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Many employers invest significant time and resources in bringing more diversity into their organizations. But once individuals from under-represented groups have been hired, efforts often diminish.

However, data consistently shows that women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, newcomers and persons with disabilities are often clustered in entry level positions, and that their representation decreases significantly as they move up the ladder.

This indicates that the playing field for various groups is uneven, and that barriers to advancement still exist.17

Woman sitting at her work computer looking frustrated.

For example, in Ontario, a survey with over 1,500 female engineers listed the following as the top challenges they face:18

  • Weak professional network.
  • Inadequate on-the-job training or professional development opportunities.
  • Underutilized engineering skills.
  • Work culture and job demands that compete with family and/or community responsibilities.
  • Fewer opportunities for field work than male colleagues.
  • Feeling disrespected and undervalued by managers and/or co-workers.

The burden should not be placed on members of under-represented groups to fit the organizational mould; rather organizations should do what is needed to support and develop new hires from all talent groups so they can develop and advance.19

Are your onboarding and development practices optimized for unlocking the potential of all members of your workforce?

Continuing a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) focus beyond recruitment is a must

  • Clear Expectations and Ongoing Feedback: Applying a growth mindset, offer regular feedback and real-time coaching to support ongoing improvement.
  • Inclusive Development: Two-way learning such as mentoring, networking, sponsorship and knowledge transfer can help all employees involved develop and learn from each other to meet their goals.
  • Recognize Unique Contributions: Appreciate the unique talents each employee brings to your team or organization, including actions in line with your DEI values; share credit for team successes to support collaboration and engagement.
Group of electrical workers in safety gear walking to the job site

The importance of development programs for new talent pools

Research in 14 countries with 16,000+ women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ2+ employees heard that:20

  • Top ranked DEI interventions are robust anti-discrimination policies, training to mitigate biases, and removing bias from evaluation and promotion decisions.
  • While male leaders saw recruitment as the biggest obstacle to racial and ethnic diversity, for visible minority employees the top obstacle was advancement.
  • Formal sponsorship programs and individual plans for advancement were highly valued by visible minorities, who may lack access to informal networks.

Common DEI Barriers in Onboarding and Developing

You realize that qualified women apply less often for opportunities than men

Not being a “traditional” STEM or trades employee or leader can negatively impact an employee’s ability to develop.

  • Norms about “women’s work” could undermine women’s capacity to reskill for emerging roles.
  • Traditional notions of leadership can limit who is identified as “high potential”.
  • There may be more expectations of women to do administration and mentoring, rather than operational tasks that can provide more visibility.

To counter this:

  • Provide timely information on upcoming opportunities to all employees.
  • Clarify skills required and what training is available.
  • Actively encourage employees who meet the criteria.

You’ve received feedback from new parents that an unwritten expectation to be “always on” makes leadership seem out of reach

For employees with caregiving responsibilities, community obligations or medical matters to attend to, a performance model that requires after hours “face time” or availability is a barrier to advancement.

  • Some organizations are moving towards a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) to help employees achieve better work-life integration.
  • Depending on their role, some employees can choose when and where they work, and are encouraged to think about work in terms of results.
  • In turn, ROWE asks leaders to think less about managing people and time and more about coaching for higher performance.21
  • An alternative is to consider flexible options – either temporary or permanent – such as job sharing, part-time, seasonal work for relevant roles, to keep and advance talent.

You want to make sure leaders are being equitable in who they choose to coach and sponsor

Research has shown that employees who are “different” are less likely to get direct feedback – and so miss out on opportunities to improve their performance. A Harvard Business Review article indicated that high-potential women are over-mentored and under-sponsored compared to male peers. This can limit their appointment to top positions, and lead to a reluctance to apply.

  • Provide leaders with guidelines or education on conducting inclusive / bias-aware career coaching.
  • Ensure leaders share information on upcoming opportunities with all promising candidates, and actively encourage them to apply.
  • For temporary assignments and secondments, ensure the same formal selection process is followed to prevent bias/favouritism. Leverage these opportunities to increase the visibility and the informal network of under-represented candidates.

You find that Indigenous employees are not participating actively in performance discussions

For employees from certain backgrounds, modesty rather than self-promotion is the norm (e.g. some women, Indigenous peoples, or newcomers); for others, there may be an expectation that their manager would earmark them for a role, rather than needing to take the initiative themselves. As a result, some employees may:

  • Hesitate to put their name forward for consideration for upcoming opportunities.
  • Not feel comfortable seeking out feedback, evaluating their own strengths, or taking part in networking, mentoring and other available supports.

In preparing for a performance evaluation with employees:

  • Consider what you know about them—how can you adjust your wording and your approach to the discussion so that it will be a successful session?
  • Focus on building trust as a critical foundation to build comfort with the process.

You want to consider the impact of the intersections of employees’ identities to ensure they are welcomed into the workplace

Employees whose identity includes membership of two or more under-represented groups in a workplace–such as visible minority women—have been shown to experience “double jeopardy” in the form of additional barriers to developing in the workplace.22 For example:

  • Black women are perceived more negatively in leadership positions than Black men and White women—and are disproportionately penalized for mistakes in their role.
  • Ageism is most common among young and older individuals and is experienced more by women than men.

Ways to learn more about intersectional experiences include:

  • Supporting partnerships between Employee Resource Groups on common interests and introducing dedicated roles responsible for intersectionality in each group.
  • Taking an intersectional approach to gathering data on employee inclusion, development and promotions, turnover, etc. (being careful in reporting to maintain confidentiality if numbers are low).