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The secret to improving diversity at Canadian companies

By Laura Sherbin


Canada’s ministerial cabinet may be one of the world’s most diverse when it comes to gender and race – 50 per cent are women and a quarter are people of colour

yet Canadian companies are woefully lagging when it comes to representation.

People of colour and Indigenous peoples together comprise over a quarter of Canada’s population, but hold only one in 10 senior management positions. Women are also underrepresented as senior managers, with only 37 per cent of top positions held by women versus 63 per cent by men.

Canadians embrace having a multicultural, progressive society, so why aren’t highly qualified women, people of colour and Indigenous peoples getting proportional representation in top executive ranks? One key reason: few advocate for them.

Women and people of colour need sponsors among senior executives who are willing to go to bat for them by helping them secure a promotion as well as providing crucial air cover when they make a misstep at work.

The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a non-profit think tank, has done extensive research on the role the sponsor-protégé relationship plays in the corporate workplace. CTI discovered that having a sponsor among senior executives drives ambition, engagement and retention, particularly for employees of colour.

Yet, sponsorship is rare in Canada – starkly so when compared with the U.S. and the U.K. According to a survey conducted by CTI of full-time white-collar employees in Canada, only four per cent of white women and three per cent of people of colour have sponsors. By contrast, 13 per cent of women and eight per cent of people of colour in the U.S., and 16 per cent of women in the U.K. have sponsors.

As a nascent concept in Canada that has much room left to grow, sponsorship can be used not only as a lever to leadership for people of colour and women, but also as an effective antidote to unconscious bias and entrenched leadership norms that prevent these groups from ascending the corporate ladder.

White male executives – who comprise the majority of senior executive positions – tend to sponsor people who look like them. Nearly three-quarters of men in senior management positions in Canada say that at least one of the people they sponsor is male. Similarly, two-thirds of white executives in senior management positions say at least one of the people they sponsor is white.

These numbers show that Canada’s senior executives have to do a better job advocating for employees across lines of difference. When such sponsorship does occur, it frequently opens doors for women and people of colour.

Krystal Abotossaway benefited from such a relationship at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC). Although she wasn’t considering entering the finance industry, she won a scholarship for Indigenous students offered by RBC that paved the way toward a summer job at the bank. After a few jobs at the bank, each more senior than the last, she met a woman who became her sponsor – someone who was not Indigenous but was interested in the culture and community. The sponsor’s coaching and connections helped launch Abotossaway’s career, which has moved on from RBC to another bank where she is a strategic sourcing partner for Indigenous professionals and people of colour.

Some Canadian companies are becoming aware of the critical role sponsorship plays in retention and are putting initiatives in place to encourage sponsor-protégé relationships.

A few years ago, law firm McInnes Cooper launched a pilot program asking influential partners to sponsor high-performing female lawyers after briefing them on the difficulties of retaining female lawyers and ensuring they understood the enormous costs associated with turnover.

At the end of the program, protégés described the benefits of having a sponsor, among them were being connected to new opportunities, having more face-time with clients and growing their networks. As a result of the project, McInnes Cooper resolved to make sponsorship an integral part of the firm’s culture by instituting a formal sponsorship program that would include other underrepresented groups as well as women.

By making a bold commitment to diversity, companies like McInnes Cooper – not to mention the government – enshrine Canadian values like progress and tolerance. But the work of diversity and inclusion are not just rooted in idealism. As of a few years ago, Canada had the highest proportion of foreign-born citizens among G8 nations. With the rapidly changing demographics of Canadian society, getting good at inclusion and diversity means catching up to labour market realities.

Canadian companies can – and must – do a better job of retaining and appointing women, people of colour and Indigenous peoples among their senior ranks. Leveraging the benefits of sponsorship is imperative to reaching this goal.

Laura Sherbin is co-president at the Center for Talent Innovation and a managing partner at Hewlett Consulting Partners.




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