From misunderstood expectations to lack of buy-in on the value of diversity, there are a number of challenges and obstacles facing leaders who want equity, diversity and inclusion to really thrive in their organizations.

Successful businesses tend to have a few things in common – such as evidence-based, data-driven strategies and an understanding that changing hearts and minds takes time and requires policies and processes to be properly addressed.

Tune in to the fourth episode of Diversonomics season 4 as hosts Roberto Aburto and Cindy Kou speak with Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity, about what's working, what's not working and how everyone can be a champion for diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Episode tip:

"We know that really meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion work needs to be cross-functional and holistic. You need to be engaging with everything from your finance team through to your product team to your people, leaders and beyond. This work needs to be embedded into the absolute core of any type of business operations."

— Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity


You are listening to "Diversonomics", a Gowling WLG podcast.

Roberto: Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about diversity and inclusion from Gowling WLG. I'm your co-host Roberto Aburto, practicing law in the Ottawa office.

Cindy: And I'm your co-host, Cindy Kou, based in Gowling WLG's Toronto Office.

Roberto: So far this season we've had some great conversations with some of Gowling WLG's internal diversity and inclusion leaders. If you have not listened to our conversations with Jamie Lickers, Emma Dennis or Peter Lukasiewicz, you can hear those at You'll note that all of our episodes are accredited for EDI credit for those Ontario lawyers who are in need of their CPD credits.

Cindy: For the next few episodes of this season we'll turn the focus outward. We are thrilled to set down with some of the leaders and thinkers working at the forefront of equity, diversity and inclusion within their organizations as well as other organizations. We're going to find out what's working, what's not working and how we can all be better champions for equity, diversity and inclusion in our workplaces.

Roberto: Our guest today is Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity. Dr. Saska leads a team dedicated to working closely with a number of organizations with a view to helping them create more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces and products. She holds a PhD in equity studies and technology and innovation from Western University and she has twice been named amongst the Women's Executive Network, top 100 most powerful women in Canada, and on Culture Amp's list of 21 Diversity and Inclusion Leaders you should know.

Cindy :I had the chance to hear Dr. Saska, Sarah's, thoughtful keynote on gender diversity and intersexuality at the World Wide Network of Women dinner at the Collision Tech Conference earlier this year. Sarah shared so many gems that evening. We knew it would be a treat to have her on Diversonomics. So, welcome to the show, Sarah. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and your background, please?

Sarah Hi. Yes, thank you. Thank you both for having me today. I guess a number of years ago, when I was doing my PhD research, I learned that car accidents are the leading cause of death related to maternal trauma. So translation - when someone who is pregnant gets into a car crash there's a really high likelihood that they'll lose their unborn fetus. I was deeply curious trying to understand what the heck is going on here? It turns out that if you rewind to war time, men were the ones predominantly behind a wheel, so car crash safety testing used male bodies as the default, or the norm, for a car crash safety testing. If you live and breathe in a body that defaults from a 180 pound male frame then you're less safe in those vehicles. That's something that really struck me and while I was in grad school I started to look around and find different gaps and blind spots across a range of different sectors and industries. I even went through about probably 500 or so of the leading studies in technology studies, innovation studies, at the time, and I couldn't find the words "gender", "race", "equity", just anything and any of those sort of landmark studies back then that talked about our humanness. In fact, the field of innovation studies went so far as to say that it considered itself to be gender blind, or gender neutral. I'm using air quotations as I say this. You know, that would be great. I'd love to live in a world that would say gender blind or gender neutral but, hey, it doesn't work that way, right? We live in a highly pregendered world, so in that way, when we're shaping any type of technology or innovation we'd have all of these lenses in place. Gender, race, equity and sort of beyond. It was very much in grad school and digging into all that different research that I realized that I need to translate the research into practice. Together with my co-founder, Dr. Andrea Rowe, we launched Feminuity about 5 or so years ago. We joined MaRS Discovery District and we were accelerated and supported there to get off the ground. Yeah, we've been moving pretty hard and fast ever since. We work largely with folks in the tech and innovation ecosystem, with everyone from pre-revenue startups all the way through to Fortune 500's.

