Disengagement due to discrimination rising, according to new CMA research

One of the core tenets of workplace DEI is that a more diverse leadership team means a more inclusive organization, where employees feel valued and accepted for who they are, and more engaged in their work—which is good for business performance.

But just 25% of respondents in the Canadian Marketing Association survey “DEI in the marketing profession: Progress and challenges,” say their workplace has a “well-diversified” leadership team, up only slightly from 22% last year.

Rising disengagement:

In organizations with diverse leadership, 94% of respondents say they feel a sense of belonging and that they are valued, compared to just 26% in workplaces without diversity in management.

And in those workplaces lacking diversity in the leadership team, the disengagement rate due to discrimination is up—60% this year compared to 52% last year. Among that cohort, 65% have started looking for a new job.

  • 13% of respondents from not-diversified organizations report feeling less engaged “always,” while another 18% chose “frequently.”
  • 43% of marginalized women say they feel less engaged due to discrimination, compared to 25% of marginalized men, and 17% of non-marginalized women.
  • 61% of respondents who feel less engaged at organizations lacking diverse leadership say they are not performing at their highest level, and 35% have considered leaving the industry.

Discrimination and microaggressions

However, there are other signs of improvement. For example, to go along with the 25% of respondents who said their workplace has a diverse leadership team, another 64% say their organization is actively working towards it, while just 11% said there is no apparent interest in making leadership more diverse.

And while fewer respondents report witnessing discriminatory behaviour in the last year, the numbers are still very high at 78% (compared to 85% a year ago), and 68% of respondents have experienced microaggressions at non-diversified workplaces, compared to 32% at organizations with diverse leadership.

  • 50% of marginalized women report experience a microaggression personally, compared to 22% of non-marginalized men;
  • 54% of marginalized women feel they have to work harder to be treated equally, compared to 39% of marginalized men, and 35% of non-marginalized women.

“The positive business impact of well-diversified leadership is undeniable,” said Patrick Bhang, co-chair of the CMA’s DEI Committee, and director, retail merchandising at RBC.

“Having employees who feel valued and are invested in the success of your organization not only contributes to your internal culture, but strengthens external customer and partner relationships. Our research found that engagement has a direct impact on employee retention, further solidifying the positive impact of diversity in the workplace.”

The survey was conducted by RKI in January and February, and included 435 respondents—40% identifying as “clients,” 35% working in an agency, and 25% in marketing services/other.

The findings from CMA’s research mirror some of those from the most recent POCAM research released in April. That study found that while efforts are being made to dismantle the structural framework of systemic racism, many people working in the industry don’t feel better about the problem.

For example, more than two-thirds of respondents (69%) working in mostly white organizations say racial bias exists at their workplace, up from just 59% last year. Meanwhile, just 18% of those working at mostly BIPOC agencies feel that way.

And just as the CMA found that more than double the number of women feel disengaged due to discrimination at work, the POCAM study found female BIPOC respondents were 1.8x more likely than men to say racial bias exists at their work.


The CMA first conducted the DEI study in the spring of 2020, a time when many in the industry resolved to tackle systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd.

But this year’s report also emphasizes age discrimination, with some striking numbers to illustrate the scope and magnitude of the problem.

The survey revealed that 81% of boomers and 62% of Gen X say they are “disadvantaged” because of their age and the fact the industry is so “image-conscious,” whereas only 49% of Millennials feel that way.

On average, respondents consider people over 48 to be “older workers,” and almost half of respondents say age discrimination is tolerated at their workplace more than other forms of discrimination, with women of colour even more likely to agree. (In agencies, 13% of respondents said workers in their 30s are considered “older,” twice as much as client-side respondents.)

  • 24% of Boomer respondents say their employer “actively avoids” putting older employees in front of clients;
  • 14% of Boomer respondents agreed with the statement that “women over 55 with grey hair should not be working in marketing,” compared to just 2% of Millennial respondents.
  • 5% of Boomer respondents agreed with the statement that “men over 55 with grey hair should not be working in marketing,” compared to just 2% of Millennial respondents.

“Our latest research shows that experience is too often devalued in the marketing profession,” said CMA president and CEO Alison Simpson. “DEI initiatives should take age into consideration as well as other harmful forms of discrimination. Age should not be a barrier to hiring, working with, or promoting a deserving employee.”

David Brown