The Canadian retail industry is a proud one, boasting a history that’s filled with ground-breaking innovations, trendsetting achievements and world acclaim. Through the years, many of the country’s homegrown brands have risen to global success and renown, transcending business and paving a way that’s enabled others to forge their own paths. These successes have ensured the industry’s continuous development and growth, an ever-broadening pool of possibility and opportunity, and a place firmly entrenched within the Canadian identity. It’s a status that most retailers operating within the country acknowledge with a certain amount of honour. However, in order for the industry to most effectively represent the country’s composite, more accurately reflect the consumers it serves and enable greater accessibility to opportunities for all, much greater emphasis needs to be placed on diversity and inclusion efforts within organizations. In fact, according to business consultant, teacher and expert entrepreneur, Donovan Dill, it’s becoming an imperative of doing business.
“A lot of the cultural norms that have existed within the corporate structure through the years have resulted in corporations becoming reflections of their leaders,” he says. “If you were to take a picture of the executive board of many companies in Canada, you’d primarily see older, distinguished white gentlemen who are now mentoring younger white gentlemen to one day take over those positions. You unfortunately won’t see many women or BIPOC in that population, certainly not more than 5 or 10 percent. Narcissism breeds in those types of environments where nobody can elevate toward the higher echelons unless they are a reflection of their leaders. But, this, of course, isn’t the case right across the board. Some of the very best companies and brands out there realized early on that in order to properly target and serve a market in Canada, they had better represent that market within their organizations. Canada is a multicultural society. And so, ensuring broad representation should be a no-brainer. But it seems in most cases to be a bit of a generational barrier in that some of the older executives aren’t realizing the growth potential that can be tapped through greater executive diversity.”
Scourge of society
The ‘generational divide’, as Dill describes it, certainly seems to show up in the attitudes and decisions of the industry’s old guard. However, it’s a divide that is perhaps most evident in the general collective sentiment of the younger generations. In fact, Deloitte’s recent A call for accountability and action – a global survey of the Millennial and Gen Z cohort – found that at least one in five respondents said that they feel personally discriminated against “all of the time” or “frequently” as a result of their backgrounds. Six in 10 Gen Zs and 56 percent of Millennials see systemic racism as “very” or “fairly” widespread in general society, with 22 percent of Millennials stating that they have felt discriminated against by businesses, and 23 percent of Gen Zs stated to have suffered the same abuse in their workplaces and educational institutions. Results of the report serves to further highlight the continuation of the scourge of discrimination in society. However, the issues clearly run far deeper.
Another report developed and published by the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) titled Diversity and Inclusion in Canada’s Marketing Sector: CMA Research Findings 2021, explores the issue within the context of the workplace at a more granular level, raising the need for greater awareness and concrete action when it comes to inclusion. According to the report, the vast majority (86%) of marketers believe that their perspectives are included in decision-making, while minority women (82%) are less likely to hold this view, compared to non-minority men (95%). Nearly one-third (32%) of respondents have witnessed staff from diverse backgrounds being talked down to or ignored in meetings. And a majority (63%) of respondents have noticed others being less engaged due to institutional, interpersonal, structural or internalized systems of discrimination.
Addressing the issues
As a remedy to these problems, the survey suggests that a more inclusive workplace can be achieved through greater diversity at the leadership level. Respondents who work for organizations with diverse leadership are more likely (72%) to feel engaged at work. Despite this, however, creating a truly diverse workplace remains an aspiration at best for most companies. Only 23 percent of respondents described their companies’ executive suites as well diversified; a meagre 54 percent said that there is a senior-level diversity role within their organizations; and less than half (48%) believe that members of BIPOC communities are given the opportunity to elevate themselves to senior positions. Dill, a seasoned investor and advisor who has helped more than 1,000 entrepreneurs and startups launch successful businesses since 1994, has experienced most of these challenges firsthand. And he’s witnessed the benefits that real diversity and inclusion efforts can yield as well.
“There’s a transition that’s been happening within the country for some time now,” he says. “The younger entrepreneurs are understanding more clearly the changing demographics in Canada and the business advantages of diversity and inclusion. Not only are retailers and brands better able to market, communicate and appeal to different segments of their audience when those segments are represented within the company, the innovation and creativity that’s generated as a result is tremendous. The presence of multiple perspectives, and the unique talents and skills that they bring to the table, is perhaps the greatest return from this kind of diverse and inclusive culture and approach. And, in the end, it’s a culture that, if cultivated honestly and organically, will be a big differentiator for brands going forward. Ensuring diversity and inclusion will help them attract the best talent to their organizations and an unequalled breadth of customers to their stores.”
