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Business leaders talk about their superpowers at Ascend Fall Conference

Emotional Tax_Tanya van Biesen and Miyo Yamashita

Brian Lee resisted his Korean heritage when he was a young boy. Natasha Walji immigrated to Calgary as a teenager. Dan Park was one of very few Asians in his neighbourhood in Yellowknife. For these children of immigrants to Canada, they’ve grown up to be successful business leaders who embrace their diversity and have a message of inclusion.

The three — Lee, Chief Auditor at CIBC; Walji, Director for Tech, Government, Entertainment & Telecom, Google Canada; and Park, CEO, Clutch – were among speakers throughout the day at the recent Ascend Canada Fall Conference, offering career advice and industry insights.

“Each one of us has a gift, something to contribute to the world,” said Walji, who kicked off the event with a story about her math tutor. He asked her how she would use her education to serve the world. At 17, she knew this was a gift and she says it has inspired her career and life choices ever since.

Inspiration was a driving force at the professional development conference, which focused on the theme of being bold and being different. The conference attracted over 500 delegates, and was organized by Ascend Canada, a non-profit that strives to develop and advance pan-Asian talent through partnership with other Canadian and like-minded organizations.

Emotional Tax

But it was also an opportunity to shine a light on workplace challenges. A new study reveals that Canadian men and women of colour – specifically those who identify as Black, East Asian and South Asian – experience high levels of “emotional tax” at work, putting their overall health at risk and causing them to contemplate quitting.

Emotional Tax is the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity, being on guard against experiences of bias, and experiencing the associated effects on health, well-being, and ability to thrive at work.

The study of more than 700 Canadian men and women of colour was conducted by Catalyst, with the support of Ascend Canada.  It found a worrisome story of emotional tax — with 33 to 50 percent of Black, East Asian, and South Asian professionals reporting being highly on guard to protect against bias, and 50 to 69 percent reporting a high intent to leave their jobs as a result.

“People of colour continue to face some of the workplace’s most entrenched hurdles, such as near invisibility in top leadership roles, pay inequities, and discrimination,” says Tanya van Biesen, Executive Director for Canada at Catalyst.  “These challenges can take a heavy toll. Any company that does not fully leverage the highly motivated and talented group of employees of colour is vulnerable to a talent drain,” she said.

For Lee of CIBC, he believes leaders must help counter negative trends.  “It’s not just about you being bold and different but as a leader, you cre

ating an environment where everyone can be comfortable to be who they are and not be embarrassed,” he said. Unique experiences are an important part of everyone’s identity, and having the courage to talk about them helps to create a better workplace, was a recurring theme during the conference.

“Your career is a collection of stories and we’re always looking for the next cool story: Everything you say, do the experience is your story – don’t be afraid to be authentic and make it your own,” said Park.


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