Doing diversity right

Doing diversity right

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Doing diversity right is the right thing to do, but ensuring inclusion can be the trickiest part for many. But Halifax-area diversity expert Ann Divine says it is for the benefit of everyone, everywhere and that the people who get on board stand to not only feel good about helping to create equitable work opportunities, but also capitalize on them.

The well-known inclusivity implementation expert is lending a helping hand here at home as she works to facilitate diversity and inclusion implementation in Halifax through her business, Ashanti Leadership Professional Development & Services, which she founded in 2011 several years after immigrating to Canada in 2004. The business works with people and organizations to strengthen their ability to become inclusive and work towards bringing a more diverse group of voices to the decision-making table.

Divine says her work has revealed an increasing interest among Halifax businesses in intentional inclusion and fostering a welcoming work environment where each team member feels that their voice is not only heard, but valued. And while the city still has much growing to do in terms of inclusion, Divine says this signals it is ready for change.

“It feels like something quite significant is happening in terms of the city’s growth and economic outlook and that is thanks in large part to bringing more diverse voices to the table. Halifax is doing a lot better than when I arrived in 2004,” says Divine.

Defining diversity

The organization educates its clients on what diversity and inclusion actually are and how they include other areas beyond ethnicity and gender. Divine says this message is one that can take many by surprise.

“It’s not about ticking boxes. It’s about a person with mental health issues, a disability, trans persons, someone about to retire, someone with an accent and yes, it also includes white males, who can serve as mentors and allies,” says Divine. “It’s a two-way street, not a one-way street.”

Divine teamed up with Halifax Chamber of Commerce Chair Margaret Chapman to host diversity and inclusion-
minded women’s breakfasts along with the Wonder Women Conference, where a variety of voices fostered honest conversations and suggestions on how to improve.

It was an event that Chapman found incredibly rewarding, given other recent examples that show diversity is still severely lacking at events, including a recent international security forum hosted in Halifax where an all-male panel discussed women’s critical role within that industry.

“That panel was symptomatic of the things that are still happening — boards and leadership roles that are monochromatic and single-gendered. These are things that need to be more inclusive,” she says.

Chapman, who is also a Partner and Chief Operations Officer at Narrative Research, says this event also highlighted that while many are eager to preach in support of increased inclusion, few have made real commitments to being part of the effort working to make that happen. She says a crucial first step for any person or organization looking for somewhere to start is to stop talking and start listening, to then learn what can be put into action.

“It’s important to listen and hear what needs to change and to then be open to being part of and working toward that change,” says Chapman. “You have to have those conversations — and yes, they may be uncomfortable — in order to make things better.”

Chapman says the Halifax Chamber of Commerce promotes the inclusion of new voices through invites it extends to people from traditionally under-represented groups and students to invite them to a business dinner or luncheon. These individuals are paired up with someone in the business community to ensure the experience becomes less daunting and that they are comfortable speaking with people in the room.

“Having that ally by your side makes it a whole lot easier. Small steps like these enable more meaningful dialogues down the road, which in turn ensures those new voices feel welcomed and heard.”

Signs of success

Since she began her work nearly a decade ago, Divine says she has never been met with a person or organization who didn’t want to take part in diversity and inclusivity training. Instead, she says most are eager to learn about how they can foster an environment around themselves that is welcoming to all others.

“I’ve yet to meet an organization that says to me, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ but I have met plenty who are nervous to talk about it. People want to know how to do it right, but are nervous and unsure how to do and sustain it,” she says.

And as more people become educated, Divine sees the systemic discrimination that was ongoing for decades changing. A specific example is two women of colour being appointed in executive roles in Halifax, with the appointment of Nicole Johnson-Morrison as CEO at EduNova and Candace Thomas as Chair of Dalhousie University.

“We need to see more of this, alongside other types of diversity leading the way,” says Divine.

Nova Scotia Public Service Commission and African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Tony Ince says the commission has also seen significant increases in diversity and inclusion within its workforce over the last decade, during which it launched its first-ever inclusion strategy in 2014 called Raising the Bar. Ince says the strategy sought to establish an ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion in the government and among its workforce, as well as to forge a reputation for equity in private workplaces and among the public itself.

The strategy concluded in 2018 and inspired the creation of the Office of Workplace Mental Health, the hiring of a senior consultant of sexual orientation and gender identity and the commission’s immigrant workplace placement program in partnership with Immigrant Services Association Nova Scotia (ISANS). It is also among the reasons
the commission was recognized as one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers
in 2019.

Ince says these have also helped create a culturally-competent workforce that values diversity and inclusion and a public service that reflects the values of its society.

“Even five years ago most people didn’t truly understand what diversity and inclusion meant. But now, there is more understanding on how different perspectives can enhance, innovate and grow a workplace,” says Ince.

“Being one of largest employers in province, we need to lead by example.
It’s such a great thing when everyone can see themselves in our society. When people feel valued, people become more understanding and are more willing to
sit down and dialogue.”

Why it matters

The first reason Chapman says more businesses should begin empowering diversity and true inclusion within their workplace is that it’s simply the right thing to do. But as it turns out, prioritizing these areas can also be good for business
and lead to financial gains as fresh perspectives are brought to the table and become part of the conversation.

“People should look to hire people with different perspectives than their own as it brings fresh ideas and challenges the way things are done. Without that, a business can get stuck in a certain way of doing things and won’t innovate,” says Chapman.

As more people become involved in the wider business community and conversation, connections are made and the existing network starts growing. Divine says those newly arrived to the table will in turn bring others into the business sector as they see and experience the value of inviting and sharing such opportunities.

“Inclusivity is where people have a sense of belonging and feel they can bring their authentic selves to work and feel free to share their knowledge, skills and expertise. When we have that, the workplace becomes a better place because everyone feels they have a stake in the business,” she says.

And with a diverse community comes a diversity of connections in Halifax and beyond Nova Scotia, leading to opportunities to grow global opportunities, according to Divine, who says with the ever-increasing numbers of immigrants and youth choosing to stay in the province spells a positive future for Halifax.

“Now, it’s about keeping these talented individuals here. With talent shortages everywhere, holding on to them is key. There are so many young people looking to start their own business here and that means the diversity of business in Halifax is also about to take off. And for me, that sounds like a great thing for our province,” she says.

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