Employment Equity Series Article 2: Breaking Down Barriers - Why Employment Equity Still Matters

Four decades have passed since the release of the Abella Report, which shed light on significant barriers to employment faced by the four designated groups. Yet, despite the passage of time and ongoing efforts, the resounding truth remains: these barriers persist. At CCDI Consulting, we've witnessed the enduring challenges that continue to affect workplaces. In this article, we embark on a critical exploration of the very barriers Justice Rosalie Abella identified and how they persist to this day. Are any of these barriers echoing in your workplace?  

Unconscious Bias  

The report recognized that unconscious biases and stereotypes were widespread in the workplace, affecting hiring, promotion, and retention decisions. These biases often led to the exclusion of members of designated groups. 

Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to rewire itself, has fundamentally shaped our approach to unconscious bias. It has shifted the narrative from an innate, unchangeable trait to a dynamic, adaptable process. This understanding has led to the development of training programs and educational initiatives designed to reconfigure neural pathways associated with bias. It offers hope that change is possible and that habits, including biased ones, can be altered over time with consistent effort. Moreover, the concept encourages individuals and organizations to embrace ongoing learning and growth, fostering a culture of accountability and inclusivity. By deliberately exposing ourselves to diverse perspectives and experiences, we can reduce stereotyping and contribute to a more equitable workplace. 

Recruitment & Hiring Practices 

Discriminatory recruitment and hiring practices were a major barrier. Employers tended to hire individuals who closely resembled those already in the workforce, perpetuating underrepresentation of the designated groups. 

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) have had a dual impact on recruitment and hiring. On the positive side, they've significantly improved efficiency by swiftly sifting through many applications. They also promote standardization, ensuring candidates are evaluated impartially based on predefined criteria, which can mitigate bias. Additionally, these systems offer valuable data analytics for assessing and enhancing recruitment practices, including the monitoring of diversity metrics. 

However, the downside of ATS lies in their potential to perpetuate bias. They can unknowingly carry forward historical bias if the system is trained on past hiring data that reflects discrimination. Keyword matching, a common ATS feature, can penalize candidates who use different terminology or possess unconventional career trajectories. Relying too heavily on ATS may result in the exclusion of highly qualified candidates whose resumes don't precisely match the system's criteria, and depersonalize the hiring process, leaving candidates feeling undervalued. 

The advent of the internet has further shaped the recruitment landscape. It has extended the reach of job postings to a more diverse candidate pool, increased transparency through online reviews, facilitated remote work, and provided networking platforms for candidates to connect with employers.  

Lack of Accommodation 

Persons with disabilities faced barriers related to workplace accessibility and accommodation. Many workplaces were not physically accessible, and employers often failed to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  

Provincial legislation addressing the accommodation of persons with disabilities has made significant strides in dismantling barriers related to the lack of accommodation in the workplace. These laws have encouraged employers to become more aware of their obligations and to implement accessible policies and practices. They emphasize the importance of providing reasonable accommodations to ensure that employees with disabilities can perform their job duties on an equal footing with their colleagues. These accommodations can include physical changes to the workplace, flexible work arrangements, or assistive technologies. 

However, despite these legislative advancements, challenges persist. Some employers may still fall short in accommodating employees with disabilities due to lack of awareness or misunderstanding of their obligations. Barriers can also emerge when accommodations are deemed too costly or logistically challenging. Furthermore, attitudinal barriers arising from individuals’ attitudes, beliefs and perceptions, may manifest as negative or discriminatory attitudes towards persons with disabilities, impeding them from full participation in the workforce. To address these persistent issues, it is essential for employers to continue educating themselves about their legal responsibilities and foster inclusive workplace cultures that embrace diversity and provide meaningful accommodations to all employees. 

Glass Ceiling 

Women and racialized individuals often encountered a "glass ceiling," an invisible barrier that limited their advancement to senior and executive positions within organizations. This barrier was often driven by stereotypes and lack of opportunities. 

