The culturally diverse region has lagged the world in formal DEI programming. Here’s how business partners can provide meaningful support now. __________By Jill Motley
Prior to the COVID shutdowns, many companies in Southeast Asia were leading the world in terms of the diversity of their staff. While formal DEI programs were often absent – one study found that only 58 percent of companies in SE Asia had programs compared to 96 percent globally – female participation in the labor force was at an all-time high of 42 percent and notable strides were being made in LGBTQ openness and acceptance. Younger staff members were increasingly willing to speak up about discrimination and to ask organizations to live up to their value statements.
Then, things shut down. The world changed. Reopening has been uneven, and the impact of the pandemic on Southeast Asian women has been particularly harsh. The green shoots of DEI support in Asian organizations are in need of nourishment and support, both locally and from international partners. Yet with so much in upheaval, economically speaking, where should companies start?
Ask for – or offer – antidiscrimination codes of conduct
A surprising finding of a recent Boston Consulting Group study was that most employees were unaware of their company’s anti-discrimination codes, even in larger first-tier suppliers and MNCs where such codes have long been established. This identifies two key foundational areas of opportunity. First, for employee education around systems that already exist to support DEI, and second, for building DEI more explicitly into a firm’s day to day operational culture.
On the employee education front, raising awareness is a step that offers multiple benefits. From a recruiting and retention standpoint, employees are looking for firms that share their values, and this can help firms both attract and keep high quality talent. On the internal culture side, raising awareness of existing policies is a way to ease into enforcement of the policies and seize a “reopening” opportunity to reset the office norms, or even to create a first policy that can be a part of the “new normal” for the firm. Further, at no great cost to implement, the education element is something even firms who are operating on tight budgets can put into play right away.
On the operational side, there’s an opportunity to make DEI more explicitly a part of how the organization runs. In competitive markets, advertising ESG compliant anti-discrimination policies can help attract investment capital and international partners. This may be particularly important in countries that play key roles in the international supply chain, since so many organizations are putting extra scrutiny on supply chain elements at present.
Think of the little things
A second area where Southeast Asian firms can support their existing DEI programming or establish new patterns is to look after little details. This can include signage, break spaces, and accessibility elements.
For example, in countries like Malaysia or India, where dozens of languages can be used in the same region, having signage and labeling in several of the dominant dialects is a way to signal that a firm supports multiculturalism and differing backgrounds. Adding in pictograms or sight-assistive labeling also crosses boundaries and shows support for differing classes and abilities.
Break spaces are another area where small things can make a big difference. One of the most popular benefits for working women is a safe, private nursing or pumping area, which can also be equipped with adequate refrigeration space to make it easier for mothers to be at the office or factory and still support their small children at home. Similarly, single stall or gender-neutral bathroom spaces are a small way to support alternative gender identities, transitioning employees, or simply employees who prefer total bathroom privacy. This is an especially valuable benefit in multi-generational family living arrangements where a return to the office could provide the only privacy an employee receives all day, something few Western companies deal with but a large number of Asian families experience as normal.
Follow up and support systems of follow up
A final “starting point” in bolstering DEI programs in Asia is to follow up on them, and support structures that encourage follow ups or check ins. As the Boston Consulting study found, in many cases progress was forgotten or abandoned in the day-to-day noise. If companies know that their business partners and collaborators are interested and following up on DEI programs and issues, there is a higher likelihood that these systems will be both established and maintained.
For example, a survey by Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search and consulting firm in the Asia Pacific region, found that corporate leadership teams were particularly interested in what their competitors and industry peers were doing around diversity issues. With no official global standard, Asian firms prefer to check in on each other for comparison, contrast, and ideation. Establishing both formal and informal means of following up on diversity programming elements could thus be all that is needed to nourish a firm’s development of additional programming.
With formal DEI programming at a relative low in Asia despite the highly diverse nature of the region, there is room to bolster the programs and systems that are emerging. Three simple ways to do that are to start with a foundational anti-discrimination policy check, signal diversity support by embracing small, functional changes to office details, and establishing systems to follow up and support follow up on diversity program development. In this way, business partners near and far can support the expansion of DEI throughout Asia but give individual companies room to execute on DEI strategies that are in alignment with their own local norms and possibilities.