Cindy: Thank you, Sarah. Let's start at the quote/unquote beginning or, for what many organizations is, the formal beginning of a commitment to moving the needle on diversity and inclusion. We hear a lot about organizations creating a diversity initiative as one of the first steps to improving diversity and inclusion in that workplace. Can you tell us what you think about framing diversity and inclusion as an initiative and what, if anything, do organizations need to be aware of with that approach.

Sarah: Yeah. I would say unless you are thinking about a really fulsome, comprehensive and holistic strategy, then don't bother. I don't like initiatives. I think that something that's sort of one off or done off the side of someone's desk is rarely effective. We know that really meaningful diversity, equity, inclusion work needs to be cross functional and holistic. You need to be engaging with everything from your finance team through to your product team to your people, leaders and beyond. This work needs to be embedded into the absolute core of any type of business operations. In that way an initiative, if it's an event, and call it an event, right? You're having a diversity inclusion related event. But don't call it an initiative. Just sort of name it for what it is. I find too often that organizations will host an event, say once per quarter, that relates to diversity and inclusion and what that will do is it will sort of reinforce skeptics and folks who don't understand or believe in the value or quality of this work, because they don't see any meaningful change. That's because you haven't launched a really fulsome strategy that's being measured and tracked and targeted. If you're having an event, call it an event, but I'd say don't call it a D&I initiative.

Roberto: What would you say are the top three barriers to moving the needle on diversity and inclusion in an organization?

Sarah: One of the most considerable pieces right now, especially in the Canadian ecosystem, is that there is just a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about this space. I think right now, if you were to ask the average Canadian, what we mean by diversity or equity or inclusion or all of them sort of together, that you'd get a whole range of different answers. One of the things that I find, that keeps coming up, even by really well intended and thoughtful folks, is that we're calling people diverse. We'll have folks who are in talent acquisition, or HR people leaders, call us and say that they need to hire a quote/unquote diverse candidate. This goes to this sort of misunderstanding, just sort of general misinformation in this space right now, let the record show that people aren't diverse. Right? No single human is diverse. Diversity is a relational concept. The value of diversity can only be seen, be understood, in the context of a team dynamic. So in a team, a collective, within an organization.  A person isn't diverse but your teams, your organization as a whole, needs to be. I think that would be one kind of small example of the misunderstanding and misinformation right now. Which I think is a huge barrier to an organization being effective when it comes to anything relating to the conversation. I think another big piece is generally buy-in. That's a huge piece. We have a lot of folks, a lot of champions, a lot of people who care deeply about these conversations and these initiatives and these efforts, who reach out and sometimes we'll have to work with them for perhaps up to a year to help them get buy-in from their leadership. We'll be working with them on the backend; we'll be coaching them, we'll be giving them different business cases, we'll be giving them as many resources and talking points as possible, because buy-in is really difficult. Especially in the Canadian ecosystem at this stage. Like I said, we focus a lot with folks in the tech and innovation ecosystem and, just to give a bit of context, right now in the US most tech companies, with their salt, have achieved a diversity officer or related role and a fully resourced team. That's very much the norm. That's well beyond tech in the US. Right across most sectors and industries. Whereas we look to Canada, short of Shopify, I don't believe there's any other Canadian tech company that achieved a diversity officer or a related role. So Shopify has had a diversity and belonging or something like that but we're really behind in many ways. If you look to different sectors and industries and Canadian context as well, we have major, major gaps. I think these conversations are very much in their infancy here in Canada so the buy-in piece is really difficult right now, at this time. I think the third big barrier is when you're taking all this misinformation and misunderstanding about the space, and you're not getting meaningful buy-in and real resourcing behind this, then the last piece is organizations can't be consistent. They do end up having those sort of one off initiatives because they're doing the best they can with what they have. Someone's who's sort of doing it off the side of their desk with a small meager budget that they're able to pull from a few different places, that sort of thing. Misinformation, a lack of real understanding, leads to a lack of buy-in which then leads to lack of consistent real effort on this front.

