Panelists drawn from different green building segments discussed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies and approaches at the Canada Green Building Council’s Women in Green symposium, which was part of the Building Lasting Change event.
Moderator and principal at Perkins & Will, Kathy Wardle, invited panelists to speak to their “inspiring and unique journeys in making space for a broad range of voices and perspectives within their own lives and organizations” with respect to equity, diversion, and inclusion in the workplace.
Kait Tyschenko, project manager at Pomerleau, kicked off the conversation by describing working in an industry that has been traditionally male dominated.
“I come from construction — probably the part of green building that has the most work to do, but also the most opportunity to be more inclusive, diverse and equity-focused,” they said.
“I had to learn to be really comfortable with being uncomfortable,” added Jenniffer Sheel, director of municipal services and co-chair of the VP finance and operations EDI committee at the University of British Columbia.
What is diversity, equity and inclusion?
Each of the panelists was given the opportunity to describe what DEI means to them.
“DEI is about understanding everyone’s place and where everyone is coming from; it’s about understanding who we are,” said Sarain Fox, a cultural & gender inclusivity advocate.
Michele Walkau, senior vice president of brand and culture, First Capital REIT, added, “The way I look at diversity is: diversity is difference, and sometimes people feel that differences are a negative thing.
“I’m going to look at it from a corporate perspective; I think when you value the differences of your employees — and we all come from different backgrounds, different values, different ethnicities, genders — we are all different and we have passion that we can bring to the conversation.”
Now in its second year, the Women in Green forum is designed to share stories about women in the green building industry across Canada and globally, discuss their leadership trajectories, and how to mentor the next generation.
“I think many of us who are on the call today are working to design buildings and communities,” said Wardle. “While today’s conversation may be focused on how to provide a safe space within our organizations, many of us are actually engaged in designing places — safe spaces for people — whether it’s community centres, master plans, or new workspaces.
“And so for (First Capital), at least, there’s a whole new conversation emerging about how do we create spaces that are inclusive for everyone — for a diverse range of needs and perspectives?”
First Capital employees helped create EDI council
First Capital is an owner, operator and developer of mixed-use real estate across Canada. The company develops urban neighbourhoods to generate value for businesses, residents, communities and investors.
First Capital has been on its EDI journey for the past year and a half. The company set up its council as part of its business, as opposed to being a human resources initiative.
“One of the things I’m extremely excited about with respect to equity, diversity and inclusion is just the barriers that get removed when you start to focus in on the conversation related to EDI,” said Walkau.
First Capital reached out to its staff across the organization for their thoughts and participation in the process.
According to Walkau, the council started with only 22 individuals.
“We had two very strong business leaders who led the charge, and we created our own vision and our mission for EDI with 22 sets of ideas. We co-created our first capital equity, diversity and inclusion mission.”
Walkau said this was important because many voices within the company were allowed to be heard.
“In a corporate setting, trying to create a safe space where ideas can flow, and you can become more confident in bringing your full self to work, unleashes so much creativity and innovation,” she said. “When you’re fostering a culture within an organization, it can’t be a top-down thing; it has to come from your staff.”
“Pretty amazing stories”
Walkau explained that several First Capital employees have shared “some pretty amazing stories” about their experiences with EDI.
“Being vulnerable is actually being brave,” she said. “Sharing your story with others gives other people confidence to share theirs.”
First Capital even creates podcasts in which staff interview coworkers about their experiences as minorities who have overcome obstacles and achieved success.
Walkau said understanding differences is especially important in business — including real estate. Employees operate in markets across Canada in different communities where people have different traditions.
“You want to make sure that you understand what your customers want — the kind of tenants that you’d want in a neighbourhood — and really addressing this in an authentic way,” she said. “In commercial real estate, the complexion and the gender diversity is changing.
“I actually want to give a shout out to REALPAC, who, a number of years ago, had issued the ‘panel pledge’.
“When CEOs have been invited to participate on a panel, the panel pledge is meant to ask the organizers of that conference, ‘Are there some gender-diversity goals?’ And look within your organization for a woman or a person of colour or an indigenous person.
“So it started with women, but now it’s extended to looking for the talent within your organization and who can represent your company on a panel; it doesn’t have to be you, Mr. CEO.”
About the participating firms
Pomerleau is a Canadian leader in the construction industry. The company works in a sustainable way to build the living environments of tomorrow.
Perkins & Will is an architecture and design firm which champions sustainability, resilience, regeneration, social equity and well-being.
UBC is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the top-20 public universities in the world.