Some of us have spent a huge part of our careers focused on how to bring justice into the workplace. YWCA Canada has been on the receiving end of racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism at work, and as a National Office we committed ourselves to doing better in our practice. As sector leaders we have fought for changes that we thought would lead to material change for those made to feel unsafe, unvalued, and invisible.
Trainings. Employee resource groups. Mentorship. Listening sessions.
We have done them all.
Now we are worried we have been going about this wrong all along.
Recently, we got to hear the brilliant and powerful Sharon Nyangweso (she/her) founder of Quake Lab speak about where EDI measures in employment are falling short. One of the main takeaways she left us with is the ineffectiveness of applying behavioral change approaches to systems level problems.
Let us explain (also, go check her out for a deeper analysis). We have lots of evidence that Black, Indigenous and people of colour, people with disabilities, 2SLGBTQ+ people, women, newcomers, and youth face barriers to gainful employment, especially in leadership positions.
The reasons for this are varied and complex, but all are informed by discriminatory and exclusionary workplace practices, embedded in hostile and harmful systems of oppression.
Many workplaces have attempted to close these gaps through learning opportunities and policy changes intended to change how people interact at work. Incorporating more inclusive language, instituting diversity-focused hiring initiatives, creating employee resource groups and mentorship programs – these are all examples of behavior-focused change initiatives. Entire industries have been built on these types of interventions.
However, there is little evidence, or indeed research, on the effectiveness of these initiatives alone in reducing the barriers marginalized and underrepresented communities face at work.
Why? Because they don’t fully address the systems level barriers these groups face.
YWCA Canada’s Born to Be Bold research sought to identify the barriers marginalized women faced in accessing and retaining employment. Almost all of the challenges participants shared were structural in nature – the need for more affordable housing and fair wages that cover basic necessities; skills and experience not being seen as sufficient or valid by employers, especially for newcomers and internationally-trained professionals; lack of accessible and affordable childcare and transportation; the need for workplace safety especially for survivors of trauma.
These are systems level problems that cannot be solved through behavioral approaches.
Training managers on how childcare responsibilities impact an employee’s performance may make them more open to offering flexible work accommodations to their team, but does it solve the larger problem? No. That problem can only be fully solved by the creation of childcare spaces, or by employers providing financial support to help meet childcare costs.
Hosting a session on implicit-bias training may help team members be more careful in how they make decisions and use language in the workplace, but it alone will not solve the problems racialized employees and survivors of trauma face. That requires a bigger investment in robust equity practices including affordable mental health supports and changes to employer benefits.
Creating an employee resource group so under-represented team members can build community and have a safer space at work is one step in addressing feelings of invisibility and exclusion, but it needs to be matched by intentional hiring, performance management, advancement policies, and anti-discrimination practices that materially address workplace harassment.
There is a place for all of the interventions mentioned above, but they are only part of creating meaningful change. It is not an either or approach – it requires a “both/and” mindset. As organizational leaders we need to go deeper. We can’t do it alone – many of these changes require support from government and multi-sector partnerships as well – but we are an important stakeholder in this process. If we’re really committed to creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces, the time to be bold is now.
This means digging into the status quo to disrupt the way systems have been set up. This means auditing organizational policies and their impact. This means setting up wrap-around supports that address the multiple and compounding barriers that equity-deserving people face.
YWCA Canada recognizes that this requires an all-of-society approach, with buy-in and active participation from those in leadership across sectors. Our cross-sectoral economic empowerment initiatives bring employers, policymakers, service providers, academic partners and community members together to envision and co-create employment environments that speak to the distinct needs of women and gender diverse people. This includes meaningful labour protections and employment standards, pay equity, action on workplace violence, and recruitment, retention, reskilling and advancement models grounded in a gender-equity lens. We invite you to join this bold movement for equitable employment futures.