Wendy Cukier: Pioneering the Way to Inclusive Excellence in Society

Wendy Cukier | Diversity Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University | CIO Women Magazine

In an era where the imperative for diversity and inclusion looms larger than ever, the need for inspiring women leaders assumes paramount importance. These trailblazers embody the essence of progress and transformation and serve as catalysts for positive change in society. Among these remarkable leaders, Wendy Cukier emerges as a beacon of exceptional vision and dedication. As the  Founder and Director of the Diversity Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), she has forged an unparalleled path in diversity and inclusion research, changes to policies and practices, leaving an indelible mark on various sectors.

Champion of Diversity and Inclusion

Wendy Cukier is known globally for her pioneering work in diversity and inclusion research as well as violence prevention. Currently a  professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the Ted Rogers School of Management, she has held many leadership roles at the University, including Vice President of Research and Innovation, Associate Dean, and Associate Director, as well as board positions in the nonprofit sector and corporate sector. She is also the founder of several for-profit and social ventures.  Over two decades ago, Cukier founded the Diversity Institute, which she leads as the Academic Director.

The Institute’s core mission revolves around exposing the discrimination, bias, hate, and even violence that equity-deserving groups face and finding concrete solutions to advance economic and social inclusion.  Her work began with a focus on women and technology but expanded to address barriers faced by Indigenous peoples, racialized people, especially those who are Black, newcomers, persons with disabilities, those who identify as 2SLGBTQ+, and many others.

Driven by the goal of promoting workplace inclusion, the Diversity Institute has 130 diverse research staff, 100 research associates from across the country and around the world, and over 200 industry partners, all focused on different dimensions of diversity and inclusion. One of the keys to the Diversity Institute’s long-standing success is its unique systems approach. Cukier and her team adeptly analyze barriers and enablers at various levels – societal, organizational, and individual – offering comprehensive insights into the challenges faced by marginalized communities. Moreover, the institute’s ability to connect Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives to business imperatives has made it highly appealing to organizations across different sectors.

The impact of the Institute’s research extends beyond academia and the private sector. Cukier’s work has informed public policy, playing a crucial role in shaping inclusive measures at both regional and national levels. Additionally, numerous organizations have benefitted from the Diversity Institute’s leading-edge approaches, such as the Diversity Assessment Tool (DAT), which has helped them become more inclusive and supportive environments.

Cukier’s commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion goes beyond research. She serves as the Research Lead of the Future Skills Centre, actively contributing to creating a more inclusive skills and employment ecosystem. Furthermore, she leads the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub and acts as an ecosystem partner for DiversityLeads and the 50 – 30 Challenge, initiatives aimed at advancing gender parity and increasing diversity in senior leadership roles. And much more. 

Approach to Tech Sector Diversity

Wendy Cukier and The Diversity Institute boasts a remarkable 30-year track record of working in the technology sector, continuously adapting its services to meet evolving diversity needs. While the specifics may change, the Institute’s core principles remain constant. Recognizing that technology demands talent to support implementation as well as development, its work is grounded in a deep understanding of tech trends and adoption processes, anticipating key transitions as well as the factors affecting adoption.

As markets grow more diverse, the Institute emphasizes adaptability as essential for attracting the best talent and developing products and services that cater to diverse audiences. Solid research underpins the Institute’s approach, showing that diverse boards and organizations perform better, increase firm value, and enhance employee satisfaction and engagement.

With a clear systems approach and accountability, the Diversity Institute challenges systemic barriers that hinder diversity in technology. While the focus on increasing women and diverse talent in STEM fields is crucial, the Institute recognizes that there is more to the technology sector than just STEM. By researching and defining trends, competencies, and pathways, the Institute aims to challenge stereotypes and taken-for-granted assumptions to broaden opportunities for women, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, racialized people (particularly those who are Black), and other equity-deserving groups.

While technology specialists are critical to building new solutions, without adoption there is no innovation. Innovation is not the same as invention, it requires organizations and individuals to use the technology to do things differently.  For decades, the Institute has focused on addressing the rising demand for hybrid roles that combine technology knowledge with an understanding of organizational goals and human behavior.

Emphasizing digital adoption and transformation prepares individuals for positions such as business and systems analysts, project managers, and business development professionals. The emergence of low-code, no-code platforms opens new pathways for women and diverse individuals, bridging the gap between traditional tech degrees and broader tech-related roles.

Its ADaPT program, a collaborative effort with TECHNATION, and funded by the Future Skills Centre, has successfully trained and transitioned non-technology graduates into digital roles, proving the potential for diverse talent in the tech sector. More than 90% of the program’s participants have been placed in tech roles, with over 60 % identifying as women and 70% belonging to equity-deserving groups.

Comprehensive Offerings

The Diversity Institute offers a range of impactful services based on four key pillars:

Research and EDI Practice: Seminal projects like DiversityLeads and the 50-30 Challenge track representation on boards and leadership, supporting organizations like Rogers Communications and Starbucks in implementing tailored EDI strategies.

