There are many who assume Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) issues are similar around the world, with minor variation. We often hear comments or questions such as, “Isn’t racism, or at least colorism, an issue everywhere in the world?”, or “Don’t women face similar challenges everywhere?” If you are attempting to roll out a global DEI initiative, your level of cultural competence is vitally important.
Lily Zheng, the author of DEI Deconstructed, cautions that while common forms of inequity exist, “Don’t let this trick you into thinking that every society’s issues are comparable, or that unique issues don’t exist within individual societies.” The pitfall of “projected similarity” is the assumption that people are more similar to you than they actually are, or that another person’s situation is more similar to your own situation than it in fact is. Problematic assumptions of this kind are still present in many current global DEI initiatives. Ironically, the impact of projected similarity may be that efforts to grow inclusion actually impose a headquarters-based cultural framework on employees elsewhere, excluding their own authentic experiences.
Race: A Global Perspective
The definition of “race” as a social construct that assigns people to different groups based on physical, national, or linguistic characteristics underlines the point that this term can be interpreted and used in various ways. Here are several examples of different global perspectives on race:
- Essential: Race is the central issue for U.S.-based DEI practitioners. The country’s history, changing demographics, contemporary workplace issues, requirements for legal compliance, and quest for greater social justice for members of underrepresented groups make it a high priority topic for any inclusion initiative. Racial strife is linked to the legacy of the dreadful institution of slavery, the long U.S. Civil War, legalized segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and ongoing systemic inequities experienced by Black Americans. The broader term “people of color” encompasses members of additional groups—Native American, Asian American, and Latine as well as others—that have also experienced marginalization and discrimination. It is likely that U.S.-based DEI efforts will view race as the most essential area to address for the foreseeable future.
- Similar but Different: In the contemporary United Kingdom, the prominent hot-button DEI issue is immigration. This issue, which is based on a distinctive set of demographic and historical factors, encompasses racial differences but is not primarily focused on inequitable relations between Black and White citizens, although these are now being more openly acknowledged. The largest minority groups in the U.K., which include immigrants and their U.K.-born descendents, are Asians (8%) along with Black people (3%) from Africa or the Caribbean. Slavery existed on a large scale in Britain’s colonial possessions in India, Africa, and the Americas until the 1800s, but the number of enslaved Africans or Asians in the British Isles themselves was relatively small, and slavery was banned decades before its end in the U.S. In the wake of World War II, labor shortages led to policies that encouraged immigration from the former British colonies that had become part of the British Commonwealth. Immigrants arrived in large numbers from countries such as India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh; others came from African nations, including South Africa and Nigeria. The entry of the U.K. into the European Communities (later the European Union) in 1973 also meant that job seekers could enter freely from different parts of Europe such as Poland. Foreign-born residents now comprise approximately 14% of the U.K.’s population, the highest number in the country’s history, and there are disputes over employment, use of social services, and cultural identity.
- Taboo: There are some countries, notably France, Germany, Denmark, and Singapore, that discourage direct discussion of race and even collection of racial data. In France and Germany the term “race” and associated record-keeping has a negative historical connotation that is tied to World War II genocide against Jews, Roma, and others. In Singapore “race” is associated with the fatal race riots of the 1960s that took place between ethnic Chinese and Malaysians. Although prohibitions against the open discussion of race are deemed as unrealistic and overly restrictive by social critics in these countries, government officials and supporters of such restrictions argue that it is better not to inflame racial distinctions that previously led to mass killings.
- Secondary: In most of Asia-Pacific the concept of “race” is seen as less relevant than other factors such as nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, or religion. Countries such as Japan and South Korea, for example, are to a large extent racially homogeneous, but face other more pressing workplace DEI issues such as limited opportunities for women and growing generational differences. Japanese and South Korean citizens tend to distinguish themselves from residents of other countries and from each other based on ethnic factors such as history, language, and ancestral geographical base. In the past, these perceived differences have contributed to colonial aggression—for instance, the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and the enslavement of large numbers of Koreans by the “Empire of Japan.” Modern ethnic conflicts in Asia-Pacific, especially when combined with religious and class differences, have often been most lethal when they occur within the same country. Examples include persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar by a combination of government forces and extremist Buddhists, and attacks by Indian Hindu nationalists against Indian Muslims.
Gender: A Global Perspective
Women worldwide face a range of issues, from those that are career-related to others that are life-threatening. Each country has its own forms of diversity that affect the workplace experiences of women, including the intersection of factors such as gender and race. Women of any background often face multiple challenges, and make their own personal choices based on their cultural upbringing and social support systems. However, it is also possible to draw broad contrasts between several general types of discrimination in order to adapt DEI initiatives for maximum effectiveness.
- Executive Roles: In most countries and industries women are underrepresented at the executive level—this tends to be a key topic particularly within advanced economies. Related issues often include assessment criteria for succession planning, retention rates, the availability of mentors or sponsors, and job flexibility.
“The C-Suite in this organization is almost all men except for Finance and HR. What will it take to have women leaders in line management roles as well?”
- Employment Opportunities: Depending on the local environment, women may or may not have equal access to education and training, fair hiring practices, equal pay for equal work, chances to learn and advance on the job, affordable childcare, or support from domestic partners. In some locations women are typecast as only being suitable for particular roles, or confined to temporary jobs and not expected to return to employment after having children.
“The people doing the hiring are all men, and they seem to hire people who look like them and went to the same schools. I just want to be treated fairly in the interview process.”
- Physical Security: Sexual harassment, poverty, extortion, crime, or outright prohibitions on working outside of the home due to religious restrictions or other social practices all affect whether women in some locations can even take on formal employement and stay on the job. Such circumstances may mean that they are not able to travel independently, stay at work after dark, afford transportation, or have adequate nutrition.
“This job has made a huge difference in my life. I can earn money to feed my family, safely ride the company bus to and from work, and eat one good meal every day in the cafeteria.”
At the very least, DEI initiatives that seek to be relevant to women across different countries should learn which types of discrimination are paramount in each location and adapt their approach with this in mind. C-Suite access, for instance, might seem like a distant dream for women concerned about their physical safety; those seeking entry-level employment opportunities often want most urgently to be evaluated fairly based on their qualifications and not their gender.
Cultural knowledge is essential for global DEI efforts to avoid the pitfall of assumed similarity and to achieve their objectives. As you develop and refine your DEI initiatives, ensure that they truly meet the needs of your employees, wherever they are located.
Our GlobeSmart Culture Guides are a great resource to build your cultural competence, and our learning solutions can help your workplace become more inclusive.