Shamira Madhany talks about how organizations can foster inclusive and diverse workforces

June 16, 2022

October has been recognized as Global Diversity Awareness Month, and to better understand the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace and its impact on the broader economy, we talked to Shamira Madhany. Shamira is the Canadian Managing Director and Deputy Executive Director of World Education Services (WES). A lifelong champion for equity and inclusion issues, she is also a member of Windmill’s Board of Directors and Chair of Windmill’s Loan Committee. 

Diversity is a complex concept, and you’d like to make a point distinguishing between diversity and inclusion. In your view, how are diversity and inclusion different? 

To me, diversity is what you look like on the outside or a variety of perspectives, ideas and experiences. I look diverse, both as a visible minority and a woman in leadership. That’s a label that people will use when they see me. So, to me, diversity is what you see on the outside or on labels. This is good because we need labels to understand who we are and target approaches if we’re trying to make a difference. 

However, diversity is only about what one sees on the outside. Inclusion is bringing all those diverse perspectives, labels, internal and external diversity into meaningful discussions like decision-making, recruitment, promotion, etc. Windmill Microlending is a diverse organization, employing people with different ethnic backgrounds, people born outside the country, and people born here, but Windmill is also an inclusive organization. We hear different perspectives at both the staff and Board level, and we leverage “lived experience.” 

We were especially keen to speak with you on this subject because of your work to move the needle on inclusion at a systems level. Can you tell us about your personal experience witnessing barriers to inclusion as well as your professional experience promoting diversity and inclusion? 

I’m an immigrant. I came from East Africa as a young teenager with my family. I saw how my father, a successful businessman and bookkeeper, really struggled. He couldn’t access any professional employment using his professional background, although he came from a British school system, and we spoke fluent English. This was the 1970s when there was a lot of racism and discrimination. To ensure we didn’t run out of the little money we had, he and my mom started working. He ended up working at a local golf club, picking up wet towels and cleaning washrooms. My mom worked in a factory picking up heavy metal. It was hard to watch, and it really impacted me. 

I knew I wanted to change the system at an early age so that people like my father wouldn’t be left behind. I saw that we were sacrificing my father’s generation so that people like my sister and I could succeed. 

I worked my way through high school and university, where a TA suggested I could keep talking about inequities, or I could work in government and policies. And that’s what I did. My first job was at a local government office in Scarborough, serving newcomers who required resume-writing and job search skills. Although we were doing good work to support individuals, nothing was really changing from a systems perspective. We were handing out umbrellas (helping individuals), but we needed to change the weather (systems change). 

I eventually moved into policy design and transformational positions within the Government of Ontario, not just in immigration and settlement but in education and health policy. The last position– and one of the most impactful ones I held in government was Assistant Deputy Minister for Social Policy in Cabinet Office. I had the privilege of working with all the ministries across government that “touched” people in a very real way. I felt this position allowed me to change systems for the benefit of all people. This has become my driving force, my mantra – “making a difference” in the lives of individuals through systems change! 

I became a Board member at Windmill shortly after I began working for WES. My position on the Board is aligned with the mission of WES with respect to opening doors by reducing barriers. This position also aligns with my values and driving force to make a difference. Windmill changes the lives of individuals so that they can leverage their previous professional backgrounds and contribute to our economy. 

Windmill also does a lot of work that changes systems, and it’s a huge honour to be part of this amazing organization. Windmill has been seen as a “best practice” in the U.S., and a similar model was developed replicating what we do in Canada. 

Can you tell us why you think it’s so important to have a diverse and inclusive workforce that includes immigrants? 

Canada is struggling with the same issue as many other countries. An ageing population, a significant number of individuals leaving the labour force at a greater rate than they’re being replaced. This undermines Canada’s competitiveness. Further, we have a growing knowledge economy that needs different skill sets and global perspectives. If people come to Canada and we fail to leverage their prior education and skills, our economy can’t be sustained. Businesses, employers, the country needs to leverage what immigrants can offer. Currently, we are not utilizing the skills that highly educated immigrants bring to our country. 

In the last three years, 60% of immigrants have been economic immigrants, but we’re seeing a troubling trend that immigrants are not using their education and skills in Canada. Based on research WES released in 2019, we noticed that less than half of them were employed in commensurate employment—jobs that leverage their education, skills and experience. As a result, I don’t think we necessarily have a skills shortage. We seem to have many barriers that prevent skilled immigrants from contributing their skills. 

Windmill helps to address the financial impediments to accreditation. What would you say are the non-financial barriers for newcomers to enter the workforce? 

Ultimately, the very specific requirements in any regulated profession are to protect the health and safety of Canadians. Whoever gets that license or designation needs to be practicing to the standards that one would expect in Canada. Issues arise when there’s an assumption that if a person is not educated in Canada or in a country we’re not familiar with, then they don’t meet our standards. As a result, they may face criteria that are not bona fide or relevant. A regulator or employer might not understand the education system where the applicant is from. Rather than trying to understand their credentials or experience, they default to needing Canadian experience to feel confident. 

So how can we build inclusion into the process? We can start by understanding that we all have biases. By learning those biases, we can work to upend them. We can ensure we have tools and processes in place to assess prior education (this is what we do at WES) and value experience and skills fairly and transparently. For example, if somebody cannot access their official documents or the documents don’t look familiar to a decision-maker, a scenario or a simulation can be offered to demonstrate what they know and can do in a Canadian context. 

How can employers support their inclusive and diverse workforce once they have that diversity on the team? What do employers/professional associations need to do to support that inclusive community of staff members? 

As Chief Officer for Diversity and Accessibility for the Government of Ontario, we had a diversity framework that I believe is a great template for employers to use. It has four components: 

  1. A competent and inclusive leadership-steering committee driving the strategy, so the initiative doesn’t just become ‘the flavour of the month.’ 
  1. Behaviour and culture change on an ongoing basis regarding different dimensions of diversity, examining our assumptions and stereotypes and support staff to be intentional in their words and actions. 
  1. Embed racial equity and inclusion in everything we do, from the policies we write, the programs we design and the services we deliver. It should all be analyzed through an inclusion lens and “tested” through the eyes and ears of employee resource groups. 
  1. What gets measured gets done. We need to hold ourselves accountable by measuring our progress. We need to develop a measurement framework with qualitative and quantitative measures.  

This framework may look simple, but it gets incredibly complex as we begin to peel the onion and start to see intersectionality, etc. But this framework is efficient to use, and the Government of Ontario has won several awards, including being the Best Diversity Employer year after year because this framework has to be used in all policies and programs.

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