Why Canadian Tech should start hiring Chief Diversity Officers

The rise of the CDO in Silicon Valley

Aspects of diversity debt have been captured in the recent wave of diversity reports put out by the likes of Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Google, Square, Lyft, and Uber, detailing company demographics. However, representation is just the start. As I outlined in my previous blog post, diversity debt results in company culture that is full of harassment, fails to retain talent, and costs in the billions.

Recently, Silicon Valley has been setting an example of how to tackle diversity debt. Many companies have introduced Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) or similar titles such as Diversity & Inclusion Lead, Director of Diversity and Belonging, and Chief Equality Officer, to name a few. Pinterest announced Candice Morgan as their first Head of Diversity, eBay appointed Damien Hooper-Campbell as their first Chief Diversity Officer, and Apple named Denise Young Smith as Vice President for Inclusion and Diversity.

The CDO is an organization’s executive-level diversity and inclusion strategist, although the role is individualized and differs across companies. A CDO may work to advance a company’s global capabilities and help better understand, work in, or serve in new markets. One such example is Facebook’s Global Head of Diversity, Maxine Williams, who has played a fundamental role in adapting the platform to be culturally attuned to India’s large potential user base.

CDOs may also perform competitive analysis, support product innovation, and work to advance supplier diversity. Before joining Salesforce earlier this year as the Chief Equality Officer, Tony Prophet set the benchmark for diversity in global supply chains at Hewlett-Packard. A CDO may train sales and marketing departments on multicultural marketing, branding, and communication. Last but not least, CDOs can also collaborate with human resources to better develop strategies to recruit, manage, engage, and retain diverse talent.

A CDO and their area of expertise is much more than a “nice to have,” but if such a role is challenging to justify in your company’s early days, you have some great options. Consider reading the insightful Change Together resource by TechGirls Canada, and consider the support of platforms such as Culture Amp and Fortay.

How Canadian tech can take a leadership role

The Canadian tech community is well-positioned to be a leader in addressing diversity debt. Recently, several members of the community signed an open letter on BetaKit stipulating, “diversity is our strength.” However, the very strategists — the CDOs — capable of transforming the spirit of this letter into reality are missing in the Canadian tech scene.

The reality is, similar to our neighbours to the South, Canadian diversity has not translated equitably into the tech community. I urge Canadian tech companies to appreciate that diversity can indeed be our strength if — and only if — we design it deliberately and intentionally. In the Canadian context, even the best-intentioned companies are overlooking opportunities to advance their diversity equity by:

i. Categorizing “diversity” under the HR function

The first common oversight of some Canadian tech companies is delegating the responsibility of diversity and inclusion exclusively to their human resources teams. Although the roles of HR and CDO are collaborative, they each serve distinct functions: HR focuses on the internal people aspects of a company, while a CDO as well they also serve as a cross-functional role focused on organizational strategy. Working with HR managers and executives, CDOs can assist to build an organizational vision to address diversity debt and create a company that utilizes diversity to improve performance, the bottom line, and culture.   

ii. Allocating “diversity” to an existing employee’s portfolio

The second common oversight of some Canadian tech companies is allocating the duties of a CDO to an existing employee — often those who champion diversity. Unless the employee receives the skills and training required for this role, they are likely to focus on the diversity areas with which they are most familiar or comfortable with. For instance, if the employee’s bias is to advance women’s roles in the workplace, they may do this extremely well, but will likely fail to address other diversity-related concerns. What about your company’s product innovation, or global competitiveness, or multicultural marketing and communications?

iii. Turning diversity into a one-time thing

Finally, while some Canadian tech companies conduct one-off training  (which is usually better than doing nothing), evidence suggests that one-off diversity initiatives are likely to be ineffective and can sometimes have negative consequences. As a full-time team member, the role of a CDO is to bring a diversity lens to a company’s operations holistically and consistently.  

If companies do not put the effort to take diversity debt seriously, then inspiring campaigns such as “diversity is our strength” and editorials auspiciously declaring that diversity is the linchpin of innovation remain mere words on paper. Canadian tech: let us not be another cautionary tale. CDOs are the trained strategists that can help to not only retain this vision, but help it to flourish. 

As Salim Teja from MaRS Discovery District and many others have proffered, diversity in Canadian tech matters— for innovation, for product development, for meeting future workforce demands, and for building a future that benefits everyone. If there’s any industry poised to come up with radical, innovative solutions to a pressing social issue, it’s tech. And if there’s a country to figure out how to work together and shape a future that benefits everyone, it’s Canada.

So, Canada, if you want to become the next epicentre for tech, hire yourself a CDO.

Dr. Sarah Saska is devoted to helping companies navigate through the unmapped territory of diversity and inclusion.  Named amongst Women’s Executive Network’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, Sarah runs Feminuity, a global consulting firm.  Sarah sits on the Advisory Council for The MATCH International Women’s Fund, and she’s an avid gender-lens investor. @sarahsaska


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