The glass ceiling, as identified by the Abella report, continues to present a compounding barrier to the representation of women and racialized individuals in senior leadership roles. While there have been efforts to address this issue over the last four decades, significant challenges persist. The lack of representation has proven to be a self-perpetuating issue, with underrepresented individuals often facing obstacles in accessing skill development, networking opportunities, and mentorship, all of which are crucial for advancement to senior leadership positions. Moreover, the absence of role models in these roles can further discourage aspiring leaders, creating a cycle of limited representation. Despite increasing awareness and diversity initiatives, the glass ceiling remains a formidable challenge, necessitating sustained commitment from organizations and society to break down these longstanding barriers to equitable leadership. 

Discrimination and harassment 

The report highlighted instances of discrimination and harassment experienced by the designated groups. Discriminatory practices created hostile work environments that hindered participation and career progression. 

The persistence of harassment, bullying, and discrimination in organizations, despite legal prohibitions, is a complex issue rooted in various factors. While legislation sets clear expectations, it doesn't guarantee that these behaviors will be entirely eradicated. Several reasons contribute to this ongoing problem:  

  • Organizational culture plays a crucial role. If a company's culture tolerates or even implicitly condones such behaviors, it can undermine the effectiveness of legal prohibitions. This might include a lack of enforcement, weak reporting mechanisms, or a failure to address issues in a meaningful way.  
  • Power dynamics within organizations can perpetuate harassment and discrimination. Employees may fear retaliation or harm to their careers if they report incidents, which can silence victims and perpetuate a culture of secrecy.  
  • Unconscious bias can affect how harassment and discrimination are perceived and addressed, often downplaying the severity of the problem.  

To truly combat these issues, organizations must prioritize cultural change, effective reporting systems, and awareness training to align with legal requirements and foster a truly inclusive workplace. 

Limited Access to Training and Development 

Women, racialized individuals, and Indigenous peoples often had limited access to training and development opportunities. This hindered their ability to gain the skills and experience needed for career advancement. 

Since Justice Abella's report, there have been notable efforts to address the limited access to training and development opportunities for women, racialized individuals, and Indigenous peoples. Organizations have increasingly recognized the value of diverse talent and the importance of providing equal access to skill development. Diversity and inclusion initiatives, mentorship programs, and leadership development opportunities have become more widespread. Some of this progress can be identified in increased representation of these groups in mid-level and managerial positions. 

However, it's important to acknowledge that significant challenges remain. In many sectors, there is still underrepresentation of these groups in senior leadership roles, indicating that progress has not been as rapid as desired. Access to development opportunities can vary widely, with some individuals still facing barriers related to unconscious bias and systemic issues. To accelerate improvements, organizations must continue to invest in inclusive training and development programs, remove biases from promotion and advancement processes, and track diversity metrics to ensure progress. 

Language and Cultural Barriers 

Racialized individuals and Indigenous peoples often faced language and cultural barriers that affected their integration into the workforce. These barriers created challenges in communication and teamwork. 

Progress has been made in addressing the language and cultural barriers faced by racialized individuals and Indigenous people in Canada, but challenges persist. Efforts to promote inclusivity have led to greater recognition of the value of diverse languages and cultures within the workforce. Some organizations have implemented language training programs to facilitate communication and foster a more inclusive environment. Additionally, there has been increased acknowledgment of Indigenous cultural diversity and the importance of cultural competence, with some workplaces engaging in cultural sensitivity training and establishing partnerships with Indigenous communities. However, despite these positive steps, there is still much work to be done. Language and cultural barriers remain significant obstacles for many, and individuals from these groups continue to face challenges accessing meaningful employment, particularly when their first language is not English or French. To further advance in this area, it's crucial to prioritize comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategies that not only recognize linguistic and cultural diversity but actively promote it, ensuring that these barriers are addressed and dismantled effectively. 

