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Are we there yet? Advancing equity for women in the workplace

March 8, 2023

The seed for International Women’s Day was planted in 1908 in New York City, when 15,000 women came together to demand better pay, shorter working hours, and the right to vote. Two years later, at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed to mark an international day for women. 

We as a society have come a long way from the initial protests of 1908. Our collective activism has made some great strides and it is important to celebrate them.

But we still have a long way to go. I will let the numbers convince you[1]:

  • women remain under-represented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professions (23%), as entrepreneurs (29%) and as political leaders (29%)
  • about 20% of corporate board seats are held by women and of these seats, only about 6% are held by racialized women
  • women are 30% less likely than men to be promoted to manager from an entry-level position and 60% less likely to be promoted from manager to senior executive
  • Canadian women earned 88.6 cents for every dollar earned by Canadian men
  • closing the wage gap and increasing female workforce participation in Canada could add more than $150 billion to the Canadian economy by 2026

One of the campaign themes for this year’s IWD is #EmbraceEquity. The goal is to strive past formal equality by consciously taking equitable action to foster true inclusion and belonging.

For the last decade or so, there has been a widespread call for implementing equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) strategies in our workplaces. We know that EDI is good for business. Most employers make genuine efforts to promote EDI as it leads to more productive employees; promotes innovation and different ways to problem-solve; promotes collaboration which could help capture new clients; and most importantly, boosts morale and leads to happier employees.

But despite well-intended efforts, EDI initiatives often fail. Why?

This is primarily because EDI is often lumped together, without much consideration given to the meaning of these terms. Equity, diversity, and inclusion are not synonymous. Most organizations in the GTA are diverse but they are not necessarily inclusive and equitable. Failure to realize the difference between equity, diversity and inclusion may render the diversification efforts meaningless.

Understanding equity

Equity looks different for every organization. Equity is often confused with equality. Equality generally means treating people the same way, to give everyone equal access to opportunities. Equity includes treating some people differently, to take into consideration their individual needs. The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines equity as, “fairness, impartiality, even-handedness”. It is a “distinct process of recognizing differences within groups of individuals and using this understanding to achieve substantive equality in all aspects of a person’s life”.

In short, equity acknowledges the diverse lived experiences of people by adapting services and policies according to these differences.

Advancing equity for women in the workplace

Below are some considerations when examining or developing your existing efforts to embrace equity:

  • Increase awareness and quash stereotypes and widespread myths about gender
  • Focus your efforts to change structures. Examples of changing structures includes, examining your policies, practices, and decision making processes through an intersectional, equitable lens.
  • Limit informal recruitment and promotions: using personal networks like company sports teams, social relationships, and word-of-mouth referrals to recruit or promote may stifle your organization’s efforts to diversify. These practices may lead to unconscious biases creeping in.
  • Limit hiring based on “fit”: it is well established that we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us. Our hiring decisions are no different. To mitigate this and other unconscious biases, it is important that criteria for hiring are clearly defined and tied to the organization’s values and vision.
  • Be creative in your job searches: canvass ways to search beyond your traditional means of recruitment. For example, post to different job boards or encourage your recruiters to reach out to promising candidates who are not actively seeking other opportunities.
  • Promote safe spaces for people of all gender: create safe, non-judgmental, spaces for employees to have difficult conversations. Safe spaces will allow for meaningful discussions to take place about difficult topics, such as unconscious biases, sexism, racism, etc.
  • Implement formal mentoring opportunities for women:  informal mentoring where leaders select employees to provide mentorship in social settings outside work can result in diverse employees being marginalized. Lacking mentorship may act as a barrier to retaining qualified candidates.
  • Review your management practices: are certain employees being managed or disciplined more than others? Excessive monitoring and documentation of performance or deviation from written policies or standard practices may act as barriers for employees. Discipline should be applied fairly and consistently, and management practices should be based on business needs and other legitimate grounds.

It is time that we focus our conversations about why equal opportunities are not enough in our workplaces. Efforts to diversify a workplace will not last without efforts to make the workplace equitable and inclusive.