Cindy: Thank you, Sarah. Maybe I can ask the inverse of that question. Maybe you've already answered it in the top three barriers but can you tell us about an environment or an organization where you saw equity, diversity and inclusion really thrive?

Sarah: Yeah, for sure. Some of the organizations that we work with, we've now been working with for a number of years, consistently. While I won't mention any names I do think there's a handful of organizations in Canada that are really being thoughtful. What that sort of looks and feels like is, I guess the first piece, is they're bought in. They're not just bought in for the optics. They're not just bought in so they can talk about it on their social media or so that their leadership can make one off comments on panels or during talks. They're bought in for real. In their guts. In their hearts. They're fully resourcing it. They have a dedicated head count or they're working consistently with an organization to do this with third party consultancy work. They're resourcing their initiatives. This is in sort of being boot strapped from a really meager budget. It's a real meaningful number on their financial ledger. Buy in and real buy in is a huge piece. I think what organizations who are literally bought, what they're doing is that they're shifting away from initiatives, they're shifting away from the idea that there is going to be a need for any quick win and they're shifting way from jumping to solutions. Which we see a lot. Instead, what they're doing, is they're leading a really meaningful strategy that's evidence based and that's data driven. Organizations that are doing really well with this, before they'll have started anything, let alone a single event, they'll do a really meaningful diagnostic. We'll work with organizations to do sort of a 360. We'll look into their people processes. Their products. Their physical space. We'll run a quantitative survey with the organization to get people's sentiment about conversations relating to diversity, equity and inclusion and we'll also run a survey with a really fulsome demographic. Questions so we can understand who is in the organization. Then, really from a meaningful perspective, understand what's working for folks and what's not working for folks. Then we'll take that quantitative data, we'll pair that with lots of qualitative. Lots of sort of one on one interviews, focus groups, that sort of thing. While the quantitative data is a huge piece of understanding what's working in an organization, we breathe a lot of colour and texture into data through stories. Because we're all so much more than a single data point. These organizations have quantitative data so they can benchmark. They're bringing more colour and texture to that with the quantitative side of things and they're looking at their policies, their processes, everything. For gaps, bias and equity and they're understanding from all of that where they're really at. Once they've done a really meaningful assessment of their organization, then from there, they can use that data and that benchmark to shape a meaningful strategy that's unique to their organization. That's feasible and that makes sense for them. That's a really big piece of it too. Organizations are doing well, are understanding what's not working within their organization. They're getting a handle of their data and then they're building strategies that are grounded in all of that information. Then the next big piece is that they're really consistent about it. They understand that this is a slow play. This is an incremental ongoing thing that all pieces of an organization need to be committed to. An organization that's doing really well in this way will be tracking. They'll have a range of different metrics in place. They'll be talking to their people and they'll do a lot of ongoing education as well. They'll be working to change hearts and minds while they'll also be addressing their processes. I like to think of it as you're working on your people, you're sort of shifting hearts and minds through education, content, ongoing, whatever makes sense for the organization but you're also sort of building in the trip wires. De-biasing your talent acquisition process and adding inclusive nudges and things throughout it. So when people fail to catch themselves, that the system itself will. I'd say those would be the big pieces. The companies that are doing well are resourcing, they're really bought in, and not just in a sort of tokenistic way. They probably have head count and they have a really well resourced team around this. They're building strategies that are evidence based and data driven. Then they're being consistent, day in, day out. But they see this as a really fulsome part of their business operations. It's not sort of an additive separate thing. It's very much integrated.

Cindy: So you mentioned a few times that getting real buy in is really tough. That that's one of the common obstacles or points of resistance in an organization. You can tell us about how you would encourage organizations to develop that sense of buy in?

