Why the West has a lot to learn from Asia's diversity and inclusion

Asia isn't 'behind the times' in D&I, says Johnson & Johnson's APAC head of diversity, equality and inclusion

Why the West has a lot to learn from Asia's diversity and inclusion

Have leaders been neglecting D&I in Asia? Sophie Guerin, head of diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI), APAC at Johnson & Johnson (J&J) strongly disagrees with the notion. “This comment does come up a lot – [some] think we’re behind in Asia and I really don’t think that’s the case,” Guerin told HRD. “DEI looks different in Asia, and I don’t think it’s behind.”

From her decade-long experience in the region, she’s found that DEI often has a more localised approach in Asia. Businesses have tailored their strategies to the needs of the countries and communities – and, of course, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach in such a multi-cultural region. “Those dimensions of diversity look different in different communities,” she told HRD. “I also think that Asia has a long history of learning how to live with diversity and integrate different communities. It doesn’t mean it’s always been smooth, but I don’t think it’s fair to underestimate cultural values.”

She believes countries like Singapore, where she's currently based, boasts a melting pot of backgrounds and identities and have a certain “thoughtfulness” about inclusivity and integrating communities. “The West has a lot to learn from Asia when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” she said. “It just looks different here.”

Read more: How to improve inclusion in the workplace

A DEI champion across Asia

Her insights on the topic were developed after spending over a decade in DEI leadership roles across the region at both the corporate and industry levels. Guerin is a recognised expert on DEI in Asia who frequently speaks at summits including stints at the World Economic Forum. She’s also published several books on the topic and is a member of the Diversity and Inclusion in Asia Network advisory council. Additionally, she’s a co-chair of the AmCham Singapore women’s committee.

Hence, she’s seen how DEI has changed through the years and acknowledged that there’s been a “growing awareness of a formalised corporate approach” to DEI in companies based in Asia, including from local firms. This is likely due to years of effort and discussions on the topic since pre-pandemic days, coupled with the increasingly “louder” demands for inclusivity and equity from individuals at workplaces as well as public spaces like social media.

Employees have been voicing their desire for real change, with a Kantar poll in 2020 finding almost three in four employees (72%) in Singapore calling out their organisation’s D&I policies for showing no improvement at all since the previous year. Across the region, more than 70% of professionals said they felt that their abilities were still judged based on their gender, and 43% believe they were judged by their race. This was especially stark in multi-racial societies like Singapore.

The study also found that companies still have much to do for other facets of diversity. Employees said work arrangements and management styles have recently catered even less to employees’ varied needs such as caretaking responsibilities or physical ability – about 59% in 2020 versus 75% in 2017.

Read more: How to measure progress of workplace inclusion

How to start DEI journey and drive real change

While those figures do suggest a growing desire for progressive change, it's not a definitive reflection of leaders’ and companies' efforts in pushing the needle. This is why Guerin believes in the power of localising DEI initiatives and listening to the needs of employees to achieve genuine success. “People really want DEI solutions that meet the needs of their communities,” she said. “In the past, you’d see more local firms embracing that through employee engagement or team building activities. Now people want to see organic solutions that speak to the needs here and companies are really listening to what employees feel and think and are responding with solutions that make sense for them.”

Read more: D&I: 3 in 5 professionals unsure how to drive real change at work

If you don’t know where to start or how to embark on a journey towards genuine inclusivity, Guerin suggested banking on a data-driven approach. “DEI can sometimes be overwhelming because it may feel like there are so many different things that need to be addressed,” she said. “Go back to the basics – data-driven solutions. Using [employee] insights is really what’s going to help you focus and prioritise. It’s the same thing you would do for any other part of the business.

“If you don’t have the data, then that’s where you start. Start to build the solutions or the platforms that will give you the data that you need. That could be from a demographic or a sentiment standpoint.” Once you have the right data and insights, you can then start to do some work around benchmarking by looking at industry peers or competitors. From there you can work with your HR team and business leaders to develop solutions that would best address your organisation’s needs. “It’s a trifecta between the business, HR and DEI,” she said. “That’s how you’re going to develop a really good solution that’s relevant for your market and your business.”

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