As a nod to International Women's Day (IWD) and the progress we still strive for, I share this article, which was first published in the January 2022 edition of Coaching Perspectives, the flagship international publication of The Association for Coaching (AC): “Drawing on her experiences of growing up in a divided Malaysia, Eileen Lee Lavergne calls for a rethink of D&I — one that aims to make inclusion a healthy reality for organisations rather than a tick-box exercise.”
We can’t turn the corner of an organization today without considering diversity and inclusion (D&I). The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have highlighted how damaging discrimination and blatant entitlement can be. This emphasis on D&I is a good thing. As a society we are more mindful than we have ever been about what it means to be human.
D&I is also being recognized as good for business. McKinsey reported as much as 48% difference in performance between the most and least gender-diverse companies, and 36% difference in outperformance by those more ethnically and culturally diverse. So are we making progress? No doubt, but as to what extent, it’s likely not far enough.
Where Does D&I Stand?
D&I management hires have been on the rise, according to ZoomInfo (June 2020), but that is predominantly through the lens of corporate America. Europe’s D&I progress is a mixed bag according to PWC’s benchmarking survey.i As for the rest of the world, there’s no clarity about awareness or willingness, much less intent. McKinsey estimated that $8 billion is spent on D&I training a year globally, but with little in the way of tangible results.
This is not surprising, considering how complex tackling D&I is. Notwithstanding that complexity, I believe big contributing factors are hype and measures that focus on demographics in reaction to external forces. This, in turn, produces weak foundations for D&I. In the PWC benchmarking survey, only 19% of respondents said their primary D&I objective was for business results, while no more than 14% of D&I leaders are peers to the C-Suite. This obsession with optics over results leads organisations to resort to affirmative action policies of blanketed quotas to force representation. At best, D&I becomes a cosmetic change. At worse, it sets a dangerous path towards reverse discrimination and unwanted precedents.
I have a very personal perspective on this, for I am a living consequence of a reversed affirmative action policy, one put in place decades ago.
D&I Engineering: The Malaysian Travesty
I grew up in multiethnic and multicultural Malaysia. To all extents, it’s a success story of harmony in diversity. From a tender age, I was conditioned to be tolerant to differences. As an adult, I believed this upbringing made me highly adaptable and resilient, especially as my travels, studies and work took me around the globe. It did, to some degree – but not because of affirmative action.
Having lived and worked overseas for over two decades, these experiences play back now to challenge my memory and naivety. The diversity I revelled in seems quite hollow today. I am recognized simply as a non-Muslim Chinese female (sometimes, government forms require religion to be included as well without an option for not adhering to one). It didn’t matter that I’m a full third-generation Malaysian with Peranakan ancestry whose roots in the land date back centuries. Like so many of my ‘kind’, I am in truth an ‘outcast’ of D&I engineering.
I was not yet two when my parents lived through bloody civil unrest as racial riots swept the country in 1969. Armed forces opened fire on ordinary citizens for how they looked. Emergency lockdown was declared. Parliament was suspended for two years, and an election was robbed of fair outcomes. Racial tensions had been mounting following emancipation from British rule in 1957, due to historical segregation and manipulation. The impoverishment of the rural Malay majority made things worse.
The NEP (National Economic Policy), adopted in 1971, was meant to correct the economic imbalance. The deeper reason, however, was a consolidation of ‘Malay supremacy’. Preferential treatments, enforced with quotas, subsidies and legislation, were introduced in every aspect of life: education, public service, company shareholders, public tenders, housing schemes, military and so on. Fifty years later, they have become normalised, validating the sentiment of entitlement of one group and religion over others. It has created an environment ripe for cronyism and nepotism among an elite few, and led to the impoverishment, rather than the enrichment, of rural populations – Malays included. Worst of all, it continues to deepen racial divisions and groupthink in a never-ending vicious cycle. It is also draining the nation of its greatest minds and talent, many who are educated overseas – Malays included.
My generation grew up in the shadow of our parents’ trauma and mistrust from that day. Unwittingly, we became accomplices to keeping the illusion of harmonious diversity at the cost of truly understanding our differences, and of valuing our unique complementarities as strengths.
I don’t share this lightly, or to be insensitive to the struggles of certain groups that have been marginalised all their lives. I say this to call for deeper mindfulness, because making cosmetic changes does every one of us a huge disservice.
Diversity WITH Inclusion
So how do we ‘do’ healthy D&I – and sustainably? There’s no easy answer, but my suggestion to organizational leaders is to pay equal attention and weight to inclusion – the dimension that, as the EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council) defines, ‘puts the concept and practice of diversity into action’. Consider these principles when you design your inclusion strategies to complement policies for correcting diversity imbalances.
D&I is a social construct that is learnt, conditioned and embedded through social interactions with others. Racism festers because of validated fears and mirrored ignorance. D&I flourishes when differences are brought to the fore to be recognized, valued and built upon. What will it take to bring radically different people together to get used to dealing with each other? How are we addressing D&I when certain social labels instantly exclude all others? A Reuters poll showed that two-thirds of Americans were surrounded exclusively by people like them. In British Malaya, the different races had very little contact with each other, and never lived or managed themselves as a community.
Embracing D&I is a systemic and social change process. It cannot be handled like an add-on function or implemented through one-way instruction and top-down policies. Hiring someone who represents a minority group to lead the charge without other impetus is just setting that person and the transition up for failure. Who is in the best position to place D&I at the forefront of an organizational change agenda and who else needs to be included to keep the process honest and transparent? What complementary skills and knowledge will counterbalance influence, and help with new behaviours or accelerate re-acculturation?
D&I imbalances are historically ingrained within local context. Although blanket measures to right those imbalances send a strong message to the whole organization and its stakeholders, the real work of inclusion must meet people where they are. Take the EU’s 2012 legislation for increasing women on public-listed company boards. Although numbers have more than doubled since 2011, the European Commission’s report of 2016 observed that most improvements happened in countries such as France, which took ‘legislative action and/or had an intensive public debate on the issue’. The proportion of public-listed French companies with women on boards has surpassed the 40% requirement, and is in fact the highest in the world at 45%. This hints at the criticality of public dialogue more than the affirmative action itself. What open dialogue needs to happen in organisations in a similar fashion? How can organization leaders create psychological safety and space that break down barriers and let biases surface without fear of judgment or punishment?
D&I as a purpose in creating emotional connections. Countless studies over many decades have provided the logical reasoning for D&I. It’s not more data but inspiration of a greater purpose, coupled with answering the call to innovation and tapping into compassionate values, that is key. Has the purpose of your D&I been challenged and picked apart sufficiently, incorporating inner and outer dissident voices? Will the ‘why’ for D&I hold the connections together in times of stress and crisis? Who and what will sustain the worthwhile links at every level?
Striking The Right Balance To Do Better, Not More
Not so long ago, a friend who interviewed for a job discovered he had been rejected because he was not a person of colour, the ‘right’ gender and he was certainly on the wrong side of 50. Some might suggest it's the time of comeuppance, but I think this is simply righting wrongs with more wrongs.
For a long time, inclusion without diversity has built systems of presumed entitlement and groupthink. Today, we risk creating optical illusions through our obsession with visible diversity. This distracts from the required inclusion of tough conversations and tangible reconciliation for us to be the best we can be, individually and collectively.
Ask the millions among the Malaysian diaspora if they feel attached to their birth country and you’ll find the results telling. How can we? Our differences became the reason for ostracizing us from our birthright. Engagement, empowerment and co-ownership aren’t guaranteed by diversity alone, but by striking a better balance between diversity AND inclusion.