As originally published in Talent Canada. Contributed by Rob Davis and Julie Cafley.

Racism is a sad truth in Canadian society, and the workplace is not immune.

KPMG’s recently released research of 1,000 Canadian professionals who identify as Black found that in the past year alone, 81 per cent endured some form of racism or microaggression in their workplace. We also know workplace racism intersects with gender, as this research found the number of Black Canadian women experiencing some form of workplace racism or discrimination climbed 10 percentage points from a year ago (versus 7 per cent for Black men).

Racism at work comes from any and every direction – peers, bosses, and customers – and in many forms, from being passed over for a promotion, being paid less and being excluded from advancement opportunities to subtle or overt slurs, stereotypes and derisive comments about physical appearance, dress, and food.

Because so many marginalized racial and ethnic employees are experiencing racism at work, they come to expect it. This expectation is called “emotional tax” – the experience of being “on guard against bias” related to race or ethnicity. We must work to eliminate this emotional tax.

Many more Black women than men – an 8-percentage-point gap – believe that their company leaders stigmatize them for reporting incidents of racism. While about two-thirds of women say their employer has an allyship training program, that’s well below the 81 per cent of men with such work programs. Also, fewer women than men feel they can bring their genuine selves to work and have allies willing to speak up for them.

Organizations greatly influence Canada’s overall social fabric. They must not only “accelerate progress” – this year’s International Women’s Day theme – but also understand how to step up their efforts to address the rise in racism and create safe and inclusive work environments for everyone.

Allyship must be genuine and backed up with policies and action. It must be a journey we all take together.

Getting at the root of workplace disparities

In our experience and over the course of Catalyst’s in-depth research on the issue, here are some ways to eliminate racial workplace inequities:

  • Tone from the top matters. Research shows that positive perceptions around antiracism leader efforts and organizational policies correlate directly to fewer incidences of racial and ethnic harassment and discrimination.
  • Train employees to identify microaggressions and learn to step in if they witness one. It cannot be a ‘one-and-done’ exercise.
  • Cultivate a workplace culture of respect. Make sure “respect” is not weaponized to silence people who are raising valid and possibly uncomfortable issues related to racism, White norms, and equity at work. Around the world and here in Canada, many workplace cultures continue to have a singular “one right way” of working that harms people of all races and ethnicities by demanding conformity and stifling innovation. Instead of encouraging sameness, our workplaces must recognize differences.
  • Recognize that the hurdles are more significant for marginalized racial and ethnic women.
    Clarify how leadership potential is measured and developed. Too often, women’s leadership “potential” is underestimated compared to men’s.
  • Organizations should be distributing training and leadership development programs equitably and not at the personal discretion of managers, where biases may come into play. Establish clear metrics and goals and set annual reviews to ensure the opportunity for bias can’t creep in.
  • Create a transparent process for addressing incidents of racism in the workplace, including whistleblowing mechanisms, guidelines for investigating, consequences that the organization will enforce and a commitment to a timely resolution of issues.

‘If you see it, you can be it’

Diversity in leadership allows Canada’s youth to see potential career paths.

Greater workplace diversity will ignite ambition in today’s youth, leading to a more diverse representation of leadership in our society in the future, unlocking innovation and potential.

Despite the challenges, Black women and men are optimistic (about 84 per cent) about Corporate Canada’s ability to reduce systemic barriers in the next five years.

It is a clarion call to action, yet an optimism we can collectively share on this International Women’s Day.

Rob Davis is a Tax Partner and the Chief Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Officer at KPMG in Canada. Julie Cafley, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of Catalyst Canada.