Sarah: Yeah. The buy in thing is tricky. I think there's no sort of one answer on that. I think it's very much, hmmm, like when I get together with other folks in the D&I space, other practitioners, one of the things that we laugh about a lot is just all of the intangible, weird, gray kind of skill sets that we need to have to be able to do this work effectively. I think it's very much about understanding your leadership. Understanding their personalities. Understanding what drives them. Some leadership are wildly competitive so if you show them their competitor and what their competitors are doing regarding D&I that can sometimes get folks to get excited and be a bit more open to buying into this work. Some folks you can tug their hearts a little bit. You can find other ways to build the case that's a bit more emotive for some people. I think some folks just need to get themselves in a corner, whether that's because they have a major hiccup and sort of PR mess or something perhaps worse, and then maybe that's when they'll sort of realize that they need to buy in. I don't think there's sort of one clear pathway that folks end up buying in and moving forward with the work. I think you really just have to look at personalities, resources and honestly, ego is a huge, huge piece. Figuring out how to appeal to leaders and egos is kind of the name of the game and that no one really sort of frames as such, I find.

Roberto: One of the analogies that you brought up in one of your explanations was talking about trip wires. I really like that in terms of how that analogy addresses unconscious bias and bias. In terms of people who are trying to think of mechanisms as management, to try to set up tripwires, what does that look like? What are some examples?

Sarah: The idea is that we always want to understand people are doing their best. While that's great, one common thing that we know for sure that all people really have, is that they have bias. While we all need to do our best to be actively managing this and checking ourselves and checking our privilege and committing to an ongoing learning process, we're all going to mess up. That's just how this sort of works. I think tripwires can look and feel like a lot of things. One place that we really like to focus on tripwires is as it relates to policy. We love going through harassment policies, your codes of conduct or employee benefits. There's a whole range of different ones. We like to think of them using an intersectional approach to try to figure out how we can broaden them or at least solve for any human error through policy. I think policy is a great place but I also think small incrementals, behavioural type nudges can be found all over your office. For example, if you have a meeting room, it's the room that a lot of interviews take place, I love to, with our clients, design signage that goes on those doors that have five different reminders about how to engage in interviewing process. How to check your bias. Are you interrupting certain people in a conversation? Do you have a pro-educational bias? Do you prefer people who are highly credentialed? Do you prefer people who look, feel and think just like you? Those of kind of check-in questions are really good. Sort of like little nudges or tripwires. The other thing I think, again we work with a lot of folks who are sort of building things in terms of products, checklists around what does it look like to design an inclusive products? What sort of gaps or biases or blind spots do you need to vet out when you're in real time designing a strategy or designing an output of sorts. I think there's lots of just ways that we can kind of embed these little nudges and tripwires all throughout any given day, while also sort of working on doing our best to change our own hearts and minds, and sort of do better.

Cindy: Sarah, we appreciate that you've had the opportunity to work with a lot of different types of organizations and in different sectors as well. What are some of the common obstacles or points of resistance you see organizations face when it comes to fostering more equitable diverse and inclusive work cultures?

Sarah: I think one thing we find really often, which I don't think organizations would ever understand as an obstacle but we certainly do, is that a lot of organizations, when they start their DEI journey, they start with a women first approach. More often than not when people hear the word diversity, not only do they think of diversity meaning a human, a diverse candidate, but they also tend to think of diversity to mean either gender or race or both. What we find is that a lot of organizations will start with some sort of women centered initiative as they're sort of getting their feet wet in this space. Companies will call us and they'll say, "Oh, we have a women problem", or, "We need to hire more women". Maybe because they say, "Oh my gosh all of sudden we see that our board, or executive team, is all male". The next thing they think is we must get to it and hire some women. While that's super well intended, and I absolutely get why people want to start there, it's really intuitively appealing. That, "Hey, if we don't have many women on our board then we should probably hire some women". What we find is that a women first approach is actually problematic. I don't know exactly where this came from. I'm not sure if it had to do with some of these gender parody conversations. Like striving towards 50/50. Just for the record, 50/50 gender parity in and of itself is highly exclusionary to people who identify beyond the gender binary. But women first approach is, what they do is they tend to privilege whites as gender, able bodied, heterosexual women. One of the ways we know this to be true is that when organizations run a diversity survey what they'll often be able to tell us, and this often when organizations call us and say, "Hey. We're moving with the strategy", they'll say, "Hey. We know that 40% of women within our organization feel like this". But what they're not able to tell us is how racialized women, or queer women, or women living with disabilities, or say, queer, racialized women living with disabilities, are doing. They're only able to tell us how women, in a broad stroke, as sort of a homogeneous group, are doing. When we design solutions based on how all women are doing, it's guaranteed to only advance certain women, while not sort of supporting a whole range of other women. Too often, like I said before, it advances women with other sort of dominant identity categories, so women who are able bodied, heterosexual, cisgender and so forth. I feel like that sort of sends an implicit signal that says, "Hey.  Yeah, I hear you. You're a women and you're part of this sort of bucket but you'll have to wait your turn", if you're someone who is racialized, you're an indigenous woman and so forth. That's one of the biggest areas that we see right now in the Canadian ecosystem is that folks are focusing explicitly on women but they're doing that without any type of intentionality and with almost no attention to intersectionality. For folks who aren't super aware intersectionality means that we need to understand that our identities are multiple and intersecting. That we're never just sort of one thing and we need to be cognizant of the ways that people identities come together in complex ways that can be highly oppressive but also a bit more complicated.

