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For global companies, diversity and inclusion can get lost in translation

A man walks by a giant sign reading "welcome" in different languages at the Foggia train station in Italy.
REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
How does inclusion translate to different parts of your organization?
  • Simran Jeet Singh
By Simran Jeet Singh

Executive director, Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project

Published Last updated

Growing up in South Texas, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Our family was one of the few that wore turbans. Over time, I got used to looking different and the racism that would come with it.

But when we would visit our family in Punjab, India, where my parents grew up, I was again confused by how people saw me. We all had the same skin color, and many of them wore turbans, too. But they would ask me about caste, a classification I knew little about and didn’t identify with. They would be equally confused by my response: I have no idea what caste I am, and I’m not all that interested, either. 

That I lived in two different worlds is no remarkable feat. Many of us do. But my personal experience is a microcosm of a common challenge in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work.

In working with a number of global companies over the past several months, I have observed that many among them approach DEI through the lens of their headquarter countries and attempt to apply that lens to their constituents around the world. The approach flies in the face of DEI philosophy, which calls on us to be attentive to those who, by virtue of their identities, social roles, or geographic locations, are situated on the margins, away from the centers of power.

Diversity concerns are not the same from region to region or country to country

We might know our own local contexts and how to operate within them, but what happens when we step into spaces that are unfamiliar to us and that have their own social architecture?

Leaders of global businesses often are convinced that their framework is a framework to which everyone should subscribe. But their framework typically reflects a very Western and particularly American mindset, which demonstrates a different kind of bias: We place ourselves and our challenges at the center of the universe, and act as if the rest of the world revolves around us. When we do this, we miss the diversity of experiences and contexts outside of our own, and we fail to equip our teams and stakeholders to navigate them appropriately.

A second approach that has gained more currency in recent years is one of translation, in which organizations attempt to map the identities and structures familiar to them onto other contexts. For example, they might argue colorism in east Africa is akin to American racism, or sexism in France is akin to sexism in Hong Kong. But though these “-isms” might have shared characteristics, they have their own logics and histories; when we fail to diagnose them accurately, our solutions will remain flawed.

I would love a one-size-fits-all solution as much as anyone. It would make life easier for me and my family, and for our organizations, too. It would save us the effort of doing this difficult, uncomfortable work, and enable us to spend that time and effort in other areas. But life is complex and the world is diverse, and our solutions need nuance that takes these factors into account. To continue along without addressing these critical issues is a choice to take on significant risk.

A global framework for diversity

Accepting this reality can be difficult, and it can make DEI work feel impossible. We might feel tempted to throw up our hands with exasperation and say: How are we supposed to know everything about everyone?

This is not what I’m advocating for. Rather, what we need is a set of principles that are sturdy enough to provide consistency yet nimble enough to guide us in different contexts. For that, I offer five core principles that will lead us to more cohesion globally and advance our shared DEI goals. They’re as easy to remember as A-B-C-D-E.

Awareness. The first step in addressing any kind of bias is becoming aware of its existence. Bias trainings often begin with a discovery process in which we dive into ourselves to uncover some of the biases we carry. Becoming aware of inequities in different contexts calls for a similarly immersive approach; understanding challenges in different contexts requires curiosity, openness, and effort. Without asking the right questions and without an openness to listening and learning, we will never find the clarity we need to create meaningful change.

Buy-in. The second step is ensuring that stakeholders buy into the upside of doing this work and value the process of growth. To move DEI beyond lip service and implement it authentically, we must ensure that everyone is on board for the journey.

Capability. The third step is being capable, meaning we have the right mechanisms for creating the change we seek to produce. It’s about building and investing in teams to ensure they are equipped with the right skills, resources, and opportunities to grow in these areas. You have to understand the goals and contexts of your DEI work to know what capabilities you need.

Determination. Anyone who has engaged in culture change knows it’s a long process. It can be easy to feel discouraged and change course, or give up entirely, when results are not immediately measurable. This is why it’s crucial to go into this work with clarity about why it’s important, and with determination to see it through.

Enactment. Now that you have prepared yourself and your organization to make positive change, it’s time to put your plans into action. As you do so, remember that this is a process and that there is no perfect outcome; as the world evolves, so will you and your organization. Creating cohesion globally and advancing DEI is an iterative process that will continue to require care, attention, and action.

These five steps together can help us meet the inevitable challenges of difference and change. No culture is the same, and we evolve too. Anyone who tells you they have a perfect, timeless, universally applicable solution is deceiving you.

What works instead is to take a simple model that relies on questions over answers, which you can adapt to different contexts in ways that reflect your core values and enable you to account for the diversity of your teams, your organization, and our ever-changing world.

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is executive director for the Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project and senior adviser for equity and inclusion at YSC Consulting. His forthcoming book is The Light We Give: The Power of Sikh Wisdom to Transform Your Life (Penguin/Riverhead, 2022).

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