rolling out public diversity targets is an important step, but achieving these goals requires intense and regular follow-up throughout the organization,” then-head of inclusion and diversity Candice Morgan wrote in Harvard Business Review. “It can’t just be left up to HR, either.”

Intentionally expand your network

Lekan Olawoye, the founder and CEO of Talent X and the Black Professionals in Tech Network can’t count the number of times he’s talked to a CIO or CTO who told him they believe in hiring diverse talent — they just couldn’t find enough candidates.

“Then I would go home, and I would speak to a bunch of Black tech executives,” he says. “I realized very early on that it wasn’t a pipeline issue. It was a network issue.”

He gives a hypothetical example: “Let’s assume that you’ve interviewed a bunch of folks and you have two finalists: two Black women, each with lots of experience. They’re superstars. One came from your HR people. The other came from a friend of yours, who said, ‘This will be an amazing person.’ Nine out of 10 times, who do you think gets hired? You go with the one that your friend says is awesome. Everybody does that.”

So much of the hiring in tech is predicated on networks, but if yours is mostly white, mostly able-bodied, mostly heterosexual and cisgender, the candidates you recommend, and who are recommended to you, will be the same. That’s why it’s important to intentionally diversify your network, Olawoye says.

Eyra Abraham, the founder of Lisnen, adaptive technology for the deaf and hard of hearing, agrees. “In my observation, hiring has been driven by culture and values within the organization. Unfortunately, many of the beliefs that they are carrying around can be short-sighted, as they are thinking only for now (“I need to hire someone yesterday for X role, and we’ll just have to rely on our network to bring someone in quickly”) instead of the long-term benefits.”

BPTN offers a service to make this easier. The organization creates pods of tech professionals from different ethnic backgrounds at similar levels in their careers and facilitates monthly meetings via Zoom. It isn’t about hiring; it’s about getting to know one another through discussions about your respective businesses and industry trends. Then, after six months, BPTN puts you in another pod where you do the same thing, only with a new group of people. At the end of a year, “you leave with four to eight net new contracts. So, guess what happens the next time you are hiring? Now your network is a little bit more diverse,” Olawoye says.

Build a pipeline

“There are incredible grassroots and non-profit tech organizations that are led by women, and women of colour in Canada,” says Emily Mills, founder of How She Hustles, a network for diverse professional women. “The challenge and opportunity is to find ways to connect with these communities. Some of these networks are easy to find — through their websites, networking events, Facebook groups, media coverage, awards ceremonies, LinkedIn and word of mouth. Take intentional action to find these groups, ask how you can collaborate and share opportunities.”

She also points out that companies can create their own talent pipelines by partnering with organizations that support the groups they’re looking to reach, whether that’s newcomers to Canada, students or members of a marginalized group. She’s worked with the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, for example, which connects skilled immigrants with companies that are looking for new talent. “See how they can help you break down barriers, bridge gaps and connect the right people to the right opportunities,” Mills says.

Improve hiring

Knockri, an AI-driven, skills-based assessment tool, started with a job hunt.

The startup’s co-founder, Jahanzaib Ansari, had been applying to jobs and not hearing back, until Maaz Rana, a friend — and Ansari’s eventual co-founder — suggested changing the name on his resume. When he tried it, swapping Jahanzaib for Jason, Jordan or Jacob, the call backs started rolling in, often from the same hiring managers who had previously overlooked his application. “We realized there were so many people that are being overlooked unfairly on a yearly basis, and that there has to be a better solution,” he says.

Along with another friend, Faisal Ahmed, they started Knockri, a video-based assessment tool that companies like IBM and Microsoft use early in their screening processes to help reduce the impact of unconscious bias. Using organizational psychology, the software scores candidates on their such skills as communication and teamwork, then delivers an anonymized report to hiring managers.

Not everyone believes in the power of shortlisting anonymized candidates — Olawoye points out that eventually, there will be a face-to-face interview and a racist hiring manager will find a reason not to hire a racialized candidate. “Shortlisting me is not getting me the job,” he says.

But, Ansari says, using this type of software can overcome unconscious bias during the hiring process, and go a long way toward changing a company’s culture. It even holds Knockri accountable to their values. “Sometimes we don’t have large volumes of applicants because we’re not a large enterprise, but the more we grow, the more value our tool is providing us for our internal hiring as well,” he says.

Stop thinking about fit

If you’ve ever made a hiring decision based on who you’d like to hang out with outside of work or who you think best “fits” in the company culture, you may be part of the problem. “Someone can go to a job interview, and they might be a fantastic candidate. But if the hiring manager is trying to bond with you over what type of beer you like when you don’t drink, or last night’s game when you don’t like hockey, then they might think you’re not a good fit for the company,” Ansari says. “But that makes no sense scientifically, because the highest correlation to success predictor is how well you would perform on a certain skill set.”

Elevate your staff

It’s not enough to hire diverse candidates. It’s also important to promote them. “Many companies are making commitments to hire more young people. It’s important, but I don’t think that’s going to move the needle,” Olawoye says. Instead, he thinks companies should focus on promoting talented middle managers, who are smart and hardworking, but didn’t necessarily have the network or executive sponsorship to climb the ranks.

Mills points out that people of colour “are only considered for leadership roles during a public relations crisis, when they had the potential or proven track record to move up the corporate ladder long before they are considered.” So, look at how your company identifies, develops and evaluates leaders, and make sure you’re thinking of people from underrepresented groups for all leadership roles, not just the ones related to diversity and inclusion.

Support the staff you have

Once you’ve promoted them, don’t leave them in the lurch, Mills says. “Consider what all leaders need to succeed, including a team of strategic mentors, sponsors, supporters and colleagues. Too often, I’ve seen leaders who are people of colour, tapped for senior roles where these supports are absent,” she says.

But providing those supports are the best way to keep employees from underrepresented groups. “When it comes to people working with a disability in the workforce, statistics indicate that retention is very high,” Abraham says. “These employees are grateful for the opportunity to work with their employer, and as long as they are treated well, supported on the job and respected, no other strategies are required to entice them to stay. The small investments in accommodations to help an employee thrive in the workplace goes a long way.”

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