Toronto losing out on diversity: Report

Diverse leadership a 'driver of performance and productivity'
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/12/2008

In the last 175 years, the people of Toronto have only elected 12 visible minorities to city council and today, despite visible minorities making up 46 per cent of the city’s population, there are only four visible minority councillors. This disparity is just one example of the lack of diversity in all leadership roles in Toronto, be it in the private or public spheres, says Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation.

“Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world. Organizations and institutions should reflect the people they are serving. It is time we diversify Toronto’s leadership,” said Omidvar.

The Maytree Foundation, a Toronto-based social justice organization, and the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a coalition of civic leaders in the Toronto region, commissioned a report from the Conference Board of Canada to examine the business case for making diversity a priority at the board level.

The Value of Diverse Leadership found that while visible minorities make up 16.2 per cent of Canada’s population, only 24 of 308 members of Parliament are visible minorities and visible minorities hold just 5.2 per cent of senior management positions in large companies and 1.6 per cent of executive management positions in the public sector.

“The lack of diversity in leadership within the business community and political environments represents an important missed opportunity and a challenge for the future, as leadership is a fundamental driver of performance and productivity,” states the report.

The report highlights the advantages of diverse leadership, including improved financial performance, the capacity to link to global markets, access to an expanded pool of talent and enhanced creativity and innovation.

But, most importantly, leadership diversity creates strengthened social cohesion, said Omidvar.

“When you have people running our public institutions, in places of power and privilege, whether it’s on Bay Street or in Queen’s Park, when you have people who are visibly at these places of influence, people see their faces reflected in them and they feel an alignment and an attachment to the institutions,” she said.

One of the reasons Barack Obama, who has African, Hawaiian and Indonesian roots, is so inspirational is because his election as the United States’ next president has given a disenfranchised population a role model they can aspire to, said Omidvar.

Despite Canada having had a couple of governor generals from visible minority groups, this position is mainly symbolic, she said.

“We have to go beyond symbols of power to places of power.”

In talking to different company executives, there is an interest in having more diversity on their boards but they say they don’t know where to find qualified people, she said.

To address that concern, Maytree launched DiverseCity OnBoard four years ago with the goal of matching highly qualified ethnic and minority candidates with boards of public and voluntary institutions.

“We’re making it easy, we’re taking all the excuses away,” said Omidvar.

In the past three years, the foundation has recruited 500 diverse candidates, of whom 212 have been appointed to boards across the city. The goal is to increase the number of candidates to 1,000 and the number of appointments to 500 in the next three years.

“We recruit people who are qualified but if there is training required, we also provide it. We make sure they are equipped with the right knowledge, competencies and skills,” she said.

DiverseCity OnBoard is one part of an eight-program initiative launched by Maytree and the Toronto City Summit Alliance in November. DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project includes initiatives to expand networks, strengthen institutions, advance knowledge and provide an annual checkup on the extent to which leadership reflects the region’s demographic realities.

In a world where who you know is as important as what you know, having the right connections is key to success, said Omidvar. To that end, DiverseCity Nexus will bridge business and social connections between established and rising executives with an annual speaker series.

“We will put them in the same room with those individuals who are responsible for leadership hiring,” said Omidvar. “We’ll get them to know each other so, at the end of the day, when they are asked, ‘Who do you know who can do this?’ their Rolodex will have been considerably expanded and that expansion will be reflective of the diversity.”

Other initiatives will increase the political involvement of visible minorities and train diverse media spokespeople.

Diversity awards

The winners

The Toronto-area winners of the Maytree Foundation’s second annual Diversity in Governance Awards are:

• The Health Professions Appeal and Review Board: Public governance award

• Harbourfront Centre: Non-profit governance award

• YMCA of Greater Toronto: Trailblazer award.