Diversity Assessment Tool (DAT) and app: The DAT provides comprehensive audits, offering recommendations and best practices to foster inclusive workplaces.

Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Large-scale research projects and the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub address barriers and enablers for entrepreneurial success and innovation.

Future Skills Development: Research on labor trends, equity-deserving groups, and innovative models helps SMEs embrace digitization and net-zero goals.

The Institute’s programs like Study Buddy, ADaPT, Entrepreneurship, and EDI training bridge research and real-world challenges, creating lasting positive change.

ICT and Innovation

Drawing on her research and leadership roles, including the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub and the 50 – 30 Challenge catalyst, Wendy Cukier highlights pathways to ICT and digital roles for women while addressing systemic barriers to inclusion in the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.

At the societal level, combating stereotypes and implementing inclusive policies and legislation are crucial. Canada’s Bill C-25 exemplifies this, requiring federally regulated distributing companies to report on the representation of women, racialized people, Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities, positioning Canada as a global leader in diversity initiatives. The 50 – 30 Challenge encourages organizations to achieve gender parity and increase diversity in senior leadership roles, fostering a more inclusive business landscape.

Progressive human resources practices and inclusive cultures are vital in supporting diversity and inclusion efforts. Ensuring accountability through performance goals and embedding diversity in all aspects of the value chain, from procurement to community engagement, reinforces this commitment.

While many tech companies lead with EDI, some face challenges of overt discrimination and toxic cultures. The Diversity Institute addresses this by providing tools like the online DAT app, empowering companies, especially SMEs, to make meaningful changes. Cukier’s dedicated work and research-driven approach drive transformation, making significant strides in advancing inclusion within the technology sector and beyond.

Unraveling Systemic Bias in Innovation

Wendy Cukier highlights how systemic bias is ingrained within the entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. She points out that while governments invest heavily in incubators, accelerators, and new tech startups, there is a lack of focus on investing in technology adoption. Without adequate support for technology adoption, the full potential of innovations cannot be realized. Surprisingly, despite the hype surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential for disruption, a study by Statistics Canada revealed that adoption rates of AI were relatively low in both large firms (10%) and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (3%).

The structure of Canada’s economy also contributes to lower adoption rates compared to the U.S. In the U.S., 50% of private sector employment is within large companies with the resources and economies of scale needed to be early adopters. In contrast, Canada’s private sector is dominated by SMEs (90%), which are often slower in adopting advanced technologies due to resource constraints.

Wendy Cukier emphasizes the importance of defining digital skills clearly to open up opportunities for more diversity. By doing so, pathways can be created for groups typically excluded from traditional post-secondary programs like computer science and engineering. Initiatives like the Canadian Digital Adoption Program (CDAP) hold promise in addressing some of the technology adoption and inclusion challenges.

Gender-Related Barriers and Intersectionality

Wendy Cukier sheds light on the gender-related barriers women face, acknowledging the intersectionality of these challenges. One significant barrier lies in policies and processes surrounding senior leadership and board recruitment. Systemic discrimination and racism, particularly anti-Black racism, are deeply embedded in organizational policies and practices, presenting unfair barriers to diversity and inclusion.

Research conducted by the Diversity Institute has identified various barriers, including corporate culture, lack of social networks, discrimination, and the pressure to refrain from self-identification. Participants in the study often faced multiple underrepresented identities, such as being a woman and an Indigenous person, leading them to fear discrimination and avoid discussing their identity altogether. Stereotypes also pose substantial barriers, limiting women’s ability to envision and pursue leadership roles. A lack of diverse role models hinders the progress of aspiring women leaders.

The intersectionality of women’s experiences further complicates the barriers they face. Education systems and workplace social codes disproportionately hold back Indigenous, Black, women, and disabled individuals, contributing to worsened labor outcomes. Socio-economic factors, family context, experiences of trauma, and systemic discrimination compound the challenges Black and Indigenous youth face.

Financing is another significant barrier for women entrepreneurs. Access to funding, especially for women over 30, remains limited. Women entrepreneurs often struggle to access small grants and loans, hindering their ability to start or grow businesses. Innovative programs and investment approaches are needed to support women in overcoming this barrier.

Evidence-Based Advocacy for Women’s Inclusion

Wendy Cukier strongly advocates for women’s inclusion and empowerment through evidence-based approaches. Her research has revealed the slow progress of Canadian organizations in achieving gender diversity in leadership positions. The lack of representation among the top-paid CEOs and racialized women’s underrepresentation on corporate boards highlights the need for action at various levels.

One of the key initiatives of Cukier’s Diversity Institute is The 50 – 30 Challenge, which encourages organizations to increase the representation and inclusion of diverse groups within their workplaces. Signatories to the challenge gain access to the What Works Toolkit, a free online resource designed to help organizations meet their diversity and inclusion goals. Over 1,650 organizations have committed to the challenge, demonstrating their dedication to fostering diversity.

