Illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Illustration by Tiffany Zhong

Equal measures

A powerful social movement to counter systemic racism and inequality is translating into policy and practice at increasing numbers of organizations, including UBC.

Canadian society’s historical reluctance to bring women and visible minorities into positions of power, be that upper management, the executive suite, or as a board member, has been a barrier to equity, diversity, and inclusion in both the business world and on university campuses.

Changes are afoot, however, due to pressure from shareholders, consumers, regulators, and legislators.

In the corporate world, a major change was invoked last year in the Canada Business Corporations Act, which issued mandated disclosure requirements relating to women in leadership positions. Disclosure requirements are now also in place for Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, and persons with disabilities. Such changes impose greater responsibility for Canadian businesses to commit to diversifying boards and senior management.

The well-worn trope that “the best person for the job” and employment equity are incompatible is no longer acceptable to stakeholders, says Dr. Ismaël Traoré, who is dually appointed at UBC as director of faculty equity in the Office of the Provost, and as institutional initiative strategist in the Equity and Inclusion Office.

Traoré facilitates collaboration between the two offices, using the university’s Inclusion Action Plan as a framework to advance the university’s equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) commitments. His position includes co-managing the operationalization plan of 36 EDI actions organized into five goals that ensure students, staff, and faculty are part of a respectful and supportive community. It is part of a national trend, with Universities Canada reporting in 2019 that 77 per cent of post-secondary institutions reference EDI in their strategic plan.

While Traoré is helping advance EDI at UBC, he sees parallel progress in the business world. Two main events helped to propel this new zeitgeist. One was the discovery this year of more than 1,300 unmarked graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of former residential schools. The other was the death of George Floyd, whose 2020 murder by a Minneapolis cop sparked global support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are considerable social and economic incentives to embracing EDI policies, Traoré says. Clients and customers are prepared to utilize the powerful tool of social media if they perceive a company is engaged in EDI “tokenism” (when one or two women or a minority group member are appointed for appearances’ sake), says Traoré. Businesses also have to be cognizant of the concerns of government, whose contracts may increasingly be awarded based upon effective EDI policies, he says. A 2019 study of 452 US firms (“From tokens to key players: The influence of board gender and ethnic diversity on corporate discrimination lawsuits”) published by Human Relations indicates an additional economic incentive: more female and minority board members “reduces the likelihood of large-scale discrimination lawsuits given their propensity to advocate for underrepresented groups in the workplace.”

For universities, a strong EDI framework enhances its global reputation, which appeals to greater numbers of international students who are seeking campuses where their culture and racial background is represented, Traoré says.

Connected to this is government’s growing role in enhancing EDI policies at universities, he says. “Whether it’s federal or provincial funding, there should be a strong requirement that colleges and universities show meaningful progress on employment equity.”

Cultural humility: “An orientation of curiosity, a willingness to learn, change, and share power, and awareness of one’s racial socialization.” 

– Dr. Ismaël Traoré

All this is happening, says Traoré, thanks to a more sophisticated awareness of what racism is. Previously, the dominant narrative was to blame “a bad apple” for racial discrimination, but there is a growing understanding that racism is also systemic. This conceptual shift means that people are more receptive to organizational anti-racism transformation. “People are saying, ‘I would like to know my role and what to do to address racism.’” Traoré also points to the rise of racial justice consciousness, whereby people adopt a “cultural humility, which is an orientation of curiosity, a willingness to learn, change, and share power, and awareness of one’s racial socialization.”

At UBC, Traoré leads and supports the development and implementation of numerous EDI initiatives. These include using an intersectionality lens to understand the differing impact that COVID-19 curtailment has had on tenure-track faculty. Preliminary analysis shows a higher degree of negative impact on faculty from systemically marginalized groups, including racialized, Indigenous, and women faculty, and faculty with physical disabilities. It also entails performing a comprehensive assessment of UBC’s EDI data ecosystem. In addition, Traoré is organizing educational seminars on racial literacy for staff in the Provost’s Office. “There is a real appetite to discuss issues of racism and anti-racism,” says Traoré, who was born in Burkina Faso and grew up in several countries.

Leadership appointments at UBC also need to reflect EDI policies to enhance diversity.

This goes hand in hand with cluster hiring, which Traoré says is to make sure there is more parity. Cluster-hiring in academia is increasingly being used to tackle diversity gaps by hiring, for example, half a dozen Indigenous professors into a faculty lacking diversity. Cluster-hiring can also enable retainment, as faculties can build community and look to one another for support and collaboration.

Pay equity gaps also need to be tackled, he says, as well as the “cultural taxation” borne by minority groups. This is the unrecognized and unpaid service portion shouldered by faculty and staff who promote diversity on campus on their own time. “This is just the surface of many actions that need to be taken,” says Traoré.

Such organizational changes won’t be easy, and Traoré anticipates some “diversity resistance.” A key way to minimize this is to ensure that leadership “communicates that this is the course the university wants to take.” Faculty and staff must also be kept abreast of EDI initiatives to create buy-in and allay misconceptions, Traoré adds.

There can be barriers to implementing EDI policies at both universities and other workplaces. Changes are impeded by a lack of resources, difficulties in attracting and retaining diverse talent, and a dearth of data on EDI best practices. These issues are more of a concern for smaller businesses that have fewer resources and are often dependent upon grants to fund operations than big-budget post-secondary institutions.

Overcoming society’s “isms” – from racism to sexism, ableism to heterosexism – can feel akin to moving mountains. Traoré is helping propel the university into a place of inclusion and respect, where exciting young scholars have the support they need to explore innovative new ideas. The EDI advances that he is forging at UBC will provide leadership and inspiration not only to the wider university community but also to the business sector, which is increasingly embracing a mandate to be part of these enlightened changes in Canadian society.