WLI Toronto’s SheWithHe committee hosted an insightful workshop on March 5th celebrating International Women’s Day aimed at developing the skills and cultural competencies necessary to be an ally and improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. A sold out crowd of 50 people gathered together in the ‘Living Room’ of Perkins and Will’s Toronto studio on Yonge Street, a comfortable and welcoming space for meeting new people and engaging in meaningful dialogue.
Today, diversity and inclusion is a critical topic in many workplaces, with most acknowledging the need to better understand and improve upon it within the development industry. WLI’s SheWithHe event in 2019 featured a panel of speakers on the topic of gender equity and was moderated by Tanya (Toni) De Mello, a Human Rights Lawyer and Director of Human Rights at Ryerson University. De Mello possesses a demonstrated history of working in equity, diversity and inclusion. The panel comprised both women and men speakers who discussed their views on gender equity and highlighted initiatives their organizations were undertaking to make improvements.
This year, SheWithHe expanded its focus beyond gender equity. Of course, gender equity remains an important issue and, while we have made progress collectively, more action is required.. The broader mandate encompasses diversity and inclusion and is considered a natural progression from gender equity. It stems from WLI’s passion for promoting women and men working together within the development industry and recognizing that not at all women identify in the same way. To start the discussion, WLI sought to provide ULI members with an educational primer on the topic, coupled with meaningful takeaways that participants could bring into their individual practice.
SheWithHe’s 2020 event shifted to a workshop style with a smaller group to promote meaningful dialogue and a more comfortable environment. De Mello graciously agreed to return to host the workshop, starting the evening by providing the group with a basic understanding of what diversity and inclusion can mean. She included personal stories for participants to relate to, highlighting that natural bias exists throughout our communities. Toni created a safe space with open dialogue, asking each person to not repeat what they had heard, so the remainder of this summary will refrain from excerpts from the discussion and focus instead on the content and overall message.
Early in the workshop De Mello handed out a list of scenarios and asked each person to mark those that resonated with them. As a second part of the exercise, she then encouraged the group to introduce themselves to someone new to review the list together. The exercise was thought provoking, with both internal reflection and a quick realization that not only do others experience very different challenges, but they can also interpret the same scenarios in different ways. De Mello offered participants the opportunity to share their stories and what they learned, which was engaging and insightful.
De Mello proceeded to weave in educational information about diversity and inclusion, and perhaps most importantly, highlighted that none of us are or can be perfect. It is our heightened awareness, compassion and understanding that will make the difference in each interaction. Later in the session, De Mello led the group in an exercise where everyone was tasked with finding a partner again and explaining a challenge they had faced related to one of many topics she provided. The test was to let the other person finish speaking without interrupting or asking questions. De Mello again offered pairs the opportunity to share their experience, and the feedback was centreed on people being grateful that others had shared their stories, and the difficulty in truly listening without asking questions or trying to provide a relatable experience.
There were many important takeaways, perhaps the most important of which is for us to all try and exert extra patience and understanding where we can. Each and every person faces their own set of challenges, some more or less visible, and acknowledging and accepting this makes us all better allies in the workplace and in our communities.