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No more talk – let's see action

Despite high ambitions, people of colour and indigenous peoples struggle to receive advocacy
Diversity, leadership
Many people of colour, women, people from LGBTQ communities, and others from marginalized groups struggle to attract the support they need from leadership to advance up the corporate ladder.​ Shutterstock

By Ritu Bhasin

I spent 10 years on Bay Street as a legal professional before I decided to leave corporate Canada to become a diversity consultant. The core reason I left was profound for me: I was unhappy because I felt stifled in my ability to be my authentic self.

As a woman of colour, I felt a relentless push to change who I was and to hide core aspects of my identity — what I now refer to as performing in my work and in my book, The Authenticity Principle, in order to attract support from senior leaders. Not surprisingly, the cost of living a binary life was far too high.

Through my consulting practice, I’ve learned that my experience with performing to attract support isn’t unique: Many people of colour, women, people from LGBTQ communities, and others from marginalized groups struggle to attract the support they need from leadership to advance up the corporate ladder.

And while they fight for this support, they simultaneously receive a message of “Change or hide your differences” in order to get ahead.

My desire to better understand the complexities of this problem led me to partner with the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) in New York, on a study called Sponsor Effect: Canada. Our study explores the experiences that people of colour, indigenous peoples, and women (including the intersections between these identities) in Canada have with “sponsorship.”

According to CTI, sponsorship is a powerful advocacy-based relationship that occurs when a senior colleague, or “sponsor,” does at a minimum three things for their “protégé”: believes in their leadership potential and goes out on a limb for them, advocates for their next promotion, and provides cover when they make a mistake.

CTI’s past research on sponsorship has reinforced that sponsorship is a critical lever for high-performing talent to break through to leadership positions. In short, sponsorship is far more important and yields more impact than mentorship.

CTI’s research has also revealed that dramatically fewer people of colour and women enjoy sponsorship in the United States and United Kingdom. This is particularly problematic given that these vulnerable groups can benefit greatly from advocacy, which can enable them to break through barriers.

The research reveals eye-opening insights about experiences with this type of advocacy in Canadian corporate workplaces. First, sponsorship is glaringly rare in Canada across cultures and genders, especially compared to what CTI has seen in the U.S. and U.K. —which was surprising. What stands out to me in particular are the key insights about the experiences of diverse professionals in corporate Canada.

Strikingly, we find that people of colour and indigenous Canadians are more likely to report they aspire to hold “top jobs” in their professions than white people: 75 per cent of men of colour, 67 per cent of women of colour, and 78 per cent of Indigenous peoples compared to 67 per cent of white men and 50 per cent of white women.

Despite this deep desire to advance, our study reveals a sharp divide in the support people of colour and indigenous peoples receive compared to their white counterparts. White people are more likely to receive meaningful advocacy — they report that senior colleagues are more likely to advocate for their next promotion, go out on a limb for them, and provide cover when they stumble.

Instead of receiving this type of advocacy, people of colour and indigenous peoples are more likely to receive advice that focuses on how they can “fix” the way they are perceived — advice on “appearance/grooming,” “how to achieve gravitas” and “how to inspire others.”

If this isn’t alarming enough, there is also a significant discrepancy in how respondents view the way leadership is measured within their organizations. While only 34 per cent of white men report that leadership attributes are defined as conforming to white male standards, 40 per cent of white women, 41 per cent of men of colour, 47 per cent of women of colour, and a staggering 58 per cent of indigenous women and 64 per cent of indigenous men hold this perception.

As a diversity consultant, the implications of this perception are profound. To me, it means significant numbers of diverse professionals likely feel as though leaders are evaluating performance through an exclusionary lens, that they can’t bring their authentic selves to work if they want to get ahead, and that at the root of the nurturing advice they’re receiving is the message “You’re not good enough to get ahead as you are, so become like us.”

It’s also likely a key reason why people of colour and indigenous peoples are not attracting advocacy at the same levels white people are.

While most Canadian organizations cite a commitment to diversity, they’re failing to create truly inclusive environments because they have yet to interrupt the deeply rooted emphasis on white male norms of behaviour and likeness. Because of this, diverse professionals continue to experience relentless pressure to conform and mask who they are — in other words, to leave their authentic selves at the door — to attract advocacy and sponsorship.

For Canadian organizations to start walking the inclusion talk, several things need to happen. Sponsorship must be ramped up across all groups, with an emphasis on marginalized groups. Leaders and team members must be taught about what sponsorship is and how to make it happen across lines of differences. And the focus must be on inclusive sponsorship, which means that behavioural differences related to culture and gender must be leveraged rather than quashed, and biases must be interrupted.

Finally, we have Canadian data that clearly identifies advocacy gaps tied to race, ethnicity and intersectionality, and these numbers speak volumes about why people of colour, indigenous peoples, and women are not moving up to the executive ranks. It’s now up to corporate Canada to disrupt. No more talk — let’s see action.

Ritu Bhasin is president of Bhasin Consulting in Toronto, and is a leadership and diversity consultant. For more information, visit www.bhasinconsulting.com.

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