Diversity + Inclusion: Getting from “nice to do” to the norm

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It happens every time I travel outside of Canada. A stranger hears me speak perfect English, does a bit of a double take and then looks curiously at me, sometimes vocalizing their thoughts out loud: “where are you from?”

The question of where one is from is a powerful one and informs how we view the world. As a 1.5 generation immigrant, a term coined for those who immigrate before their early teens (and for me, when I was 5 from Hong Kong to Vancouver), it’s been one that has profoundly shaped my life and how I approach and view the world in my personal and professional life. It’s fitting then that as I’m working with incredible colleagues to put together the first ever Design curriculum for Digital Academy, that the considerations for diversity and inclusion weigh heavily on my mind. The challenge is steep, how does one infuse and ‘teach’ diversity and inclusion?

Let’s start with what I mean by diversity and inclusion — terms sometimes used interchangeably but should be distinct, though interrelated. Diversity is fact — it’s the differences in our human demographics such as age, location, gender, language, ethnicity and the multitude of ways in which people identify themselves, both visible and invisible. Inclusion on the other hand is a choice, it’s the environments which help or hinder people to have feelings of safety and belonging, and from that, their ability to contribute and thrive, and make an impact. Most organizations now realize that having diverse teams is not simply a “nice to do” but a valuable asset which equates into dollars and the bottom line (see here for an example of the business literature). Yet you can have diversity without inclusion, and I fear that much of our current efforts are on the mechanics of bringing diversity into our workforce, rather than what we do with that once we are there — which is the mindset. I posit that without the mindset, any practice or tool to “address” diversity and inclusion falls short because we are adults who have for the most part, fully formed worldviews. Each of these worldviews are re-enforced by years of exposure and experience, which affect everything that we do. Simply put, we need to change hearts and minds.

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I don’t want to negate the fact that even attaining a diverse workforce is difficult. Looking at the highest halls of power, let’s not forget that it was only in 2015 when Canada had the first federal cabinet made up of 50% females. Looking at the public service, despite the designation of employment equity groups and different strategies for hiring, the strive towards having a public service which reflect the demographic makeup of Canada remains a challenge. We are still a ways off in this regard, and more so as you go up the executive and senior executive ranks. As another case in point, indicators detailing country of origin are still not routinely published for the Canadian public service (what is provided includes region, age and language) and yet this is one of the most important demographic trends (besides age) in Canada. As of 2016, a little more than one out of every five Canadians is a visible minority and yet this is not routinely captured in major publications. If the fact of diversity isn’t extensively captured, how can commitments be made and acted upon? In fact, this data gap was highlighted in the recent Joint Union/Management Taskforce on Diversity and Inclusion.

Another area which was highlighted was the need for comprehensive education and awareness — this is the current space in which I occupy and where I firmly believe we can move beyond mechanics to change mindsets. We are designing an in-depth learning experience which trains specialists who lead the design of policies, programs and products in the public service. This includes policy analysts who address needs of newcomers through government funded programming to the agent at the passport office who interacts with everyday Canadians to the web developer who is coding the user interface for tax filing. This also includes those who are in management undertaking the hiring and talent management within the public service. We are trying to infuse the mindset of intercultural awareness, respect for others, recognizing and mitigating unconscious bias and finally, fostering a healthy workplace which allows everyone to contribute and thrive, right from the beginning. We will be equipping public servants with practices and tools such as design research, information architecture, prototyping, user interface, and usability testing.

Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

I’d like to acknowledge the amazing work done already that we can build upon and new institutions within the public service such as the Office of Public Service Accessibility. The Canadian Digital Service has also been building capacity and I was honoured to have participated at the first ever Diversity in Digital Services on February 8 (more reflections on this later). Recently, the January LeadersGC chat also featured how we get to an accessible and inclusive workplace (see highlights here). I am also inspired by the many examples I’ve seen in other sectors which offer multiple mediums for hiring and retaining people with disabilities and diverse backgrounds.

Channeling all of this, and working with many partners and a diverse team, we’re trying to put forth a Canadian perspective for our public servants. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as we begin to pilot in late February. I’m excited to watch this evolve over time.

At the end of the day, it’s about cultivating the mindset and the golden adage about walking a mile in another person’s shoes (check out this amazing TedTalk for an example). Whether you have experienced first hand the damage that comes from discriminatory practices in the workplace, conscious or not, I think all of us have experienced a time when we felt neglected or undervalued. It sucks. So if we can channel this mindset and ask ourselves how we can think and act in a way which is completely opposite of that — no matter what it is that we are producing (policy, program or product) — then we can begin to create the type of end-to-end experience that everyone can thrive in.