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Diversity gets more talk than action from corporate Canada

Many companies quick to commit to diversity in principle, but are slow to follow through

As protestors in Vancouver echo calls for equality heard across the globe, a number of prominent B.C. companies have been quick to share their corporate commitments to racial justice and diversity.

“Silence is complicity,” posted Hootsuite Inc., which cancelled an upcoming online event so as not to detract from the movement. “As a society we haven’t done enough and we are committed to change.”

“No words, no post on Twitter, no amount of donations will ever be enough,” shared Aritzia Inc. (TSX:ATZ), which donated $100,000 to Black Lives Matter and the U.S.-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“We are firm in our stance against racism and violence,” tweeted Telus Communications Inc. (TSX:T).

Telus, Lululemon Athletica Inc. (Nasdaq:LULU) and Themis Solutions Inc. (Clio) are among the Greater Vancouver-based companies that have made sizable donations to civil liberty, equality and social justice initiatives over the past few weeks. Many B.C. organizations silenced their social activity in solidarity with Blackout Tuesday. Many have also changed their social media icons this month in recognition of the LGBTQ community and Pride month.

There is no doubt that an increasing number of B.C. boardrooms are committing to diversity and inclusion. The data, however, has yet to catch up to those commitments.

According to data compiled by the The David & Sharon Johnston Centre for Corporate Governance Innovation at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, visible minorities held just 5% of board seats on companies listed on the S&P/TSX Composite Index last year, up from 2.9% in 2010.

“As far as visible minorities, the number started low and it stayed low,” said Matt Fullbrook, manager of the centre and a researcher on board effectiveness. “There’s been no meaningful movement on it at all.”

The numbers are better when it comes to female representation. Over the same period, women have more than doubled their share of board seats on publicly listed companies – up from 11.2% in 2010 to 27.1% last year.

Fullbrook credits local and global movements to increase female representation on boards for those gains. A modest increase in women with executive experience has also helped.

But conversations around gender diversity have been ongoing for 20 years, and women still barely account for one in four board seats.

Change is possible, says Fullbrook, but meaningful advances in diversity at the board level take time.

“The process is going to be slow, no matter what happens. And the conversation that starts today – maybe it will have a significant and immediate impact. That’s certainly not what we saw with the changes in terms of women on boards. That took two decades before anything happened, and it’s still not where anyone wants it to be.”

According to the latest Face of Leadership report from Minerva BC, visible minorities hold 8% of board seats and 9% of senior executive positions at B.C.’s 50 largest companies – a list that includes both publicly traded and private firms. Only five of those 50 organizations are listed as having an Indigenous person in their leadership.

The findings, the report notes, are “suboptimal,” but increasing board diversity takes time as boards only experience between 5% and 10% turnover in a given year, said Fullbrook.

“There’s more than one way to get black voices into the boardroom. We don’t have to recruit them as board members tomorrow,” he explained.

Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, describes the movement underway as a monumental shift that has turned a lot of people from bystanders into active participants in calls for change. He believes there will be a huge increase of people outside of black communities, for example, that will begin voting with their feet and their pocketbooks, and reconsider the business they do with companies that aren’t doing their part to actively engage in the issues.

“I think this is kind of a sea-change moment that we’re going to look back on in years to come,” Bach said. “If I’m being honest, I think we needed this kind of massive moment where nobody could ignore it anymore.”

The response to this massive movement by corporate Canada has varied, he explained. It ranges from no acknowledgement, to some acknowledgment, to actions that will potentially lead to important changes.

“Enough of the thoughts-and-prayers chorus, let’s see the action.” What’s needed, he said, are concrete plans that lay out the measurable steps a company will take to address racism that exist in society.

Bach said he was speaking with an employer last week who was planning on announcing upcoming board appointments with an acknowledgment that the company wasn’t appointing any people of colour.

“My immediate reaction was, if you know that’s the case, why are you not undoing it?” said Bach. “It’s not OK for us to say anymore, ‘Oh, we’ll do better next time.’ No. Do better now.” •