Harry Sadhra knows how difficult it can be for visible minorities climbing the corporate ladder in Canada. A regional operating officer at RBC in Vancouver, he was born in Canada and is a South Asian Sikh who has a full beard and wears a turban.
“When you look different, you notice how people look at you differently,” said Sadhra.
Many of his Sikh colleagues, overwhelmed by the pressure to fit in, chose to shave their beards, cut their hair and remove their turbans. But not Sadhra.
“I just don’t believe personally in changing a person for a company,” he said.
Many visible minorities in leadership roles feel pressured to “Canadianize” themselves, to look, talk and act like their Caucasian colleagues in order to fit in, according to a new report from Catalyst, a New York City-based research and advisory organization. And that’s bad news for businesses, said Deborah Gillis, Catalyst vice-president for North America.
“If visible minorities feel they have to be the same, then businesses may lose the opportunity to leverage those diverse perspectives, knowledge and experience that they have within their organization,” she said.
Career Advancement in Corporate Canada: A Focus on Visible Minorities — Workplace Fit and Stereotyping
followed Catalyst’s 2007 survey of more than 17,000 visible minority and Caucasian managers, professionals and executives. The survey found visible minorities were less satisfied with their careers than their Caucasian counterparts. It also found 16 per cent of black respondents, 11 per cent of South Asians and 10 per cent of East Asians felt being overly identified with their visible minority group was the main barrier to advancement.
To better understand these results, Catalyst held 19 focus groups with a sample of about 150 visible minority and Caucasian professionals. The groups found some East Asian and South Asian participants, particularly those raised outside Canada, felt many Caucasian colleagues expected them to Canadianize and only visible minorities who did this were accepted and promoted.
Black participants said it was important for black people to hold on to their culture. However, some said they faced a lack of black role models in the workplace, which made it difficult to fit in and advance.
“Workplace fit gives employees a sense of belonging to an organization and really creates a sense for them that they have the opportunity to contribute fully according to their experience, skills and ability, and to succeed within an organization,” said Gillis. But when trying to fit in comes at the expense of who the individual is, the employee actually ends up feeling more excluded, she said.
“That sense of having to blend in and be the same means that you are not bringing your full self to work and in doing that you feel less sense of belonging or fit within the organization.”
With Canada increasingly relying on immigrants as a source of talent, and most of those being visible minorities, according to Statistics Canada, organizations that don’t find a way to help them fit in without losing their own cultural identities will lose out on this invaluable supply of talent, said Gillis.
“From a competitive advantage, it’s critical that a business has a reputation as a place where visible minorities can work and succeed,” said Gillis. It also makes good business sense for an organization’s employee base and senior executives to reflect the community, she added.
Visible minorities make up 15.4 per cent of the labour force and just 11.2 per cent of management positions, according to the 2006 census. This means there’s a lot of pressure on the few visible minorities who make it up the ladder, said Sadhra.
“You’re the one South Asian in the room, so you all of a sudden represent the voice of all South Asians in the community,” he said. “They kind of bucket people based upon one specific subset of their talent.”
This was a sentiment echoed in the Catalyst survey. Nineteen per cent of East Asian respondents, 18 per cent of blacks and 16 per cent of South Asians said their colleagues expect them to represent the point of view of their ethnic background. Only six per cent of Caucasians said the same.
The report also found the prevailing political correctness felt by most Canadians impedes managers’ abilities to give honest feedback to visible minorities because they worry they’ll sound biased. But by not being honest with visible minorities about their performance, they “can actually have a negative impact on the career advancement of the employee,” said Gillis.
This pervading political correctness has also made it difficult to openly address the stereotypes that exist within organizations. In the focus groups, South Asian participants said they are stereotyped as “outsiders” and “foreigners” no matter how long they’ve been in Canada and East Asians said they’re stereotyped as “hard working but not sociable.” Blacks said they are perceived as “not hardworking” and lacking “vital skills.”
To break down these stereotypes, senior leaders need to openly acknowledge them and hold up examples of successful visible minorities who defy these stereotypes, said Gillis.
“This has the added benefit of providing positive role models for other visible minorities in the organization,” she said.
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