Power structures, immigrant inclusion and the meritocracy myth with Gail Strachan

Gail Strachan, Executive member of Accenture’s T&O/Human Potential practice, social justice advocate and co-Founder/co-chair of the Antiracism in PR summit, joined us for an unlearning-on-steroids episode of ABCDEI. 

What started as curiosity in her formative years about power dynamics, immigration patterns and racial stereotypes led Gail to a journey of social advocacy. While navigating roles in law, communications and organizational culture, Gail has become a powerful inclusion and equity advocate. 

The conversation covered so many topics that are skirted around but rarely addressed head-on in workplaces. So, settle in for an important read ahead.

The frozen middle

We’ve made some progress in the way we talk about race. The N word is widely understood to be unacceptable. We’ve updated our vocabulary, but we still need to fix racist policies, procedures and processes that are couched within “the way things have always been done” in organizations, institutions and governments. The racism or preference is there. It may not be blatant, but it’s seen in the way people are interviewed, promoted and in the reasons why someone different doesn’t make the cut. 

We as Canadians take pride in calling our country diverse – rightfully so. But we have an inclusion problem. We’re diverse at the pipeline but that freezes in the mid-level of our workforce. We need to honestly examine these systemic barriers that have been pulling marginalized folx away from growing – equitably – to the top ranks. 

The meritocracy myth

Which brings us to the absolute myth of meritocracy. A corporate culture that claims to “award opportunities to the right people with the right skills, period” is woefully out of touch. 

We have made some progress in altering corporate policies to accommodate commuters, new parents and younger employees’ needs. Yet, when it comes to inclusion around race and immigrant status, this is an area of serious inertia. Immigrants and racialized folx often have the same qualifications as those with privilege, but those qualifications aren’t translating into the same power. Heads up, leaders: status quo isn’t working.

A true meritocracy doesn’t aim for equal opportunity, but rather, strives to create equity among employees in the workforce. Not seeing race doesn’t make you fair-minded, it makes you blind. 

Aim higher than the bare minimum

As Canadians, we lean into our “nice” reputation and take comfort in being marginally better than our Southern neighbours. That isn’t enough. And let’s be clear: systemic racism has been alive and well in Canada for a long time. Centuries of slavery, residential schools and the immigration paradox (where foreigners are welcome but then overlooked for jobs because of a lack of Canadian experience) are just a few examples. Immigrants first came to Canada as labour, and as Gail powerfully argues, that hasn’t changed as much as it should have. So, push past the bare minimum. If you’re not applauding employees just for showing up to work, then don’t pat yourself on the back for diversity at the entry level alone. Level the playing field and then talk about meritocracy 2.0, with a foundation of equity.

Since ABCDEI is all about learning and unlearning, this is how we have unpacked the concepts we shared in episode 5 into simple and actionable ideas:

  1. Let’s talk about race, baby. And gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability…and the list goes on. Skirting around issues of identity for the sake of comfort doesn’t make them go away or cease to exist. Specific preference is firmly at the core of power structures. Acknowledging that out loud is the first step; changing policies to build equity is the critical next step.
  2. Read between the lines for transferable skills. When you’re looking to fill a role on your team, be realistic about what the job entails and look outside the typical talent stream. Don’t be limited by a candidate’s title and experience. Read between the lines and we bet you’ll find invaluable qualities that often live outside a resumé: grit, ambition, hustle and empathy.
  3. Use your power play and share the wealth. The formula for bringing more women into the workplace is the same formula for bringing more BIPOC into the workplace: use your power play and share the wealth. It isn’t a handout. Marginalized people are qualified; they’re just held back by process, preference and policies.

If you have found yourself wanting to unlearn but wondering where to even begin, or if you have a guest idea on the topic, get in touch. Drop us a line at hello@abcdei.ca.

Here in power and vulnerability,

Rohini + Susan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *