March 8, 2024

Authenticity and safety to inspire inclusion with Dionne Bowers and Ingrid Wilson

Traditionally, employees were encouraged to have two versions of themselves; the one deemed suitable for the workplace and the other for home life. This is now viewed by many as an outdated approach to work-life balance. Increasingly, people praise the importance of empathetic and authentic leadership to help teams thrive, often bringing aspects of familial life into the professional sphere. However, to be able to present at work authentically colleagues need to feel safe. The day-to-day professional experience differs person to person particularly for those from minority groups, as shown in the 2023 Browne Jacobson report saying, ‘several respondents noted that working from home felt “safer” for some people who felt excluded or racialized in the workplace.’ [1]

Unfortunately, the status quo still relies on an archetypal image of professionalism, alienating those who are less likely to fit into these standards. Consequently, we see people trying to fit themselves to an identity which doesn’t align to their true selves, More frequently it is minority and Black talent attempting to morph themselves to progress their careers. Therefore, it’s important to understand the experience and stressors on racialized communities before expecting everyone to be able to be authentic in the workplace.  

Dionne Bowers, insurance professional, educator and co-founder of CABIP (Canadian Association of Black Insurance Professionals) and Ingrid Wilson, CHRO and Board Director of CABIP, do not shy away from the difficulties they have faced as Black women in the Canadian insurance market and shared with us their views on safety and authenticity in the workplace.  

Q. What are your thoughts on authenticity and safety coming into play an inclusive workplace?

Dionne: As a Black woman, I've removed myself from the corporate space. These conversations are great as I'm able to incorporate my authentic self. That side you wanted to bring to work, but you couldn't, which lends itself to an unhealthy, unsafe environment. I wasn't threatened in any way, it was more about not being able to say what I needed to say. If a leader would approach me or appear with a question I often considered “are you sure you want to hear from me?”

Ingrid: I'm in the same space right now; the ‘in between’. I've left the corporate sphere again and I'm doing my own thing, going back to my consulting organization but I still deal with corporate publicly. We're still somewhat engaged, but I think what you're saying is we have safety as we're able to choose who we work with and when we can step out to have a little bit more space and talk about behaviors that are impacting others.

Dionne: If I ever went back to corporate, it would have to be for the right reasons. You and I require these conversations and the right organization that will allow us to be authentic. This is who I am and for me authenticity builds trust. It equates to my engagement.  

Additionally, effective communication has to be part of what I do and who I am. There were some organizations that were open to what I had to say, but honesty then limited my progression. Some senior executives would embrace it and say “wow, I wish I could be like you” but I'm thinking to myself; “well, why aren't you?”

We cannot go through life like this; playing the game, the politics. Knowing that if there's authenticity in what you're doing and an element of trust is built, you will have a healthier environment for employees.

Ingrid: But is there authenticity within that? We come from the insurance industry which is heavily regulated. We're certified and I'm an HR professional, so again, regulated. Therefore, when I have younger HR professionals ask me, “how can you be authentic? How can you push back in those situations?” I have to tell them, as I also sit on the regulatory board (RPA), you have to do the right thing. Otherwise, you are going against your professional designation. The challenge of our time though is, and this is not limited to Black women, this is all women, “why do we have to prove more than the other gender that we're qualified?”

We can't forget that the intersectionality that we carry as women, as Black and Brown women, affects all woman. We are in a culture where we’ve started out in the corporate world years and years behind men.  

One of my favorite quotes from Audrey Lorde; “when I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision. Then it becomes less and less important whether I'm afraid”. It's really unfortunate some people cannot choose to step into that.

Dionne: It’s a cycle. If you're not in a safe environment, if you're not in an authentic environment where you can excel, it's going to play havoc with how you operate as an individual. Therefore, when we're constantly, as women, having to prove ourselves, it's offensive. How do you think I got here? I've been told when you hired me that this is the path. If I have one path, should it not be the same for my male counterpart? What makes him more suitable as a candidate for the next level?

Ingrid: I understand that perspective, but the other side of it is, other women see us as leaders, so, how do we create inclusion to let them through the door when we're battling for that inclusion ourselves?

I tell people all the time that equity and equality are not the same thing. I wish we had equality where everybody could step into the same space and not worry about all the barriers we face. There are not those same opportunities unfortunately.

Often, increasing “allyship” is charged with being an antidote to a non-inclusive culture however the McKinsey Women in the workplace study highlighted the reality of a lack of true “allyship”. Less than half of the 65,000 white employees interviewed report educating themselves about the experiences of women of color, with a similar number reporting consistently giving credit to women of color for their work and ideas and 40 percent reported actively confronting discriminatory behaviors [2]. A lack of sufficient action, advocation and an ever-compounding false perception of “allyship” adds to the feeling of a lack of safety and space to be authentic.

Ingrid: I hate this word “allyship”, because it’s overused, and people don't understand it or exactly what it means to show up as an ally. You can’t just feel you're an ally, I think it needs to step into that other space where you're an actual advocate, a disruptor.

Dionne: I think the word is co-conspirator.

Ingrid: Yes, co-conspirator! Someone who's actually able to voice, “I don't like what you said, you're not making space for women.” You're excluding women when continuously you don't give them the same pathways and give them the opportunities to get in into spaces. It evolves into cycles of macro-aggressions. We're still not authentically and intentionally thinking about how we can be inclusive for everybody because if you're inclusive for one, you're going to have to be inclusive for all and understand the impact for all genders.

Q. What was your perception of the level of gender & race representation in the industry when you first joined? Has this changed?

Dionne: I was in the US last week and it was a heartfelt moment that I didn't think was going to happen when I got on stage and I looked out into a sea of Black women and one White woman. I don't get that in Canada. It has changed, there are more Black and Brown women in middle management and frontline work. That's as a direct result of our demographics within society. Have I seen change beyond that? No.

Ingrid: I was, and probably still am 25 years later, the only Black Chief Human Resources Officer and senior executive in insurance in Canada. It dawned on me the other day when in conversation with two other White women who are CEOs. They are, I guess, two of four in Canada. Look at those numbers.  

Women have to invent themselves more effectively, we have to multitask. We're used to juggling family, home, work etcetera. The reinvention that's required to step out of corporate or to change roles is unique. We see a lot of women doing that now because there's just not that space in senior roles. I was reading an article about the glass cliff versus the glass ceiling. The glass cliff, when you get to a point and you can't stay there because it's so dangerous. Look at the statistics in Canada and across the world of how many women are starting their own organizations.  

Dionne: White women have the glass ceiling. Black women have the concrete ceiling. It's like a boulder.  White women can break that glass ceiling and get to the next level. Black women are chipping away at this concrete block. The executive stats in the US speak for themselves, 1.6% of black women are moving into VP roles 1.4% and to CEO C-Suite roles.

Ingrid: The power of three is what counts for women. One woman is a token but when you have three, you start having a voice.






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