For those who, for some reason, don’t already know it, February is Black History Month. Recognized in the United States, Canada and Germany, it’s a time set aside each year in order to observe and pay honour to the contributions and achievements made by the Black community within each of these countries, and toward the improvement and progression of the world in general. It’s a time that provides us all with the opportunity to salute some of the well-known names of the fight for equality and civil rights, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, as well as some of the lesser-known figures, like Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height and Claudette Colvin. Though Black history differs somewhat between the United States and Canada with respect to the turbulence and injustice that’s occurred within the two countries, it nonetheless serves as a necessary platform to celebrate the evolution of Canadian society with respect to racial equality, while also representing a reminder of sorts concerning the distance that we have left to travel.
A business imperative
For the Canadian business community, it’s a month that’s come to signify a similar importance. However, it also tends to cast a focus on the broader context of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the world of corporate Canada. It serves to prompt retailers and other businesses within the country to take a critical look at their own DEI initiatives and efforts, identifying where they may be making positive gains, as well as the areas in which more concerted work might be required. They are initiatives and efforts that are applauded by many astute industry observers and analysts who recognize the necessity in undergoing these endeavours in order to not only do the right thing, but to elevate their brands through the expansion of creativity, development of perspectives and attraction of the very best talent. And, if recent statistics around the issue are any indication, there seems to be quite a bit of runway ahead of Canadian businesses to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for employees.
According to a recent Osler report entitled 2021 Diversity Disclosure Practices: Diversity and leadership at Canadian public companies, there have been some gains made with respect to DEI within Canadian businesses. For instance, women now hold approximately 23.4 percent of board seats among Canadian companies and account for the filling of 39.1 percent of newly created or vacated board seats. In addition, members of visible minorities also made slight progress, making up approximately 6.8 percent of positions on Canadian boards. These are significant improvements that are being made as a result of the development and maintenance of policies within companies across the country. In fact, the report suggests that more than two-thirds (67.3%) of Canadian businesses have adopted such policies and guidelines, a number that increased from 64.7 percent in 2020.
Though this progress should certainly be acknowledged, there remain inequities within the walls of Canadian businesses. The report shows that, despite progress made by women, very little of it can be identified in the executive suite. In 2021, the proportion of women holding executive level positions increased by the barest of margins to 18.2 percent, up from 17 percent over the previous year. And, when analyzing the progress made by Aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities, the uptick in results is just as meagre. Among over 2,200 board positions within the 316 CBCA companies that provided disclosure for the report, only 8 positions are held by Indigenous peoples, while the number of director positions held by persons with disabilities is just 9.
The ethical catalyst for Canadian companies to develop, nurture and evolve DEI initiatives and policies, and adhere to them, is clear: it’s simply a fundamental right for all humans, despite their race, creed, colour, gender, sexual orientation or identification, to enjoy equal opportunity to advance and progress within their jobs and careers. However, when viewing the issue through a business lens, the impetus to build a culture of inclusion is much more interesting and represents a means to build and strengthen brands and improve the quality of the work they do. When opening up the organization to the input and influence of many different perspectives and experiences, creating a tapestry of insights and innovation, barriers to thinking and creativity are removed, leading to a more holistic view of the market and the community of customers the brand serves.
Continuing our progress
Diversifying the talent that gains representation within the organization will also more accurately reflect the society in which it operates, attracting the attention of an increasing number of consumers who shop with brands based on their values and the things they stand for. And, it’s not just the attention of prospective customers that will yield impressive dividends for brands. Creating and promoting a strong DEI culture within the organization will also serve as a conduit for the best and brightest young talent out there. It may seem trite to even suggest, but when an employee feels welcome and comfortable within their workspace, and appreciated and valued by their coworkers and associates, it will be evident in the work they produce and dedication they show toward their employer.
It’s been suggested by a growing number of industry pundits that, in order for there to be any meaningful movement in the area of DEI within Canadian business, something of a change or shift in mindset must be made at the very top of organizations. There seems to linger an antiquated view concerning the issue. However, with a groundswell of importance building around DEI, one that continues to grow every day, and the recognition by more professionals of its criticality, it may not be long before the barriers to entry and progression are removed completely, and the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion in society and the Canadian business community becomes a given fact. Until then, however, thank goodness for Black History Month and the enduring contributions of the Black community toward ensuring that we continue fighting for equality and the rights of every Canadian.