Investors demanding diversity
Not only do diversity and inclusion efforts, or the lack thereof, impact a retail organization’s ability to acquire top talent and prospective customers, they are increasingly informing where some of the country’s top retail investors put their money. According to the 2020 RIA Investor Opinion Survey, which is based on an Ipsos poll of 1,000 individual investors in Canada, found that 73 percent of respondents would like a portion of their portfolio to be invested in organizations providing opportunities for the advancement of women and diverse groups. And 72% want their fund manager to engage with Canadian corporations to encourage more diversity in leadership. In addition, the survey found that 89 percent of respondents believe it is important for Canadian companies to create inclusive workplaces that are free of discrimination, while 85 percent said Canadian companies should provide more leadership opportunities to qualified women and people of diverse backgrounds. The report’s findings provide an encouraging indication that the social needle just might be pushing toward greater awareness and inclusion. And that’s a “really positive” thing, says Anne Marie Pham, Executive Director at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI), and perhaps a sign that the business community is finally aligning to the realities of the Canadian market.
“It’s vitally important for retailers and other businesses to think proactively about diversity and inclusion,” she asserts. “The market has changed significantly. About 30 or 40 years ago, the Canadian market was fairly homogeneous. But as the country continues to rapidly change, expectations from the market also change. And if retailers want to thrive, they need to become more responsive to the needs of that changing market and of the changing social conditions. As a society, we’re evolving in terms of our values. There are more conversations and national discourse on the importance of these issues. Organizations that are not involved in these conversations are going to miss out on the current realities and expectations of their customers, which will lead to a loss of market share and brand relevance.”
Pham also recognizes the positive effect that a culture of diversity and inclusion can have on retailers’ recruiting efforts, adding that a lack of such a culture can also negatively impact current employees, resulting in disengagement, disgruntlement and disdain for the organization that they work for and their role within it. In fact, she says that the issue of diversity and inclusion needs to be addressed and approached holistically by companies looking to increase their efforts, suggesting that the solution needs to be as wide-ranging as the problem it’s intended to cure. By doing so, she says, organizations will benefit in ways that they never could have imagined.
“When the diversity and inclusion lens is applied to everything that organizations do, whether its policies, programs, services, processes, people, communications or community partnerships, they open up massive amounts of opportunities,” she says. “It enables them to strengthen relationships between people and to perhaps unlearn some of the things that were incorrect in our socialization and relearn new ways of understanding and working with each other. It promotes a much more open mindset which allows them to design their retail spaces to be more accessible to people with disabilities and to seniors. The objective and result of a truly inclusive setting is the creation of an environment that is welcoming and safe for people of all backgrounds and experiences.”
Changing of the guard?
If findings from the CMA’s Diversity and Inclusion in Canada’s Marketing Sector report is any indication, it seems that there are some encouraging signs concerning increased recognition of the issue among Canadian organizations. Of those surveyed, 85 percent said that their organizations are making at least some effort to diversify their leadership and supporting those efforts by hiring talent from diverse communities (47%); creating diversity and inclusivity committees, taskforces, networks and/or affinity groups (43%); and developing formal diversity and inclusion training and management programs (40%). Pham believes that exploring and following through on all of the above endeavours is the best place to start for organizations looking to create a more diverse and inclusive environment for their employees and visitors, stressing the importance of a genuine approach that starts at the top.
“We invite all organizations to ask themselves a few key questions,” she says. “Who’s at your decision-making table? Who are the leaders within the organization who are making the decisions that impact employees, locations, products and services? How homogeneous is that group of leaders? Do you have in place systems by which you can engage diverse voices and experiences to review products and services? Who’s missing? And, what programs and policies does the organization have in place? Are they working for all? Has the organization taken the opportunity to review those programs and policies through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens? These are some really important questions for organizations to think about in order to create a more welcoming, safe and nurturing environment for all.”
Mentorship is key
Pham also urges organizations to visit CCDI’s website (ccdi.ca) for resources including educational webinars, toolkits and guides aimed at helping to create and foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. They are resources, among more that are offered by other groups and associations, that Dill agrees are vital in providing the right education in order to raise awareness around these important issues. He recognizes their value in enabling a greater understanding at the executive level of the things that need to be done to correct the corporate imbalance. However, to properly and most effectively make a real difference among leadership, he believes that strong, dedicated mentorship is required. Only then, he says, can meaningful progress be made within any organization.
“Organizations everywhere need to sit down and assess the way they operate, the ways they promote from within and the way they communicate with employees. And, they’ve got to realize that they aren’t going to create a more diverse and inclusive environment by hiring one or two token minorities. To make a real impact, organizations have got to develop strategies around mentorship. Many underemployed groups within our society have not been exposed to the same opportunities and environments as others. There’s not often a gap in ability, talent or skills. But they require guidance from the senior level in order to be set up for success. The right mentorship can change the trajectory of thinking in an individual, opportunities within their career and for the organization as well. True inclusivity means that you’re going to hire an individual, walk them through the process that isn’t closed or limited access, and train and develop them to be successful at that level, no matter their culture, colour, background or sexual preference. The benefits that result are incredible, lending to the development and growth of individuals within the organization and the organization as a whole.”