Cukier and the Diversity Institute are pivotal in providing training programs, best practices, and specialized tools like the Diversity Assessment Tool and Micropedia to support organizations in their inclusion efforts. Collaborating with partners such as the Black Business Professionals Association and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the Institute tailors its support to the needs of large organizations and SMEs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Diversity Institute and its partners highlighted the disproportionate impact on underrepresented groups, leading to policy changes and increased support from the Canadian government. Additionally, Cukier’s pioneering research on ecological models of complex systems change has been instrumental in driving social innovation and change-making, contributing to improved pathways for immigrants and refugees in Canada.

Inspirational Figures

Throughout her career, Cukier has found inspiration in several remarkable leaders who have influenced and shaped her journey. Bonnie Patterson, who hired Cukier in 1986, and is the former President of Trent University, stands as a significant source of inspiration, mentorship and sponsorship. Not only did Patterson advocate for Cukier, but she also encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D., deeply influencing her career trajectory.

Despite facing her own challenges, Patterson’s insights, enthusiasm, and empathy made those around her feel valued and cherished, leaving a lasting impact on Wendy Cukier. Another influential figure is Daphne Taras, the former dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at TMU. Taras’s mentorship and leadership have been instrumental in Cukier’s professional growth and development and in supporting the Diversity Institute’s massive growth from 8 staff in 2018 to more than 130 today

Nadine Spencer, the interim CEO of the Black Business Professionals Association and founder of BrandEQ, has also played a vital role in inspiring Cukier. Her trailblazing work and dedication to empowering others have made a significant impression.

Wendy Cukier is grateful for her circle of strong women leaders alongside influential men. Her grade 9 history teacher, Mr. Hewitt, left a lasting impact by supporting and protecting her from bullies.  Her first boss, a Hong Kong born engineer, Andew Yu, who hired her with a freshly minted Master’s degree in History,  taught her to write for a business audience, a skill that shaped her career.  

Sheldon Levy, past president of Ryerson University (now TMU) pushed her to achieve more than she thought possible. Unlike some, he loved to be challenged by his senior team – “Scare me!” he used to say, encouraging the most out-of-the-box innovations and solutions from his senior team.  But above all, Cukier’s family played a key role. “In spite of many challenges growing up, I had no experience of parental disapproval. Just support and encouragement. I was never really “socialized” to act like a stereotypical girl.

While that poses challenges given the competing stereotypes of gender and leadership, it provided her with a core of confidence and resilience that  a lot of people do not have.”  But her daughter holds a special place as her biggest supporter and toughest critic. With remarkable emotional intelligence and insightful perspectives from a young age, her daughter has inspired and guided Cukier’s personal and professional life and kept her focused on what really matters.

Balancing Work and Life

Beyond her professional endeavors, Cukier acknowledges the challenge of maintaining a perfect work-life balance. As she navigates the demands of her role, Cukier is candid about her own experiences and acknowledges the need to prioritize downtime and self-care. “Do what I say, not what I do. Your health should be a priority. Downtime is really essential. And your family and friends are irreplaceable.  My problem, frankly, is if you love what you do and are passionate about the goals, it’s not really “work.” I really struggle with the balance and feel guilty if I am not being “productive.” But as I am getting older, I am paying the price of neglecting my health.  

Advice To Aspiring Women Entrepreneurs

Cukier’s research offers valuable insights into how to create a more inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystem. The State of Women’s Entrepreneurship, an annual report, tracks progress, barriers, and successes.   She advocates challenging the pervasive stereotype that entrepreneurship is solely tech-based as this tends to exclude women and other diverse groups.

This stereotype permeates systems and limits access to programs but also shapes aspirations. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it” and the Institute has emphasized documenting success stories of more than 2000 successful, diverse women entrepreneurs.  For individual entrepreneurs, we need to both address barriers and build capacity. There are so many stories we can use to help inspire women to advance and succeed in spite of the very real evidence we have of barriers, bias, and discrimination.

There is no question, women are held to a higher standard whether as leaders or entrepreneurs. And if they are Indigenous, Black, or have a disability, the barriers are amplified. Still, there are great stories of success and perseverance. One story that sticks in my mind surrounds a pitch competition for young entrepreneurs. 

Before the presentation to the judges, one team, which was really nervous and inexperienced, asked if they could just present privately to their coach. They were told that the presentation to judges was mandatory so in spite of their doubts they proceeded. They ended up winning the top prize and I am sure it will be a lasting life lesson – you miss 100% of the shots you do not take.”    

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“The work of the Diversity Institute, led by Wendy Cukier, has driven changes in policy and practice and fostered a culture of inclusivity in various sectors, including government, corporate, SMEs, and non-profits.”

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