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Ivey alumni share ways to break the bias

Mar 10, 2022

L-r: Christopher Sutton, Lesley Marks, Melissa Marcelissen, and Toral Padia

L-r: Christopher Sutton, EMBA ’14; Lesley Marks, EMBA ’02; Melissa Marcelissen, EMBA ’20; and Toral Padia, MBA ’12

Toral Padia, MBA ’12, is proud that she’s a Kenyan Indian who speaks Swahili and has been on a safari multiple times because that background makes her interesting and memorable. But Padia says she has also experienced sexism and racism as a woman of colour in the workplace. Examples include being told to “stay in her lane” or be quiet and less visible. She refuses to heed that advice.

“Breaking the bias for me means being unapologetically myself and leaning into the differences,” she said. “It means making myself bigger and taking up the space I deserve. It means being a champion for other women like me. And it means being a force of change in the room that I’m in so it becomes easier for those who will follow.”

Padia, who is Head of Strategy, Product, and Brand at Mantaro, said she has made a conscious decision to hire for diversity at her firm and has yet to compromise on the quality of candidates. She calls for other organizations and individuals to follow her lead.

“I’m hoping more people will offer support to women and people of colour, whether it’s mentorship, friendship, a coffee chat, or just getting to know them – to widen your lens,” she said. “I’m hoping the tailwinds of some of the tragic things that happened in 2020 will serve as a propellant for people to ask for what they believe they deserve and for others to be receptive to that.”

Padia was one of four Ivey alumni that discussed ways to create inclusive business environments at a virtual event hosted by the Women of Ivey Network for International Women’s Day. Panellists included Melissa Marcelissen, EMBA ’20, Founder of Vision Leadership; Lesley Marks, EMBA ’02, Chief Investment Officer of Equities at Mackenzie Investments; and Christopher Sutton, EMBA ’14, Chief Executive Officer of Wavefront Centre for Communications, and the moderator was Women of Ivey Chair Inka Skinner, EMBA ’16, Leader of Data, Analytics, and AI at Accenture. The discussion focused on challenges for marginalized groups in the workplace and ways to cultivate a diverse workforce. Here are some takeaways.

Diversity quotas are only a first step

Although many firms are embracing diversity quotas to increase the number of under-represented groups into specific positions, that strategy alone isn’t enough. Marks said it’s important to look behind the data because sometimes the averages or aggregates are skewed. For instance, in the finance industry, there may be diversity in certain groups such as marketing, legal, and compliance, but not in higher decision-making roles.

“You end up with big parts of the population that aren’t having the lived diverse experience that organizations say they are offering to their employees,” she said. “It’s important to understand the data, where you have pockets of weakness, and also what’s happening along [career] paths.”

Citing the low number of women in asset management in particular, Marks said the root cause is at the university level because there are fewer women than men being recruited into the finance industry.

“I think a channelling happens at the university level where the [finance] industry doesn’t look attractive to women and they start to look at other directions,” she said. “For us to get a greater population of women in leadership roles, we need to increase that pipeline first.”

Marcelissen said diversity targets can keep problem areas top of mind, but also need to be combined with support systems, such as flexible work arrangements. She noted that more individuals from marginalized groups could participate in the workforce when working from home was an option during strong COVID-19 waves. She told how her sister, who is autistic, thrived in a new job while working from home, but struggles with in-person environments. She urged organizations to consider how a return to the office could undermine inclusivity efforts. 

“We talk about ‘The Great Resignation’ [referring to] what happened in the U.S. when people were called back to the workplace and told they had to go back to the way it was [pre-pandemic]. They had more than nine million people opt out in two months. It might seem like last year’s news, but it’s relevant because these are the decisions our leaders are making right now,” she said. “If we’re not including marginalized people in making these decisions on what works best for them, we’re going to see a similar Great Resignation here [Canada].”

Don’t forget there are many dimensions of diversity

For 20 years, Sutton has been helping organizations to better serve people who live with disabilities. Born profoundly deaf, Sutton underwent surgery in 2008 to obtain a cochlear implant. While acknowledging organizations’ efforts to be more physically accessible, he said access to technology supports and work-from-home arrangements continue to be barriers for those who live with disabilities, and the biggest challenge is the biases.

“People think those living with disabilities can’t do this or don’t have the education,” he said. “I used technology to communicate and to hear, at a young age, that people would say, ‘He won’t be able to graduate from elementary school. He won’t be able to read or write’… My whole life has been about making sure I can overcome the barriers in front of me and pulling those barriers down so people working today don’t have those barriers.”

Despite those challenges, Sutton said people may now see him as identifying as a white man without considering other types of diversity traits that he brings to the table, or that men can be allies.

“We [men] want to champion women and be a part of the conversation even if we may not necessarily understand all of the challenges and barriers each day,” he said. 

Sutton said having all marginalized groups work together will allow them to be more powerful in breaking down biases for all.

“We as individuals are constantly thinking about the bias and not necessarily thinking about the whole. That’s why coming together is so critical,” he said. “When we’re looking at policies and standards and regulations, they need to encompass accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. When we bring these groups together, even though we have separate issues, we have a much larger stake at the table. We are no longer the minority. We are the majority.”