Nevertheless, one thing that most companies can agree on is that thoughtful DEI policies benefit businesses and enrichen work culture, cultivate a supportive environment to attract and retain workers, and promote inclusive brand messaging to audiences.
Diving headfirst into how far DEI has come and what lies on the road ahead, Campaign Asia-Pacific partnered with Essence for Diversity Talks 2022 to explore how companies around Asia-Pacific are paving the way to change workplace culture for the better, how to navigate DEI policies in conservative markets, and how to inch the needle forward on supporting women in the workplace. Here are some of the highlights from the event.
Aligning DEI and social issues with more conservative Asian markets
In this panel, speakers discuss the concept of DEI as a service strategy and how companies can navigate conservative markets in Asia as they begin to embrace these concepts.
Edward Bell (Cathay Pacific) stresses the importance of “communicating externally what we were saying and believing internally” with the example of Cathay, using inclusive campaigns like “Fly with Pride” and “Move Beyond” to “reflect the diversity of the world around us.”
Yoly Crisanto (Globe Telecom) prioritises creating an inclusive economy to solve problems that cater to a diverse market — in the case of Globe in the Philippines, boosting digital technologies so children can access the Internet and attend online learning during the pandemic, and democratising financial services for those traditionally without access.
DEI is a must for companies to include in their objectives and key results (OKRs), Ben Wong (Google) emphasises, as teams need to visibly see leadership promoting DEI to believe in its tenets. In the case of Google, fostering opportunities in Greater China for a diverse community — including female engineers — to find success in the tech industry, supporting the improvement of accessibility for differently-abled groups, and providing education to underprivileged students for future careers in tech are things that the company champions.
Mali Wuestenhagen (Essence) praises a people-first approach to nurturing a culture of belonging in the workplace, as DEI efforts internally have helped drive the success of the business. Having people of different backgrounds and multicultural employees, she argues, also demonstrates a “practice what you preach” approach when it comes to creating impactful DEI campaigns for clients in the future.
As the conversation moved towards how to avoid controversy in a conservative market, Bell admits that it is unavoidable when doing something unconventional and unordinary, but companies have a responsibility to “challenge the status quo.” Wong thinks the key is to ensure that DEI is first taken seriously internally. Companies must have the right compliance policies in place so teams can hold each other accountable, and DEI training opportunities to educate internal and external partners are essential.
Avoiding controversy starts long before that, Wuestenhagen believes. She advocates for putting in “guardrails to ensure betterness in the DEI campaign space” and that companies need to ask themselves two all-important questions: Does this brand have authenticity? And does it have a right to be part of the conversation? “When brands want to integrate DEI elements into their communication, it is important that it is a topic that the brand is known for representing and the brand has done so consistently,” she explains.
After avoiding the pitfalls of woke-washing and controversy, how can brands find success in these markets? Crisanto asserts that connection is at the heart of every movement. Brands must examine the spectrum of customers they serve and stay true to them, focusing on key topics affecting their audiences to create DEI campaigns that address them — even if they are controversial topics, as these are real issues customers face every day.
Wuestenhagen concurred, adding that the vast majority of consumers — 90% of those in Asia, according to a Kantar report — expect brands to take a stand on social issues. However, acknowledging failure is just as important as finding success. If things go sideways, brands should “highlight what the positive intent was […] but also admit to mistakes when there was a lack of consideration. Evaluate whether complaints […] have substance and whether it leads […] to a removal or change in communication.” Reflecting upon what went wrong provides brands with a learning opportunity to do better.
Does your company embody its DEI beliefs?
Companies are gaining awareness of the challenges facing them, but what is being done in the Asia-Pacific region to address the lack of DEI policies?
While Japan battles a historic struggle to deliver on DEI goals, according to Kota Murakami (Essence), Marcia Chen (Women Alliance Group) posits that around 60% of companies in the China market “walk the talk,” but most organisations are lingering in the conceptual stage. Up to 80% of India’s top companies have made efforts to further their DEI goals, Shankar Prasad (Plum) estimates, but smaller businesses stumble in the footsteps of giants.
