Bringing racial diversity to corporate Canada

By Agapi Gessesse
Oct 23, 2020
Photo credit: Agapi Gessesse, award-winning change-maker and executive director, CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals

Listen to our podcast episode with this article's author, Agapi Gessesse, CPABC, along with Leah Giesbrecht, communications specialist, CPABC. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.

The Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for an end to white supremacy and violence inflicted on Black communities and champions the inclusion of Black people, sparked an array of promises and pledges from major corporations across the world when it began in the USA in 2013. Many corporations vowed to make their enterprises inclusive and diverse in representation.

However, recent developments and revelations surrounding systemic racism – the way racism is reflected and upheld in the systems in our society and our structural and institutional operations – prove otherwise. Such examples have underscored the importance of going beyond words and committing to proactive engagements.

Furthermore, corporate pledges and calls to action are often distanced from the actual cause, as are token initiatives that come and go with the news cycle. Doing something simply for the sake of it without a genuine urge to dismantle discriminatory attitudes leads to a brick-wall status quo that momentarily gets masked by the noise of apparent hustle. Social injustice cannot be tackled through superficiality.

Diversity is still a distant reality

An analysis of leading corporations takes us to the evident conclusion that diversity is still a distant reality. A study carried out by the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, covering eight Canadian cities and five sectors, has shown that only 10.4% of board positions are occupied by racialized people – though they form 28.4% of the population in the eight cities analyzed.

The lowest figure of representation can be seen in the case of the corporate sector where only 4.5% of the posts are occupied by the racialized people. Of this, only 13 Board members were Black. The disparity in selection is laid down clearly through such statistical evidence.

To create a level playing field for all capable candidates in the corporate sector, irrespective of their race, we need to realize that it is high time for us to put action behind the statements produced publicly by leaders in the corporate sector. The commitments must be sturdy and unwavering – and definitely not ones that hide behind a political scenario.

Your organization’s commitment to diversity: Start now, start here

There are a few things that businesses can start off with to ensure a sound diversity in their establishments.

  1. Structural checks are of prime necessity. These include internal audits that must take place to check pay equity, the number of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour) individuals who have applied for promotions internally, and the ratio of promotions vs. not.
  2. You also need to assess how far your organization will go to ensure equity in the workplace and how much of a change you’re willing to make. Be honest with yourself in this assessment because unrealistic expectations are not going to do any good.
  3. A robust system of communication with your employees is needed to complement these efforts – one that is marked by approachability. You must ask your employees about what you’re doing well and must continue to do to contribute to diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace. Ask them what you should stop doing that is harming D&I in the organization.
  4. Finally, follow these actions up by asking employees to suggest what you should start doing to mould an inclusive environment. By engaging in meaningful and constructive discussions about the good and bad in your organization’s management style, you will get the organization and leadership to work in the right direction. Be open to a frank discourse.

Diversity is not a favour, but an opportunity

It is essential to understand that D&I is not a favour that your organization is providing to minorities. It is an opportunity for you as an organization to leverage profits, not one to tick checkboxes. In fact, Boston Consulting Group’s study showed that organizations with diverse leadership were 19% more profitable than those that were not. Diversity and inclusion thus benefit your bottom line.

Research also shows that decisions made by inclusive teams take half the time of those made by less inclusive teams. They also make better business decisions about 87% of the time. These benefits cannot be overlooked.

Greater diversity in your leadership in particular will encourage more frequent conversations around race, gender, and sexuality because these will, quite naturally, be the topics that a diverse leadership would be exceptionally aware of.

Don’t worry about being affected by ‘cancel culture’

In the process of cleaning up systemic racism in establishments and creating an inclusive workplace, corporate Canada needn’t be afraid of ‘cancel culture’ – the practice of withdrawing support (cancelling) for public figures or companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive.

If you’re going to stand up for what is right, you needn’t worry about the potentially differing opinions that your business partnerships may have about your approach to D&I, or let this drive your conscious decisions.

Incorporating the crucial steps and must-dos outlined above into the very fabric of your establishment can go a long way in staying true to the strong commitment that you initiate towards D&I at the workplace. Practices, coupled with efficient policies, are key to steering growth ahead, both in terms of profit and inclusivity.

Building diversity isn’t a job for the under-represented

In the effort to increase your organization’s diversity, do not make BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) people your perennial sounding board for new initiatives or policies. Some of this work needs to be carried out by allies.

Step into the shoes of the under-represented and comprehend the difficulties that they face – be it the insecurity they feel at the workplace, the stigmatizing sense of forming a minor fraction of the workforce, the constant piles of ‘rejection’ into which their applications get inducted onto, or the invisibility that white culture thrusts onto them along each facet of the public sphere.

These problems were never created by BIPOC people – why then should the responsibility of teaching and clearing other people’s minds of privileged prejudices fall on them alone?

The burden of racism is not BIPOC peoples’ to bear, nor is it their responsibility to undertake the work needed to make corporate Canada diverse and inclusive.


Agapi Gessesse is an award-winning, powerful, influential, and fearless change-maker. Born and raised in Toronto by a refugee mother from Ethiopia, Agapi’s commitment to community development stems from her lived experience, which then propelled her to obtain her degree in social justice. She speaks and writes on topics such as anti-black racism, workforce development and youth engagement. Agapi Gessesse is currently the Executive Director of CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. 

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