As Executive Director of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange, the home of DiverseCity onBoard, Ratna Omidvar is an important champion for representative leadership in our region. Governance is the top tier of leadership, and DiverseCity onBoard has facilitated the appointment of over 750 individuals from visible minority and immigrant communities to the governance bodies of the GTA’s many agencies, boards and commissions, ranging from small community charities to large institutions such as Seneca College and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario where they maximize their skills and broaden perspectives at decision-making tables.
We spoke to her about barriers to diverse leadership and opportunities for city builders to break down these barriers.
Q: Why do you think leadership has been slow to reflect our changing diversity?
Diversity initiatives are often seen to benefit diverse groups and not the larger community – it has taken some time for leadership diversity to be seen as a lever for broader social inclusion and economic development. Yet we know that bringing together individuals with diverse ideas and perspectives leads to better decision making that benefits everyone. But organizations are often in the dark about how to recruit diverse leaders.
When we asked organizations why there were no diverse individuals on their boards, they told us “we can’t find them”, when we asked diverse individuals who we knew were on the leadership track in their careers, why they weren’t serving on a board, they told us “no one asked us.” DiverseCity onBoard is a nimble solution that provides a much needed tool to address this disconnect and bridge the diversity gap in governance.
There may also be a gendered aspect. A recent study indicates that men do not see diversity to be as important as women, and with more men currently in leadership positions that means that the top decision makers may not have diversity goals in mind. It’s hard to make change happen when those at the top don’t see it as very important.
Q: What can rising and senior leaders do to help address the lack of leadership diversity?
Big shifts take time, and there is no quick fix to diversifying leadership, but senior leaders have to get out of their comfort zones, be courageous, intentional and introduce measureable goals and reporting mechanisms to help leaders take stock of diversity in their organizations.
This is why it is significant that our federal government instated a gender-balanced cabinet with better representation of visible minorities. The next challenge is making sure this goes beyond representation and truly engages the new talent in our government.
Q: The recent federal election saw a record number of visible minorities and women elected, as well as Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet. How can we continue building on this momentum?
Work on achieving substantive representation rather than descriptive. We know that simply filling seats won’t help individuals or the organizations they serve. Changes to the leadership landscape needs to be skill-based and reflect the diverse make up of Canadian society. And we need to continue engaging the next generation of diverse civic leaders. This can be done by widening pathways to leadership through pre-board level committees, mentorship, and governance training such as the program we offer at DiverseCity onBoard. The key is to start now in developing our leadership pipeline.
Diverse individuals also need to be proactive – they need to get involved and engaged in their communities – from their local neighbourhood watch, to parent councils, to condominium boards to community arenas and boards, library board, provincial agencies, the political process, and political office.
Q: What role do boards have in strengthening the civic leadership pipeline in the GTHA? Why should emerging leaders consider seeking out board positions?
Individuals are exposed to many learning opportunities while serving on a board that they may not get from their professional careers or other volunteer positions such as providing oversight, setting strategic direction, establishing policy and exercising power and influence to affect social change across issues and communities. They can develop intrapersonal skills working with fellow board members to achieve the organization’s mission, and learn how to identify and implement strategic goals and objectives. Joining boards can empower emerging leaders to stretch their social capital by cultivating new personal and professional networks beyond their sectors/industries, boost confidence, and allow them to give back to their communities.