In her Black HIstory Month keynote address on February 5, Dr. Wanda Costen plans to draw from her background as a sociologist to look at Black women’s participation in the Canadian labour force, barriers that prevent true representation and tangible ways to improve diversity in the workplace.

The “double whammy” visible minority women face – and how to address it

February 3, 2020 | Society, Business

It didn’t take long after moving to Edmonton from Flagstaff, Arizona two years ago for Dr. Wanda Costen to experience firsthand the differences between Canada and the United States.

“I can tell you anecdotally that as a visible minority woman, I’m treated far better in Canada than I am in my home country,” says the dean of MacEwan University’s School of Business. “Hands down.”

But before we go collectively patting ourselves on the back for being so welcoming and inclusive, Wanda has a few things to add to her initial observation.

Her first note? That Canadian workplaces still do not reflect the diversity of our society.

In her Black History Month keynote address on February 5, Wanda plans to draw from her background studying gender and racial inequality to look at Black women’s participation in the Canadian labour force, barriers that prevent true representation and tangible ways to improve diversity in the workplace.

While Canada doesn’t collect a significant amount of race-based employment data, says Wanda, the information we do have reveals news that isn’t good. Black women in Canada face an 11 per cent unemployment rate (compared to 7 per cent across the general population). And when it comes to leading organizations, Canadian women aren't even close to achieving equity, says Wanda – let alone racialized women, who experience a “double whammy” (being a woman and an ethnic minority only exacerbates discrimination, she says).

Why the inequity? A big part of the answer, she says, lies in our own inherent biases.

“Sometimes that bias is intentional and sometimes it’s unconscious, but it’s there and we can’t pretend it isn’t. And it’s not until we understand that we are all biased that we can actually begin to do something about it.”

Check your bias

The Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity regularly offers workshops where students, faculty and staff can learn about how unconscious bias can seep into everyday interactions, and explore ways we can think and act with the conscious intent for inclusion. LEARN MORE.


That’s exactly what Wanda is doing in the School of Business – beginning with her own faculty’s hiring practices.

“My grandmother used to say that to whom much is given, much is expected,” she says. “We have an obligation as leaders to right these wrongs, which means ensuring the processes we use are unbiased, and create opportunities for everyone.”

But how?

In the hiring example, it begins long before employers sit down to interview candidates.

“Research in sociology as far back as 2001 shows a statistically significant difference in the number of callbacks a fictitious applicant received, based solely on whether a person’s name sounds white or ethnic,” says Wanda.

So she’s working methodically to eliminate as much subjectivity from the process as possible.

That means being intentional not only in how the position announcements are written and where they’re placed, but also in how hiring committees discuss competencies and identify exactly which credentials are needed to do the job.

It also means introducing anonymity into ranking candidates (individual hiring committee members send their ranking to an employee outside the committee – even Wanda, who chairs every hiring committee in her faculty, doesn’t see them) and taking the time to critically examine every interview question being asked. Even so, bias still remains, so that means calling herself – and others – out on every comment and decision in the hiring process.

“I ask the tough questions; I prevent discussions about matters that aren’t directly related to a candidate’s ability to do the job. I ask whether a concern is related to someone’s background or if it’s legit,” she says.

Challenging herself and others in these ways has resulted in more diversity – and better-qualified candidates – in every case in the School of Business, says Wanda.

It’s an approach that isn’t limited to academia, and one Wanda says can shape workplaces for the better. Research from the 1970s shows that heterogenous work groups outperform homogenous groups every single time, when they share common goals and aligned values. When people with different perspectives work together with respect and dignity, that’s when you can push and struggle and debate, says Wanda. That leads to the best answers – and the best solutions to the complex problems we face.

“Being inclusive means I get to bring all of who I am to work and actually get to be who I am,” she says. “I’m very direct and that means I often bump up against Canadian culture. If I’m constantly told to change so I fit in, it’s not inclusion. It’s diversity, but it’s not inclusion. If we want the benefit of the whole person, there has to be inclusion, even when it makes us uncomfortable.”

The importance of embracing that discomfort is something Wanda hopes attendees take away from her keynote address on February 5.

“I hope people begin to gain an awareness of the biases we all hold, to explore them and to question ourselves and our views. It’s the only way things will ever change.” 



Black History Month

Take part in workshops, performances and activities that illustrate how Black Canadians have influenced our country’s culture and legacy.

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