Globally, promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace has gained much traction, almost becoming an industry in itself. That being said, it has also become saddled with drawbacks.
Much of this important discourse has been driven by Western institutions and centred around the Western context. There is little understanding of what DE&I should mean or look like outside the West, or what needs to be the priority issues. The realities in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America are in fact very different from the West. Having worked with numerous multinational companies (MNCs) and their leadership for the past 20 years in Asia in particular, it has become very clear that the global headquarters of MNCs are often simply trying to export an interpretation of the West’s DE&I problems in Asia, just to tick the box,
So why is it that diversity, equity, and inclusion – seemingly universally applicable concepts, needs localisation?
Let us start with the fundamentals: language – the blood that runs through all the veins of communication. For most of the world, English is not the first language, but most CEOs or managers originating from the U.S. or Europe lead with the working assumption that everyone they speak to in the region should and will understand how they speak in English because that is the language of the company and international business. This blind spot is particularly prevalent amongst Anglo-Saxons.
It is of course not simply about articulating well new ideas and concepts in English, but also being familiar with the culture that is intrinsically tied to the issues – being empathetic - and having a good understanding of the implications of the positions being taken. The danger with exporting a narrative on complex topics such as DE&I using such generic approaches to communication is that it does not resonate with many non-U.S. regions. Truth be told, a company’s language should be the language of its people; in a multinational company, your people will represent a diverse range of languages and that will need to be reflected in how you choose to communicate and execute DE&I within the company. Speaking English with American reference points even when it comes to DE&I is the antithesis of inclusion.
Another pertinent realisation for those communicating in such spaces is that your DE&I strategy is nothing if not founded upon the historical and current social context of the locality. You cannot create a global strategy on DE&I originating from the U.S. headquarters and implement it across Asian offices. It will most likely be subconsciously tied to the U.S. context such as the historical foundations and existing tension of race between the white and non-white population in North America and not be relevant to local issues. Take the term “People of Colour”: while such a term has clear relevance in the American context, why should this mean anything to me as an Asian in Asia? The language and terminologies used have to be sensitively framed when implementing DE&I in the workplace and require contextualisation.
Even the terms diversity, inclusion, and equity themselves translate and materialise differently in every culture, and thus begs the question: what is the problem we are trying to solve in this part of the world or a specific country? It is certainly not inequality between whites and blacks. It is important to avoid tokenism here and ask, is there a good understanding of this country or region among the leadership with regard to DE&I issues before deploying new policies? We still have expatriates (aka white people in executive roles in Asia) running MNCs in Asia with little to no understanding of the locality they are trying to manage as they are far removed from the reality of day-to-day life and even that of their employees. Here the notion of equity also comes to light, where you have expats earning 400 to 900% higher wages than locals doing the same jobs resulting in a lack of trust of the leadership and their real commitment to issues such as empowering locals to run local offices and take on more senior roles.
Sometimes, there is also cosmetic DE&I, where organisations believe they have the right local person running DE&I (often based on Western criteria and preferences ) but these individuals are often disconnected from the local environment and do not have the insights or management skills to navigate making the changes needed. Stereotypes prevail, and typically one has a female “person of colour” leading the communication on DE&I issues for the company - who speaks and writes English well - but with no real understanding of the issues and often lacking the critical thinking and diversity in thought that is a vital requirement of such roles.
They instead must often pander to the preferences and biases of the male Western boss they were hired by and ensure messaging is consistent with mainstream ideals. Many multinationals ensnare their image and branding this way, reinforcing groupthink. This is prevalent across industries, such as the global fashion industry which still largely adheres to Western prescriptions. DE&I can only be genuine if diversity of thought is also encouraged and prioritised in the very definition of DE&I. This of course can come naturally when representation is diverse, but it is the essential step leaders must take to move beyond cosmetic change and towards fostering intellectual honesty in their organisations. In fact, it could be argued that this is the most important form of diversity given the potential it has in addressing an organisation’s wider issues and in a broader context - the existential threats we face in the 21st century.
The importance of DE&I is undeniable but given the invaluable diversity that is present in the world, current discourse and action is failing because it is far too Western-centric and often driven by the need to be seen doing the right thing. Scrutiny is needed to deconstruct how DE&I is currently framed in MNCs, particularly how it is implemented in non-Western countries where there is little integration of the social, economic, and historical context into strategies. This is a major barrier to formulating and executing well-designed DE&I programmes suited to the local context. Only when leadership is attuned to such complexities can DE&I be effectively implemented with the support of the global majority. The hidden problem of groupthink rings true everywhere in the world, but with the right focus from leadership, diversity of thought can bring with it immense value for your organisation.
Chandran Nair is the Founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), an independent pan-Asian think tank based in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. He was a panelist on the topic of global DE&I at the 2022 Page Up Annual Conference. He has authored numerous books, including his most recent, Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World.
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