Despite the differences in progress, all speakers agree that DEI values must meet in the middle. India, with its young workforce, sees a strong grassroots movement, Prasad notes, and the desire for an inclusive workplace is built from the ground up. Murakami chimes in that DEI decisions are made at company level in traditional markets like Japan, as leaders need to “own the responsibility” to respond to grassroots demands organically. Chen concurs, adding that, as an imported westernised concept, DEI is being driven by Fortune 500 companies in China: “We need a top-down approach, but we definitely need ambassadors on the ground to drive the grassroots approach, so they [meet] halfway.”
Most importantly, DEI policies are not “unidimensional.” “You cannot standardise globally or regionally as a one-size-fits-all approach,” Meenakshi Iyer (Google) emphasises. “The magic happens when there is a careful and informed synergy […] to drive awareness and impact.”
Consumers are also pushing back decisively on DEI issues, setting new standards. “Legacy brands are quick to adapt and bring in global best practices, and new-age brands actually lead the debate,” Prasad points out, but others, stuck in the middle, have been called out for not evolving with the times. Push for a deeper understanding of your audience, he advises, praising social media as an essential tool to collect feedback straight from the source.
In order to get the right message across, aligning with brand partners who understand DEI values is crucial, too. Brands must communicate their beliefs to agencies clearly, and agencies need to reflect those values in a scalable and controllable manner. Programmatic buying has evolved, Murakami notes, and brands have the luxury of not “picking and choosing every single media channel out there.” Iyer declares that brands must have marketing principles and frameworks in place and hold themselves to a high bar — beyond commercial benefits, marketing needs to necessarily reflect a company’s DEI values. “Ask questions on whether the people we are acquiring are representative of the market and if we are leveraging tools and partners enough to get this right,” she says.
Inching the needle forward: Women at work
A major topic in the DEI discussion is allyship in the workplace. Working and new mothers, in particular, face stigmas and challenges that a lot of companies have yet to address.
Joanne Wong (LogRhythm) urges companies to take action and create a supportive ecosystem that helps working mothers combat their feelings of guilt and inadequacy when returning to the workforce. Sonali Malaviya (Essence) adds that managers and coworkers have a role to play in implementing a positive professional environment.
Normalise family situations, Jeremy Nicholas (Telstra) insists, to make people feel more accepted, no matter what position they are in. “Model the right behaviour as a leader. Being transparent, open, and honest about simple situations […] sets the tone for everyone else. Covid-19 led us into people’s homes as well and […] it opened up that conversation.”
Offering supportive benefits in the workplace is one big way to help not just women, but parents and primary caregivers overall. Companies should implement equal parental leave policies and flexible working arrangements to accommodate the workers, not the other way around, Nicholas maintains. “It shouldn’t be up to the individual […] to adapt around the organisation. It’s about the organisation and the leaders adapting around them.” Wong agrees, “If the male partner is doing as much [at home as the female partner], then he should be given an equal amount of leave to share that work.”
Large companies are already making strides, but small and medium enterprises must first lay the groundwork and set fundamental tenets to stand by before they can tackle the implementation of inclusive DEI policies. Undoing entrenched patriarchy takes time, but change needs to happen, insists Suresh Balaji (Male Allies Hong Kong). Workers should see that they are being treated fairly based on equality, equity, and meritocracy “so that no one feels disenfranchised.” Both Nicholas and Wong underline that positive workplace culture and DEI must be a collaborative effort so everyone can take ownership and responsibility.
While Covid-19 moved the needle forward in some ways, it also set us back. Working women at home are relegated to the role of primary caregivers, and this is where male allyship is more important than ever, both at work and at home, asserts Balaji. With great agency comes great responsibility, and “men have […] to work towards gender diversity because, as a group, they have more power collectively.”
Being an ally means stepping up even when women are not present. Call out bad behaviour in the moment, not after it has happened, urges Wong. Malaviya reinforces that “male allies need to be allies for women among men as well. […] How many more people are you able to convert into male allies?” If that sounds like putting the onus solely on men, she has counsel for women, too: “Women have to be allies as well. A lot of times, you see women being tougher on other women than men. […] Allyship, to me, is gender-neutral.” Balaji, stressing proper advocacy, upholds, “If women win, it doesn’t mean men will lose.”