Why diversity, equity and inclusion are crucial to the future of waterpower

Michelle Branigan, CEO at Electricity Human Resources Canada, discusses main barriers of DEI ahead of her panel at the Canadian Waterpower Week.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are more than HR buzzwords. They’re essential policies for the long-term health of any professional organization, including waterpower utilities and their suppliers.

In advance of the Canadian Waterpower Week (Oct. 6-8, 2021), we spoke with Michelle Branigan, CEO of Electricity Human Resources Canada.

Ms. Branigan will moderate a plenary session called ‘Building Toward Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Our Workforce.’ Join the discussion on Oct. 6 at 2:45 p.m. ET.

Q: Let’s start with the 101. What is DEI?

A: Diversity is traditionally thought of as all the ways that people differ. So think about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and so on.

Equity is the principle of fairness. So that’s creating fair opportunity, access and advancement for all people. It’s all about creating a level playing field.

Inclusion is the extent to which your workforce actually feels a sense of belonging and value within the organization. Even though you might have very diverse teams, that may not translate into a feeling of inclusion in the workplace.

Q:  Why is DEI an important topic for workplaces in general, and for hydropower in particular?

A:  For many industries, including hydropower and the electricity space, the industry really hasn’t kept pace with demographic changes across Canada.

Historically the electricity industry has long been very male dominated. It’s been very slow to embrace change. We need to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard and all groups to look at this industry as a career of choice.

Q: Where do we stand with DEI in the electricity sector as a whole?

A: All of the research we have undertaken in DEI tells us barriers to entry for underrepresented groups are still alive and well in this industry.

Women only represent 26 per cent of the electricity sector. In the trades, those numbers drop to under seven per cent. And even in senior leadership positions, we only see women at 25 per cent. It is getting better, but the numbers haven’t changed much in the last decade.

Indigenous people working in the electricity sector hovers at just over four per cent, and a high concentration of that is in the trades.

People with disabilities are less than three per cent of the workforce, and we’re below average in the electricity industry for internationally-trained workers. We’ve only got about 15 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for all other industries. It’s the same for visible minorities — really low numbers.

It’s starting to get a bit better, but we still have a lot to do in this industry, and that will require effort.

Q: What kinds of barriers do underrepresented groups face?

A: There’s barriers on the entry side, of course. But it’s also important to remember there are barriers on the retention side too.

We want to get people interested in coming into the sector, getting them in the door, but then we also want to make sure that we keep them.

Barriers on the retention side can be structural, within the organization, or social (inequitable pay compensation is one example).

Barriers to entry can occur right at the job interview. Unconscious bias can lead to hires that reflect the makeup of the hiring committee, rather than a candidate that has been evaluated and hired solely on their skills and competencies.

Language can be a barrier as well, when job descriptions are outdated and list requirements that really are not essential to the job, such as a driver’s license. That could be one barrier for Indigenous people in remote regions who have never had to obtain a driver’s license.

Perception is important and there are still many communications barriers in. If somebody looks at your website or annual report and doesn’t see anybody who looks like them, they’re extremely unlikely to see themselves having a successful career in your organization.

Education and the ability to access career information can be another barrier. A lot of the utilities are working with high schools and even elementary kids to try and build career awareness amongst young people so they are aware of the possibilities out there that exist. And that must include messaging that says everyone is welcome.

Q: How do you measure success in DEI? What metrics do you use?

A:  It is really important that companies adopt formal policies and practices directly aimed at measuring the impact of the approaches they’re taking to developing DEI.

There has to be disclosure, there has to be reporting, because that establishes clear metrics to measure progress over time.

There’s no one practice that’s going to be a standalone solution with this.

Culture beats strategy. Best practices, and policies, are necessary. But they’re not sufficient in and of themselves. They’re going to need a really strong workplace culture that fosters full inclusivity.

How many women are in management positions? What is your retention level for underrepresented groups?

Do you track data on aspects of identity, such as disability and gender? And how do you measure the programs or initiatives supporting diversity, equity and inclusion? Those could take many forms, be it mentorship programs, flexible working, hours, parental leave, that type of thing.

How are you actually assessing if they are successful or not? 

The most important piece is to actually take time at the beginning to establish a baseline, so that you understand what progress will actually look like at the end of the day.

Q: Who is responsible for DEI in an organization, and how important is it to have a strong buy-in from CEOs and other managers?

A: It’s absolutely critical that there’s buy-in from the very top. We need to move from awareness and shared understanding to actual commitment.

We’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade trying to establish the business case for DEI. But the reality is, we need to be moved beyond the business case now.

I really believe that we have an ethical obligation to ensure that anybody in our society feels capable of pursuing a career regardless of their gender, their background, or any other parts of their identity. As a sector, we are better when everybody can participate. And that’s why the diversity and inclusion work is so important.

Q: What is your biggest piece of advice for organizations starting a DEI program?

A: Don’t be afraid of it, and don’t consider it as an add-on to all the other work that’s being done as part of the business. This is not a side-of-the-desk thing to get to when time permits. This is extremely critical.

While it’s challenging work, I like to see it as an opportunity to diversify our workforce in the Canadian electricity industry, and in hydropower, and invite people of all types into this industry, so the workforce reflects the makeup of the Canadian population in general.

And be aware it’s going to take time. It doesn’t happen overnight, but that shouldn’t mean a decade, either.

Q: What are you most interested to learn from the panelists at Canadian Waterpower Week in October?

A: We have three wonderful panelists who are incredibly passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion and are at the top of their field.

I’m really looking forward to hearing their advice on how organizations can affect real change on this issue, and how individuals can affect real change on this issue.

I don’t believe this is something that just stays with the HR department. I think all of us have a role to play in creating an equitable workplace and an equitable society, so I’m really looking forward to their advice on that.

And I’d also like to hear how people have persevered against some of the challenges in their own careers. That can be very inspiring for others to hear, and it gives them the courage to also be champions for change.

I’m very much looking forward to their stories.

Register now for Canadian Waterpower Week (Oct. 6-8, 2021). The plenary discussion will take place Oct. 6 at 2:45 p.m. ET.

This interview has been edited and condensed.