Many organizations want to roll out their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on a global basis. At the same time, a fatal flaw of such efforts can be to impose an approach shaped by the historical and social context of one country onto countries in other parts of the world. Aperian Global’s Featured Insight series, which has now examined DEI issues in a dozen different locations, is designed to help companies adapt their inclusion initiatives to local circumstances while remaining consistent with the values and intent of their efforts.
The countries we have covered thus far are the U.K., Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Canada, Mexico. France, Germany, Poland, and China are forthcoming over the next several months (sign up for early access here!).
Here are ten key recommendations based on this research.
Contemporary DEI issues are shaped, for example, by whether a country was colonized or a colonizer. The minority population in the U.K. consists predominantly of immigrants from Commonwealth nations (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jamaica) that were previously part of the British Empire, and its largest minority group is from South Asia. Nigeria, on the other hand, is a former British colony with internal ethnic and religious differences, particularly between north and south, shaped in part by borders drawn during its colonial era. Poland never held overseas colonies and has been twice erased from the map as a country—its current relatively homogeneous makeup and resistance to immigration from the Middle East is shaped in part by this history of insecurity and existential threats from powerful neighbors.
From a U.S. perspective, racial differences are critical, and attempts to ensure greater racial equity are central to the work of most DEI professionals. In Asia, however, “race” is a less meaningful construct than nationality or ethnicity. India could be categorized from a U.S. perspective as mono-racial (nearly everyone is “Asian”), and yet Indians themselves can identify more than 2,000 ethnic groups, 120 languages, and every major world religion represented among their 1.4 billion people. Or, for example, in contrast to the primary U.S. racial categories (black, white, Latinx, Asian), Brazil has a far larger mixed-race population of more than 40% compared with only about 10% of people in the U.S. who identify themselves as multi-racial.
Unfortunately, a standard feature of human societies everywhere appears to be that some portion of the population is marginalized. The implicit or explicit criteria for marginalization vary substantially from place to place: skin color, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, regional background, politics, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, and a host of other factors have been grounds for marginalizing certain groups of people. In India, for instance, “colorism”—that is, discrimination based on skin color—is present, but even more important is one’s caste background. Although the caste system was officially abolished in 1950, 95% of marriages still occur within the same caste, and members of the Dalit, or untouchable caste, continue to face discrimination in education, hiring, promotion, and other aspects of economic and social life.
In Canada and Mexico, relatively large percentages of the population are Indigenous—5% in Canada and 15% in Mexico, versus about 2% in the U.S.—while their populations of black residents are significantly lower. In Germany, now more than a quarter of the population has a “migration background,” including large contingents from Turkey and Syria, while next door in Poland, immigrants comprise just 5% of the total, and these are primarily from Ukraine on its eastern border. Demographic factors such as these tend to shape who is marginalized and what kinds of inclusion issues are most pressing.
A standard approach for most DEI professionals is to look for metrics such as what groups are present in the talent pool and how well each group is represented at different levels in their workforce. But what if such metrics are unavailable? France and Germany do not collect census data on race because of the negative association of such data-gathering with genocide against Jews, Roma, people with disabilities, political dissidents, and other groups during World War II. In Asia, as indicated before, racial data is less meaningful than nationality or ethnicity. And because homosexuality is officially against the law in many countries, just asking for data on sexual orientation there could put employees at risk.
Singapore and Malaysia are situated next door to each other, and in fact, were formerly one country. Their separation in the 1960s produced two countries with ethnic profiles that in some ways are mirror opposites: Malaysia has a majority of Bumiputras, or ethnic Malaysians, whereas Singapore has a majority of ethnic Chinese. Malaysia has long-standing affirmative action practices which provide advantages to its Bumiputra population that are not available to its minority ethnic Chinese or Indians. Singapore, on the other hand, forbids explicit discussion or policies based on race or ethnicity and claims to offer equal opportunities to all, although its minority groups of ethnic Malaysians or Indians may claim to face disadvantages due to “Chinese privilege.”
The U.S. has been strongly influenced by its colonial parent, Great Britain, and the U.S. and the U.K. still share the same language. However, there are numerous variations in vocabulary, slang, acronyms, and these are reflected in DEI terminology as well. For instance, the U.S. acronym BIPOC, which stands for “Black, Indigenous, People of Color,” is less common in the U.K., where the Asian immigrant population represents the largest minority, and the “indigenous” population is the white majority. Some specialists in the U.K. prefer the more locally suitable term, BAME, which stands for Black, Asian, and Multi-Ethnic, a better fit with local circumstances. In a similar vein, the term, “Latinx” was created to refer to people in the U.S. with Latin American heritage while being inclusive of all gender categories. But this term is rejected by many Latin Americans themselves, and unfortunately obscures the actual diversity within countries such as Mexico where there is a multi-layer social hierarchy and marginalization of Indigenous residents in particular.
Many countries feature broadly accepted myths that can obscure or downplay social divisions. While at times these myths are useful, particularly for politicians striving to quell conflicts and unify disparate groups, they can also make it difficult to examine and address critical social issues or even collect data. In Mexico the so-called “Myth of Mestizaje,” or the claim that all Mexicans are of mixed ancestry, papers over very real differences in social status between people of European ancestry, those with mixed heritage, Indigenous groups, and blacks. France prides itself on the egalitarian notion of French citizenship, while actual citizens may be regarded as less than French due to their immigrant background, religion, or skin color. Cherished ideals in the United States as well, such as individual freedom or equal treatment under the law, are unevenly implemented in practice depending upon factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
Immigration has played different roles according to the social circumstances of each country. It is a hot-button issue in the U.S., with a focus on how to best respond to illegal immigration and an estimated unauthorized population of 11 million people. However, Canada has relatively little illegal immigration and annually welcomes a large number of so-called “New Canadians,” who are generally regarded as bringing in high levels of education and skills. Germany has taken in large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East and other parts of the EU. This has generated increasing social friction and anti-immigrant sentiment, but it has also reversed the country’s population decline, mitigated the problem of an aging workforce, and provided a source of labor for Europe’s strongest economy.
Because marginalization takes numerous forms, the kinds of intersectional identities that face the greatest challenges tend to be country-specific. In Nigeria, this might be a person living in a part of the country where a different ethnic group and religion are dominant, such as a Christian member of the southwestern Yoruba ethnic group who has moved to the north, or a Muslim member of the northern Hausa ethnicity who has moved to the south. In India, the intersection of caste background, skin color, gender, and religion is likely to be very significant, so a dark-skinned Dalit woman who is also Muslim may face severe forms of discrimination.
Global diversity can be daunting, and DEI efforts may easily fall into the trap of assumed similarities and a one size fits all approach that ironically promotes exclusion rather than inclusion. On the other hand, there are consistent global themes and patterns like the ones described above. A readiness to acquire local knowledge and to adapt headquarters-based approaches can serve as the basis for better informed and tailored DEI initiatives.
For more in-depth advice about these recommendations and additional country examples, check out Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact.
Dr. Gundling has worked with numerous Fortune 500 firms and is a sought-after keynote speaker and executive coach. He has lived in Asia and Europe, including six years in Japan. Dr. Gundling holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from Stanford University; he also serves as a Lecturer in the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of six books, including the latest, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact, co-authored with Dr. Cheryl Williams.