Institutional Barriers 

The report also identified systemic or institutional barriers within organizations. These included policies and practices that perpetuated discrimination, as well as a lack of proactive diversity and inclusion initiatives. 

Institutional barriers are deeply ingrained within systems and can persist unless proactive measures are taken to address them. Some changes in the way we work have shown promise in addressing and mitigating these barriers. For instance, remote work and flexible work arrangements, accelerated by technological advancements, have provided individuals, including those facing institutional barriers, with greater opportunities to participate in the workforce. This can be especially beneficial for individuals with disabilities, as it allows them to work from environments that cater to their specific needs. Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on outcomes rather than rigid processes in some organizations, which can create more inclusive environments by accommodating individuals with diverse working styles and needs. 


Many individuals faced multiple forms of discrimination due to their intersecting identities. For example, an Indigenous woman could face unique barriers due to both her gender and Indigenous identity. 

Since the 1980s, there have been notable changes in how intersectionality is accommodated in the workplace. The concept of intersectionality, which acknowledges that individuals may face multiple layers of discrimination based on their overlapping identities, has gained recognition and importance in discussions of diversity and inclusion. Organizations increasingly understand that addressing only one dimension of diversity, such as gender or race, is insufficient. They have started to adopt more comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategies that consider the complexity of individuals' experiences and challenges. 

There is growing acknowledgment that intersectionality is crucial to fostering a truly inclusive workplace. As a result, organizations are developing policies and practices that consider the unique needs and perspectives of individuals who belong to multiple underrepresented groups. This includes efforts to eliminate bias in recruitment, promotion, and pay equity and creating support systems and networks to address the specific challenges faced by employees with intersecting identities. While progress has been made, there is still work to be done to fully accommodate intersectionality in the workplace and ensure that all employees can thrive without discrimination based on any aspect of their identity. 

Lack of Data and Accountability 

The report emphasized the importance of data collection and accountability mechanisms to measure progress and hold organizations responsible for achieving employment equity. 

Justice Abella's observation of a lack of data and accountability as a barrier remains relevant, although technological advances have certainly improved data collection capabilities. The challenge now lies in ensuring that the right data is collected and utilized effectively. Organizations should be accountable for collecting and maintaining data related to diversity and inclusion within their workforce. This includes information on the composition of their workforce, pay equity, promotion rates, and employee experiences. To address intersectionality, it's vital to collect data on multiple aspects of employees' identities, such as gender, race, age, disability, and sexual orientation. 

The right data should be collected not just for compliance but for strategic decision-making. By understanding the demographics of their workforce and monitoring diversity metrics, organizations can identify disparities, set targets for improvement, and measure progress. Accountability should rest with organizational leadership, who should ensure that data collection is accurate, transparent, and that actionable insights are derived from it. Furthermore, organizations should establish clear policies for data privacy and protection, ensuring that sensitive information is handled responsibly and ethically. Effective data collection, analysis, and accountability are integral to creating inclusive workplaces and addressing systemic barriers. 

In our work at CCDI Consulting, we've witnessed the enduring presence of barriers in workplaces, regardless of their size. These barriers, which affect access to training, perpetuate systemic biases, and create challenges related to language, culture, and the glass ceiling, continue to hinder the full participation of designated groups in Canada's workforce. While the ultimate transformation requires the commitment of all Canadians, organizations can take tangible steps to confront and overcome these enduring obstacles. 

Organizations possess the capacity to drive internal change by embracing inclusion, diversity, equity and accommodation as core values, developing robust strategies, and fostering a culture of responsibility and transparency. This involves implementing inclusive policies, creating diverse leadership teams, and consistently monitoring progress through data collection and analysis. If you believe your organization may still grapple with these barriers, we invite you to initiate a conversation with us. Our expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion can offer guidance and strategies to propel your organization toward a more inclusive workplace, where all employees can truly flourish. Together, we can contribute to a future where employment equity is not just an obligation but a realized and integral facet of Canadian workplaces. 

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