Time for action on diversity

Sandra Stuart is the only female CEO of a major bank in Canada and recently received a Catalyst Canada Honours Champion Award for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. She explains the actions HSBC Bank Canada has taken – and how other organisations can follow suit.

Creating a diverse work force is a dilemma and a constant work in progress for many business leaders. I am proudly and passionately part of the movement to pave the way to inclusion.

However, the journey is a difficult one, and I am discouraged that corporate Canada is not making more strides – not only for women, but also for visible minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities and Indigenous peoples.

With HSBC I have lived and worked all over the world. The time I spent in developing markets brought home to me the economic challenges of a lack of access to education and opportunities, particularly for women.

And when I worked in Brazil without speaking Portuguese it was very isolating, so when I say that I know what it means to be different, I am not talking just as the (sometimes only) woman in the room.

So this isn’t just another piece of writing extolling the virtues of inclusive workplaces – I’m just as tired of them as you are. It is time for action.

HSBC Bank Canada has thrived under a gender-balanced Board of Directors and Executive Committee since 2013. We are evidence that diversity and inclusion are both possible and important. Our discussions around the boardroom table are rich, with genuine challenge leading to stronger decision-making.

But it’s not enough to have a gender-balanced board and leadership. To thrive in today’s complex, interconnected world, we need all of our people to bring their diverse perspectives, experiences and talents to work.

So how did we achieve this?

We started at the top and we put hard, measurable targets in place. As a leader, either you met them or you didn’t and you were held accountable for your results. That was key to our success.

We took time to ensure we knew exactly what skills and experiences we needed to help us be successful. We looked for those skills and experiences instead of specific job titles. We insisted on a diverse slate of candidates for every senior role, ensuring 50 per cent were female. There was no shortage of good, qualified candidates.

Unconscious bias can be just as damaging as overt discrimination, so we provided training to help leaders develop the awareness to act in a truly inclusive way.

It is time for action

Our diversity and inclusion council, made up of senior leaders, acts as executive sponsors to our employee networks. These networks promote diversity within the bank and create a community of support, but also have the resources to effect change. And they point out when we unknowingly make things more difficult.

We take the time to understand the experiences of our employees through surveys, focus groups and listening sessions – and make changes when necessary. To that end, we recently reviewed and improved the support we give to employees going on parental leave and are reviewing other policies.

I have a request for my fellow business leaders: it’s time to put your money down on women. As a leader, take a moment to think about how it feels for that lone woman at the table. To have a room full of men stop talking about last night’s game just because she walked in. To have brought her intelligence, skills, experiences and grit to bear to help your organisation succeed and still have people wonder whether she’s committed. Be an advocate for her.

When you walk into a room and there are no women there, ask yourself why. And then go out into your organisation or your community and find at least two talented women. Don’t just mentor them, be a sponsor. Take the risk with them and help them get that next big job.

You will be glad that you did. The pay-off is real.

Note: this is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Globe and Mail, Canada, 5 November 2019.

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