Diversity as a Performance & Innovation Strategy for Digital Health in Canada

The importance of inclusion and diversity is clearly a hot topic – the #MeToo Movement, #NoMoreManels being promoted by the Globe & Mail’s Andre Picard, and even Digital Health Canada’s Top 10 Women Leaders Award – have all helped highlight the need for more to be done to support more women in leadership positions in Canadian workplaces and boards. Our next challenge also includes broadening and supporting diversity beyond gender, including race, age, sexual orientation and disability, to name a few.

We pride ourselves as Canadians as being diverse, but how are we really performing in eliminating bias and increasing our diverse pool of talent within digital health? Does better diversity and inclusion (D&I) increase your organization’s performance and ability to innovate? And lastly, how can digital health professionals and organizations (big and small) support better D&I initiatives?

Recently, IBM successfully sued Microsoft because of the ‘poaching’ of their Chief Diversity Officer, arguing its diversity data and strategy were economically valuable “trade secrets,” a legal term typically associated with cutting-edge technologies or closely guarded recipes.1 Many have increasingly begun to regard inclusion and diversity as a source of competitive advantage, and specifically, as a key enabler of growth.

What do we mean by Diversity & Inclusion, especially in a strategic HR context? And how is Canada faring on these topics?

Canada still has lots of work to do in promoting diversity. While women comprise most of the workforce supporting the healthcare industry, less than 30% lead hospitals or healthcare organizations, and major gaps in pay equity (26% in healthcare) continue to exist.2 When we look at board representation, gender representation has increased modestly – with healthcare and social assistance being the first industry category to reach 33% female representation.3 In Canada, two-thirds of board directors are also 60+, which signals the need for greater diversity in age representation.

“Diversity is being invited to the party: inclusion is being asked to dance

Verna Myers, declicinternational.com

Moreover, according to the Canadian Board Diversity Council, most Canadian boards (cross industry) report a significant lack of diversity in ethnicity, visible minorities, LGBTQ, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities, moderate diversity in gender, age and international experience, and more diversity in management/functional experience and education.

Interestingly, Canadian board directors are becoming increasingly open to the idea of adopting written diversity policies, with nearly half of Canadian directors stating they are in favour of introducing one. Canada should look to several Scandinavian countries with experience in adopting successful written policy and legislation to address inequality in representation and pay equity. For example, Iceland has recently required companies to report on pay equity publicly.

Do Diversity & Inclusion lead to higher performing organizations? What does this mean for digital health?
Beyond D&I initiatives simply being the right thing to do, the big question that often looms for executive management and organizations is “How will this help our bottom line? Why bother?”. And the resounding answer, based on dozens of recent studies, is that increasing your diversity and inclusion will help with both corporate performance and profitability. The digital health industry is no different, and should therefore profit or falter to the same extent if we fail to change.

A recent McKinsey study6 based on data from over 1,000 companies in a dozen countries, looked at both profitability and value creation and backed the premise that increased gender, racial and cultural diversity increases performance. And the jump was significant. For those companies that increased gender representation in their highest ranks, they got a whopping reward of 21% increased profitability and 27% superior value creation or performance.

But it gets better – companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. That this relationship continues to be strong suggests that inclusion of diverse individuals from the myriad groups beyond gender (e.g., LGBTQ+, age/generation, international experience), can be a key differentiator among companies.7 Maybe we don’t even need written legislation and regulation after all. The ‘punishment’ for digital health companies opting out of diversity will be poorer performance according to recent statistics. Ultimately, those organizations that fail to adopt greater diversity and inclusion will also fail to attract top talent and lag in digital health.

“I’ve worked around the globe and the highest performing teams are diverse ones. Diversity coupled with inclusion drives competitive performance by attracting more customers, retaining employees and satisfying investors, while reflecting the communities we live and work in. The steep challenge of meeting future energy demand while combating climate change will only be met by the innovation that arises from diversity. In a world often beset by intolerance we need to keep the momentum growing to affirm diversity and acceptance in workplaces across our country.”

Michael Crothers, President, Shell Canada

What about innovation? Well, it turns out that in addition to D&I helping your digital health organization’s bottom line, D&I also help increase your innovation with the most diverse companies also being the most innovative.8 We digital health gurus inherently understand and know this. In my day job in creating digital health services for clinicians, a broader range of input from a variety of different perspectives always helps create better products and services in digital health. And we should be doing more of it.

“That’s been a big revelation for me; I must recognize my privilege, and always try to be a strong ally for people who don’t have that privilege.”

Female leader embarking on a small diversity workshop

How can big or small digital health organizations tackle diversity?
While it is true that larger organizations have greater resources to apply to D&I, there are many things that both large and small digital health organizations can learn and adopt easily. From an HR and management perspective, you can start with simply asking your employees how they feel about your corporate culture. Does your digital health workplace have a supportive, diverse and inclusive environment? Do not fear your employees’ responses. There are no perfect approaches to embracing better D&I practices in digital health. The trick is starting the process to change the culture.

According to the McKinsey study, there are four imperatives that can help to deliver impact through D&I:

  1. CEOs and leaders must articulate a compelling vision, embedded with real accountability for delivery, and cascade down through middle management.
  2. The D&I priorities must be explicitly defined based on what will drive the business growth strategy. Leading companies do this in a data-driven way.
  3. Craft an initiative portfolio. Initiatives in pursuit of the D&I goals should be targeted based on growth priorities, and investments made to both hard- and soft-wire the programs and culture of inclusion required to capture the intended benefits.
  4. Tailor for impact. D&I initiatives should be tailored to the relevant business area or geographic region context to maximize local buy-in and impact.

We have incredible digital health organizations and leaders in Canada – from small start-ups, to large private sector companies, to public sector partners and agencies (like my own!) – that have the openness and willingness to move forward on D&I. What should our industry commitment be in digital health? What should our company imperatives be? What are you going to do?

If you are going to succeed and prosper in digital health, you need to create your compelling D&I vision for your organization, and champion it. Grow the awareness and case for change with your executives and your boards, and include your employees every step of the way in creating and joining you on your D&I roadmap. Clearly, your growth, profitability, and likely success in attracting top talent, will depend on it.

Practical Tips for Promoting Diversity in your Digital Health Organization:

  1. Limit job descriptions and criteria for promotion to “must-have” qualities
  2. Revamp the language in job descriptions for greater inclusivity
  3. Prioritize interviews for applicants from severely underrepresented groups
  4. Implement policies that facilitate caregiving (including, but not limited to parental leave)
  5. Allow employees paid days off for non-Christian religious holidays (without requiring that they use vacation days for this purpose)
  6. Remove names and other identity signifiers from job applications

“We encourage applications from candidates of colour, women, queer candidates, candidates with family caregiving responsibilities, immigrant candidates, transgender candidates, and candidates with disabilities.”

Example of an inclusion  statement for job posting

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