Systemic Change Happens When People Committed to DEI Make Waves

Insights from Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor of Deloitte Canada, on driving the Catalyst Effect.

Catalyst celebrated International Women’s Day (8 March) and Women’s History Month (March in the US, UK, and Australia) with a webinar, Driving the Catalyst Effect: Women Leaders Cultivating Workplace Equity, where we discussed the Catalyst Effect—when people committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion and respectful and rewarding work environments create a powerful force leading to a massive wave of change.

We reached out to webinar participant Zabeen Hirji, executive advisor, future of work, Deloitte Canada, and former chief human resources officer, RBC, about how to make a difference and change workplace cultures.

Please tell us about someone who embodies the Catalyst Effect who has made a difference in your workplace, past or present.

Zabeen Hirji: Gord Nixon, former CEO of RBC, embodied the Catalyst Effect. To start with, he was very open to learning (today we would call that a growth mindset), which made it much easier to have honest conversations about gender diversity as well as broader diversity (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation) and to bring him stories from real people at RBC that were sometimes hard to hear, but important to make change—to get to both his heart and his mind. His curiosity, listening skills, comfort with asking “awkward” questions, and ability to suspend judgement accelerated his learning.

When I approached him with recommendations for a holistic, enterprise-wide diversity strategy (in 2002) that encompassed the workforce, customers, and community, one of the recommendations was to establish a senior-level diversity leadership council (DLC). He said, “Do you need a Chair for the council? I would be happy to do that.” I almost fell off my chair! The DLC at RBC oversaw the bank’s diversity and inclusion strategy, key goals and accountabilities, and results. He championed the business value of diversity and inclusion, and we rallied leaders and people across RBC to elevate this to a business strategy, accelerating change and progress. He also championed diversity in the broader business community.

P.S. RBC, Gord, and I were recognized as Catalyst Honours Champions for this important work.

What is the number one thing organizations can do to promote gender equity in the workplace?

Zabeen Hirji: The number one thing organizations can do to promote gender equity in the workplace and make it sustainable is to establish goals and accountabilities. That’s table stakes, but diversity without inclusion is hollow. Organizations must build inclusive leadership, which happens through setting the right tone and through day-to-day behaviours. Deloitte uses a model called the 6Cs: cognizance, curiosity, courage, cultural intelligence, collaboration, and commitment. This requires new mindsets and skillsets. Leaders need to be deliberately inclusive of individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups, for example, by inviting them to join a conversation in a meeting or intervening when someone talks over them or repeats what was just said, then takes credit for their ideas. Organizations also need to build an ecosystem of support to help these individuals be successful once they are in the role, which also increases retention.

Read key takeaways from the Catalyst webinar, Driving the Catalyst Effect: Women Leaders Cultivating Workplace Equity, and 7 Things You Can Do for Women at Work, Including Yourself, This International Women’s Day.

Hear what webinar participant Denine Das, VP of Global Inclusion, Scotiabank, had to say.

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