What students want from employers to create safe, inclusive workplaces
Dalhousie University interviewed students and graduates belonging to equity-deserving groups to better understand their experiences in the labour market
Vicki Mackintosh and Michelle Patrick
Equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA) have been major buzzwords in the labour market in the past 18 months. But it goes beyond language. The onset of a global pandemic has exposed inequities in the workforce experienced by historically excluded communities. What does EDIA actually mean to the people facing inequities in the workforce, and how can career development shift to appropriately serve them?
It is no surprise that jobseekers from equity groups – including Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals and people with disabilities – report that they feel underrepresented and lack support in the workplace. Members of equity groups are often denied employment opportunities, and even when hired, face inequities and discrimination. In Canada, people of colour experience significant hardship securing employment, even if they are highly educated. They are also less likely to attain higher positions such as management and senior roles and are more likely to experience substantial wage gaps. Career development must acknowledge these inequities and provide effective strategies to support diverse individuals.
Dalhousie University Career Services – within Student Affairs, the Faculty of Management and SITE (science, information technology and engineering) co-op education – wanted to better understand the experiences of students and graduates belonging to equity groups in accessing the labour market and gaining meaningful employment (including work terms or co-op placements). In July and August of 2021, as part of a pilot project, EDIA Outreach Assistant Vicki Mackintosh facilitated conversations with 13 individuals to identify their barriers, challenges and needs.
In these virtual one-on-one discussions, participants spoke about their career goals, and what they looked for when applying for a job and in an employer. They opened up about the challenges they faced in employment and while accessing supports from employers or the university – often describing how frequently they encountered discrimination. Students shared how they needed to work twice as hard as others who did not represent an equity-deserving group. Mental health was frequently mentioned as a challenge stemming from the discrimination and oppression they met daily. Students and alumni spoke about their experiences disclosing their identities with others and acknowledged areas of support to make this, and the overall experience, more comfortable.
Below are some of the priorities for supportive action identified by students and graduates, which can inform career development practices in a post-secondary context and beyond. Institutions and employers should take the time to build relationships and trust with these communities and listen to their specific needs, as regional and cultural difference can further shape practices. Significant consideration should be given to the equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility of services and the workplace, as well as the positions being recommended to jobseekers, and employers should actively encourage diversity in upper management.
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Jobseekers shared that an equitable hiring statement was a critical element that they looked for in a job post. However, they also wanted further information to determine the employer’s true culture, policies and practices to recruit, train and retain equity groups in the workplace.
People of colour stated that company culture, diversity and positive leadership were essential to their consideration when applying for a job. All participants who identified as part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community said that they sought compassionate female leadership. These participants added that while it was a start to hang the Pride flag, they wanted to know what was being done to create an inclusive and supportive environment. Students and alumni who identified as having a disability suggested they sought employers who would consider accommodating them in their work environment, including with paid sick days.
“Career development for jobseekers within equity groups must include building self-efficacy to be able to advocate for their needs at each stage of the employment process.”
Career development then has a place to assist jobseekers to understand their own needs from an employer to feel safe and included. This may include helping jobseekers learn how to evaluate job postings to determine whether a potential employer’s policies and practices are reflective of their EDIA statements.
Providing students with the resources and skills to advocate for themselves is another important recommendation that emerged from the conversations. Many of the participants experienced feeling undervalued, unheard and harassed during their work term or employment.
Those who identified as having a disability spoke about how often co-workers and managers made them feel guilty about taking time off for illness, working at a slower pace or receiving accommodations. Participants were also discouraged by the lack of clear communication after submitting applications. They shared that they would appreciate being asked if they required accommodations prior to a meeting or interview. Those with learning disabilities who struggled to think on the spot identified that having clear meeting goals or being provided the interview questions in advance would be beneficial.
Career development for jobseekers within equity groups must include building self-efficacy to be able to advocate for their needs at each stage of the employment process. Career services can help empower students and graduates to ask for what they need, which can include education and information on labour laws to help jobseekers understand their rights and responsibilities. Employers can provide confidential, culturally competent employee supports and include ongoing diversity and sensitivity training for all staff. Both career services and employers must understand their own power and privilege, and the impact this can have for equity groups in a workplace setting.
The value of mentorship and networking was also a significant topic of discussion among most participants. Having mentors with shared identity and similar lived experiences, or in their chosen field of work, was something participants felt strongly about. Those with mentors spoke about their positive experiences, with some saying they would not be where they were today without mentorship.
Career development must include the fostering of networking skills, particularly to support students in building their network within their own community – not just their industry of interest. Similarly, general mentorship programs must focus on recruiting a broad range of diverse mentors and equip mentors and mentees with a clear understanding of their roles to encourage a healthy and lasting relationship. To promote cultural safety, mentors who do not share the identity of their mentees should be educated on the systemic barriers faced by equity groups and to recognize their own power and privilege.
Creating safer and more open space for jobseekers is vital. When asked what would make equity-deserving folks feel more comfortable in the workplace, students suggested:
- open, honest conversations regarding identities and accessibility needs
- pronouns on name tags and in email signatures
- information specific to equity policies and practices in the workplace available to employees, as well as the general public
- seeing themselves reflected in all aspects of the workplace such as diversity in senior management
Career development practitioners should consider these suggestions within their own practice and engage in professional development to learn more about employment equity and discrimination and their effects in the workplace. This includes but is not limited to using a trauma-informed lens and collaborating with diverse colleagues.
It is clear in Canada we have a long way to go to reach equality and equity in the workforce. The global pandemic has shown how equity groups are disproportionately affected, and career supports for them are more essential than ever. It is our hope that this knowledge will be used to strengthen the future of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in recruitment, hiring and employment. If we are to reimagine career development, we need to acknowledge and understand the individual and their identities, and the impact of the intersection of identity, and honour their lived experience by providing inclusive, relevant supports.
Vicki Mackintosh (she/her) is a master’s student in Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture, in Truro, NS. She has been working with the Bissett Student Success Centre as the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility (EDIA) Employer Outreach Assistant on the discovery of equitable hiring and recruitment. She participates heavily in equity advocacy and sits on many boards and committees for women’s rights as well as 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion.
Michelle Patrick (she/her) is the Student Success Career Advisor at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax. Prior to this, Patrick was the program manager for PLANS (Promoting Leadership in health for African Nova Scotians), which aimed to increase representation of Black health-care professionals in Nova Scotia. She is also a member of the Racial Violence policy development group and co-chair of the Student Affairs EDIA committee at Dalhousie.