Why your company needs a chief diversity officer

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It’s no secret that Canada’s tech scene is hot. Last year, more jobs were created in Toronto alone than in San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and Washington, DC, combined.

Part of the reason for Toronto’s ascension to the top of North America’s tech ecosystem has been its support for diversity and inclusion efforts. Although some Canadian companies have demonstrated that they value those who do this work, historically, the U.S. has led the way.

Corporate America has been intentional about gender and racial discrimination, (and diversity and inclusion efforts generally), in part as a remedy to America’s history of slavery as a legal and economic institution. While Canada does not share the US history of slavery, it has its share of shameful national policies (i.e. Japanese internment camps and residential schools, for example). Unlike the US, however, observation suggests that Canada has taken a more superficial interest in its history of discrimination.

In the past 10 years, US tech has signalled to their employees, customers, and partners that they understand the need for this work, having introduced chief diversity officers (CDOs), or related roles, as well as investing in long-term and comprehensive strategies. In the Canadian context, however, few (if any) tech companies have added a seasoned CDO to their executive team. While the concerns in the Canadian tech community differ from those in the US, the Tech for All report (released in September) demonstrates that multiple forms of discrimination exist in Canadian tech.

If Canadian tech wants to continue its precipitous growth, it is imperative that leaders in the industry remain cognizant of the complexity of Canada’s history and hire the very strategists—CDOs—who are capable of enacting meaningful change in these spaces.

In Canada, even the best-intentioned companies are overlooking this opportunity.

Focusing too narrowly on CDOs with a recruitment background

We work with thoughtful CEOs who understand the importance of ensuring that a diversity of people, perspective, and experiences are reflected in their organization. They know that diverse teams are smarter, make better decisions and are able to solve problems more effectively. They understand that diversity needs to be a business priority because their company is building products or services for a diverse and global customer base.

In the Canadian tech ecosystem, however, companies are almost exclusively focusing their efforts on recruiting, and as a result, often hire people to lead their diversity efforts who have a talent acquisition background. While this is one part of a comprehensive and sustainable diversity strategy, a seasoned CDO will possess a wider set of competencies.

Diversity can be our strength, but only if we design for it deliberately and intentionally, with the support of experienced CDOs.
 

Many companies are not spending equal time on their recruitment efforts as well as building a company culture where people from all backgrounds can feel like they belong. When new employees don’t feel included and supported at a company, they’re likely to leave. If they leave, they tell their friends and colleagues about their experiences and over time, these companies struggle with their recruitment efforts. In addition to building a diverse talent pipeline, a CDO must also have the ability to foster an inclusive culture where people feel they belong.

Delegating “diversity” initiatives under the people or HR function

Another common oversight of some Canadian tech companies is delegating the responsibility of diversity and inclusion under the ambit of human resources or people operations exclusively. While the roles of HR and CDO are collaborative, they serve distinct functions. HR focuses on the internal aspects of employees within a company, while a CDO serves a cross-functional role, and focuses on organizational strategy.

There is often a bias that because diversity is about people at its core, that someone with a background in talent acquisition or HR is uniquely positioned to succeed. Although it can work, this is also a short-sighted approach that misses the wide skill set needed to truly succeed in such a role. Working with HR managers and executives, CDOs can assist to build a more far-reaching and pervasive organizational vision that is able to improve performance, foster an inclusive culture, and ensure the bottom line.

Promoting the diversity “champion”

Another common oversight of some Canadian tech companies is allocating the duties of a CDO to an incumbent employee—often one who champions diversity. Unless the employee receives the skills and training required for this role, they are likely to focus on the areas with which they are most familiar. For instance, if the employee’s bias is to advance women’s roles in the workplace, they may do this extremely well, but will likely fail to address other diversity-related concerns.

Often, champions do more harm than good when leading diversity efforts. While passion for the work is important – CDOs must strike a delicate balance between advancing diversity efforts and supporting individuals at different stages of the learning journey.

Along with advancing women in their organization, CDOs must also support the experiences of trans* employees, and chest feeding parents, and employees on the autism spectrum, while also thinking about the company’s product innovation, global competitiveness, and multicultural marketing and communications, to name a few.

Treating “diversity” as a one-time thing

Lastly, while some Canadian tech companies conduct one-off training, evidence suggests that one-off diversity initiatives are likely to be ineffective and can sometimes have negative consequences. As a full-time team member, the role of a CDO is to embed these efforts into the core of a company’s operations.

To those in Canadian tech ecosystem—the people and organizations that say they deeply value diversity and inclusion efforts, yet do not signal their value for people with the skills and expertise who do this work—it’s time to make a change. This work is laborious and technical; it requires specific skillsets and experience to do effectively.

Would you hire a full stack developer to renovate your house, or would you hire a trained professional with appropriate expertise and in that field? In addition to subject matter expertise, successful CDOs posses strategic business know-how, strong facilitation skills, organizational development capabilities, the ability to change hearts and minds and to advance political agendas, and a keen interest in data analysis. While some may not come in a “traditional” package, companies should seek those with some of these core skills and invest in their growth and development to foster and develop the rest.

Tech companies have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that they will do things differently; they have an opportunity to design products and services that bring value to the world, and to develop company cultures with inclusive systems where people genuinely feel they belong.

Diversity can be our strength, but only if we design for it deliberately and intentionally, with the support of experienced CDOs. The response of Canadian tech leaders in the coming months will go a long way towards determining the growth and resilience of the ecosystem.


About the Authors

Sarah Saska

As co-founder and CEO of Feminuity, Dr. Sarah Saska and her team work with innovative companies to support them to embed diversity and inclusion strategies into the core of their business. She is a member of the Advisory Council for Entrepreneurship at Western University, Pique Fund II, and The MATCH International Women’s Fund and sits on the Board of Directors for Wen-Do Women’s Self Defence.

Sarah has twice been named amongst the Women’s Executive Network’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada and amongst Culture Amp’s list of “21 Diversity and Inclusion Leaders You Should Know.” Sarah is a TEDx speaker, and she is featured on CBC’s The National and Yahoo’s Open Concept podcast, as well as in print in The Financial Post, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Bloomberg Law, Vice Sports, and The New York Times. Sarah lives in Toronto, Canada with her dog, Gordon.

Danny Guillory

Danny Guillory is the head of global diversity & inclusion at Autodesk. At Autodesk, he integrates all dimensions of diversity and inclusion into the organization including customer acquisition, recruitment, hiring, people development, advancement, investment, and acquisition. He is also interested in the application of people analytics to different initiatives.

Daniel was formerly CEO of Innovations International, a consulting firm that assists global companies on leadership, innovation, and diversity through assessment, strategic planning, learning and development, and internal communications. Daniel received a B.A. from Stanford University, a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and he also studied at the Universite de Paris I–Pantheon Sorbonne, along with the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany. Danny is passionate about the integration of diversity into the development of Artificial Intelligence.