As head of Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute (which she founded in 1999), Wendy Cukier, also a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, has spent her career advancing diversity and helping companies understand the business case for more inclusive workplaces. We recently spoke to Cukier about the progress being made on the issue and why building a DE&I strategy isn’t rocket science. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
We hear a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) these days as many companies state it’s a business imperative. Is progress being made?
Sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one step back. But, if you look at the numbers, there’s no question, there are more women in leadership roles. And workplaces have improved. Are they perfect? No, but there are more protections in place. And I think really over the last year, in part because of the killing of George Floyd, there’s been a very heightened awareness. We’ve seen corporate Canada step up in ways that we had never seen before. And I think we’re seeing a similar shock to the system as a result of the discovery of the mass graves of 215 First Nations children in Kamloops. This tragedy seems to be moving people in a way a lot of other things have not. Now, you have the commissioner of the RCMP acknowledging the RCMP has a problem with systemic discrimination. You have the prime minister talking about our treatment of Indigenous people as genocide. Those are significant signs that people are at least willing to name the problem in a serious way.
And I think we’ve seen some really interesting movement. We do work with some of the grocery chains and other consumer goods organizations. Some are actually committing to setting aside procurement dollars to say, “We are going to devote shelf space to women entrepreneurs. We are going to devote shelf space to Black entrepreneurs. We are going to make a deliberate effort to find products and services from Indigenous entrepreneurs.” So I think, for me, following the money is always a way to try to figure out if people are serious. And I’m seeing more evidence of that now than even a year ago.
What advice do you have for companies building their DE&I strategy?
It’s not rocket science. We do diversity assessments for organizations to look at where their priorities are. So, you can look at governance, and there’s “The 50-30 Challenge” right now, which is encouraging organizations to aspire to gender parity (50%) and increased representation (30%) of under-represented groups in their leadership and their boards. But obviously you can’t do a lot with your leadership team if you don’t have the pipeline in place with recruitment and promotion and all those things. So human resources is another obvious place to look. And metrics—where are you now? Where do you want to get? What gets measured gets done, and anyone in the retail business knows how important that is. So, there’s that piece—digging into what your workforce looks like and what you’d like it to look like. There are a lot of different components, but it’s just like any other aspect of corporate strategy. You just break it down. And I’m a big believer in the idea that your diversity and inclusion strategies should map exactly to your corporate strategy; so you have a marketing plan, you have an HR plan, you have a research and development plan.
What’s the business case for inclusive workplaces?
Look at the changing demographics in Canada! Workforce growth is coming through immigration. If you don’t have a strategy for recruiting, hiring and promoting immigrants, you’re missing out on a lot of talent. Diversity and inclusion is also tied to improved organizational performance—if people feel they have opportunities, they’re likely to stick around. And there’s good research that links having good diversity and inclusion policies to improving employee engagement and satisfaction. Then there’s the link between diversity and innovation and creativity. Obviously if you open your supply chain to more diverse product makers, you’re able to better serve those more diverse segments of the population.
The business case is just as plain as the nose on our face, because Canada is changing. You have to be equipped to take advantage of those opportunities and it’s very difficult if you don’t have people in your workforce making decisions who share experiences with the people you’re trying to serve.
This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's June/July 2021 issue.