How diversity makes a difference in the workplace

On a sunny day in august on an Edmonton golf course, NAIT's dean of the JR Shaw School of Business received an introduction that would likely prompt a pause from most women. Days into her new role as the head of one of Western Canada’s largest business schools, Tracey Scarlett (Medical Laboratory Technology '87), decided to let it pass.

“Someone made a remark that it was really nice that my boss had taken me golfing so soon in my new position,” says Scarlett, who was golfing with a male colleague at a NAIT fundraising tournament. “It’s not that gentleman’s fault that he said that to me. It’s actually because there isn’t enough role models of women in leadership yet.”

While gender diversity in the corporate world is better today than when Scarlett began her career, disparity persists. According to 2015 numbers from global executive search firm Rosenzweig & Company, women held just 8.5 per cent of the highest-paid positions among our nation’s top 100 listed companies. Just 12 per cent of all board seats of TSX-listed firms were held by women and about 47 per cent of companies had no female directors.

 “It’s not going to be solved by the ’60s approach of women marching in the street.”

Scarlett feels that changing those numbers is a shared responsibility. “It’s not going to be solved by the ’60s approach of women marching in the street,” she says. “It’s going to be shifted further by building inclusive teams and demonstrating how effective and impactful that is.”

Gender balance is only a piece of the diversity issue, adds the former CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), a non-profit that assists businesswomen with planning and development. Organizations need to ensure that pathways to leadership are accessible for everyone.

“You have to be purposeful and you have to set goals if you really want full inclusion – whether it’s [gender], people with disabilities, visible minorities, indigenous people.” Companies still need to choose candidates based on their qualifications but they need to take steps to ensure there’s equality in the recruitment process.

Bringing a more balanced approach to the boardroom and head office is in a company’s best interests, Scarlett believes. For example, that perspective may reveal built-in corporate biases, such as scheduling training at times that don’t work due to child-care needs or not including female role models in the curriculum. During her tenure at AWE, Scarlett saw that women who owned their businesses often dedicated resources to tackle social issues.

Though statistics show that women have a long way to go to achieve parity in boardrooms, Scarlett is optimistic about what’s ahead. During her time at AWE, she was surprised by statistics that reveal just how strong the entrepreneurial spirit is among women in Alberta.

In 2015, for the first time, the number of Alberta women early-stage entrepreneurs surpassed men.

In 2015, for the first time, the number of Alberta women early-stage entrepreneurs surpassed men, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Alberta report. Overall, she saw more confidence among women as self-starters – a reflection, perhaps, of “the can-do attitude of Alberta. If we don’t like something in a work environment why not go and create what you want yourself?”

Scarlett hopes her role as dean and ongoing connection to the business community will help raise awareness about the strengths women bring to the corporate world as well as motivate females to strive for the top. The result, she believes will be better outcomes.

She’s a firm believer that change is coming.

“Twenty years from now the young women who will be in leadership positions, probably at a very equal rate to men are going to say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it was ever like that.’”

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