Cindy: That is an awesome and unexpected answer to this question. Thank you so much. Sometimes we hear this from other people in the D&I space that there's frustration about how slowly the pace of change seems to be. We're wondering if you have any tips or words of wisdom or advice that you'd want to share to anybody feeling a little discouraged by the pace of change in D&I.

Sarah: Yeah. I guess my answer would be two-fold. One, we really need to have expectations set. Manage expectations around the incrementality of this type of work is really important. This is not meant to be a quick, hard fast win. That's just not how social change works. At the end of the day any conversation relating to diversity, equity inclusion, this is just very much social justice work that's showing up in corporate settings. That's what this really is all about. Whether we want to name it as such. This change is a slow and incremental and that's just sort of the pace. But with that said, I think the reason that things are painfully slow in the Canadian ecosystem right now is because we're just not seeing real authentic buy in. We're not seeing organizations put real money behind it. Hiring head count then hiring people to have a fully resourced team. That's just really, really not happening. Too often we're seeing that organizations are asking their existing HR or people leaders to do diversity inclusion work on top of their existing work load. Or we're seeing organizations rely on champions within an organization sort of pick up some slack. But that's not how this works. This work requires folks who have expertise and experience in this field. This is a unique skill set. It's distinct from HR and people leadership. It's distinct from folks working in talent acquisition and while champions, bless their hearts, are so well intended and are absolutely needed once a real strategy gets moving, too often we find that champions champion exactly what they care about. If that means that they're a white women and they care deeply about women's empowerment within the organization, then they're going to focus on just that. But that's not what diversity is about. Diversity is far more than advancing women in leadership. That's one piece of the conversation but it is also about everything from ensuring indigenous inclusion through to accessibility to ensuring that these efforts are very clearly embedded in your product or service or offering. Whatever you're bringing out into the world. Champions will, again so well intended and so needed in the broader conversation, they can't be leading this. Because they'll just be advancing one small piece, one small thread, and sort of not thinking about all the other pieces that need to come through. I think they day that Canadian leaders really sort of set up and commit and buy in a really meaningful way, and start hiring chief diversity officers, or related roles, and actually resourcing these people and empowering them, then we're going to see progress in a way that we've never seen before.

Roberto: Well, Sarah, thank you so much for being with us here today.

Sarah: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Roberto: For our listeners, if you ever have any questions, comments or ideas feel free to reach out to Cindy or myself. You can always look us up at and get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you. Also make sure you check out the show notes and subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcast so you don't ever miss an episode. While you're at it please leave us a review. You can also follow me on Twitter at @robaburto. Sarah, do you have anything you want to plug?

Sarah: You can follow, you know learning is about diversity equity inclusion. Lots of the conversations we're having at Feminuity. We're on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and we're lots of fun on Instagram, so check us out.

Cindy: Sarah, thank you so much. And you can follow me on Twitter at @ckoutweets.

Roberto: Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG, produced by Rachael Reid and edited by Matt Rideout. Thanks for listening.

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