Happy Global Diversity Awareness Month! One of the most important factors of global diversity is how different cultures and groups define the differences that make them diverse. Critical factors in one culture can mean very little in another, and the words we use to discuss diversity can have dramatically different meanings and implications in different nations.
In honor of Global Diversity Awareness Month, four of our global practitioners share how the concept of diversity manifests quite differently in cultures around the world:
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the most international regions in the world, with the local Emirati population only making up approximately 12% of the workforce. Many Emiratis and Arabic-speaking executives from Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have studied or worked internationally (in Canada, the United States, Germany, etc.) before returning to their home country. They were exposed to DEI concepts while abroad, which gives them a head start back in the Middle East, a region that is just starting to explore these topics now.
Regarding gender expectations, an experienced Jordanian leader gave the following advice:
“Remember not to impose Western models and thinking patterns onto our Middle Eastern culture. Gender roles in our region are different. Our well-educated spouses choose whether to pursue professional careers or manage our families. That is our luxury, and the new generation balances both very well! Don’t assume that wives who don’t work are uneducated or not ambitious…maybe it’s just the opposite.”
When talking about diversity and inclusion in Sweden, you have to tread cautiously when discussing differences, as it can easily be interpreted as if you are not willing to treat everyone equally.
This has several cultural roots, such as the long history of social democracy, for example. However, long before the Social Democracy political party was created to drive fairness and equality between all Swedish citizens, all Swedes lived by Jantelagen (“law of Jante”), an unwritten code of conduct in which one does not think or act like they are better than anyone else. In modern Sweden, it may show up in the simple attire and home decor, as well as a taboo against boasting, using your title, or driving a personal agenda. However, it also manifests as resistance toward talking about how people may be different—according to Swedes, it is simply not fair or right to compare people. Even in the Swedish language, there is only one word for both “similar” and “equal”—lika. In the minds of the Swedish, if people are not lika, that is not similar, then they are not equal either.
In Asia-Pacific regions, meaningful conversations about inclusion require going a few levels deeper than simply discussing race from a generic Western perspective. The first time I became aware of this different lens on race was during a training in Bangkok about 10 years ago. I was reviewing diversity dimensions when one participant asked me what ethnicity means. As we opened up the conversation, I learned that the Thai participants used different classifications in their society. This makes sense; after all, race and ethnicity are social constructs, not biological ones. While people in many Western countries refer to people of Asian heritage as one racial group, in many southeast Asian countries, like Thailand, people from diverse Asian heritages are considered to be different races and may have different lived experiences.
Japan is a homogeneous country, with Japanese nationals making up 98.5% of the population. Therefore, diversity is a relatively new concept for them, and race and ethnicity are not significant diversity factors in Japan in the way they are in the United States and other countries. Gender diversity is a more pressing concern. Historically, Japan has ranked very low in the global gender equality index, especially for women in business and political leadership. Efforts to develop Asian women leaders are growing across Japan, however, it has created dialogue about reverse discrimination as well as bias for working mothers over women without children. Since the concept of Diversity and Inclusion is still relatively new in Japan, it has been difficult for many companies to balance providing appropriate support for marginalized groups and the perception of unfairness among other groups.
Inclusion efforts should enable people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to work effectively together, and contribute to a workplace where everyone can thrive. To this end, it is important to keep focused on how coming from a specific group in society impacts the opportunities available to someone, and how included or excluded they feel.
Download the Global Diversity Toolkit to bring an authentic celebration of diversity to your organization.