By Mark Campbell

It took the creation of an Indigenous employee resource group for Karen Birss (MBA (FS)’20) to realize that some Scotiabank staff she has known for years are Indigenous.

“I had no idea they had felt the need to hide that,” says Birss, regional vice president, Atlantic Region at Scotiabank. “As safe as I thought we had made our workplace, there still had to be something like this resource group before they felt they could talk about their ancestry.”

For Birss, the revelation was a reminder that equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) are vital to creating stronger businesses and communities where people feel they can be their true selves. Since taking on her current role, she has been helping employees launch resource groups, just as she did at Scotiabank branches in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Her goal is to ensure that employees with shared characteristics, such as gender and ethnicity, can connect, support one another and pursue professional development.

“We talk a lot at Scotiabank about the importance of bringing your full self to work and not having to hide your identity,” Birss says. “When people feel safe to be who they are and feel included, they are more engaged and productive.”

One study by McKinsey reported that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic or racial diversity are more likely to exceed the median financial performance of their industries nationwide by 15 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively. But EDI is more than a competitive advantage for Birss and Scotiabank; it is a responsibility.

That responsibility is reflected in Scotiabank’s efforts to build a workplace culture where unconscious biases are checked, gaps in employee group representation are addressed at all levels, and employees are empowered to reach their full potential. It is also exemplified in external initiatives such as the Scotiabank Program for Law Students, a first-in-Canada scholarship that will award $10,000 to students at participating universities—including the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie—who have demonstrated experience in anti-racism advocacy and who articulate how they will address systemic discrimination in their careers.

“One of the major buzzwords in the business community today is being purpose-based, but Scotiabank has had that focus for the 20 years I’ve been with them,” she says. “We are committed to EDI because it speaks to our purpose: to create opportunity for every future.”

Just the beginning

Birss, who completed her MBA specializing in financial services at Dalhousie through Management’s Centre for Executive and Graduate Education, moved to Halifax in 2020. Since then, she has been doing her part to advance EDI in the community. She is a mentor with the YWCA Business Builder program, which helps newcomer women turn entrepreneurial ideas into real businesses, and she is a board member with Easter Seals Nova Scotia—a commitment that is particularly dear to her as she has family members who face accessibility challenges.

Despite the progress Birss and Scotiabank have made in EDI, she feels they are just getting started. There are more representation targets to set, more community initiatives to launch, and more employment equity plans to create. Birss says her immediate goal is to continue empowering employees so that they can create resource groups without feeling like they need permission. But she is also looking for more ways to make a difference, both internally and externally.

“I keep having these catalysts where I am struck by something I feel like I should have known, such as who our Indigenous staff are,” she says. “Those moments continue to provide me with the motivation to go deeper—to learn more and do more. I can’t imagine that will ever stop.”