Tailor DEI Efforts to Unique Context for Best Results
U.S. Celebrating Black History Month and UK Celebrating Race Equity Week
No country or culture is immune to bias, discrimination and inequality, but how they manifest and are expressed is contextual and localized, showing up with pronounced differences in different countries and even between regions within a country.
As companies strive to accelerate efforts to create more equitable workplaces and speed Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) adoption, it can be tempting to use a “copy and paste” approach, especially when expanding to new regions. The problem is that different populations have different histories, cultures and beliefs that have shaped who has been marginalized, where the greatest obstacles to equity are today and who has the power to drive change.
DEI strategies that address local issues and use local vocabulary, role models, cultural norms, and narrative examples are likely to be better received and far more effective.
Many European countries have historically been populated by one dominant group with a shared history, culture and language. However, with increasing cultural diversity driven by foreign-born populations, today these countries are grappling with more heterogeneity than previously. And change can be hard. In a 2016 Pew Research Study, nearly 60% of Americans said that growing diversity makes their country a better place to live, while only 33% of UK residents shared that view.
The U.S. also has a complicated history and present, occupying a strange space where it is often simultaneously seen as a global leader in terms of DEI efforts while also “leading” in the prevalence of biased and discriminatory behaviors against people of color.
What is considered under the umbrella of diversity also differs among countries. Comparing just the U.S. and UK, the U.S. has historically focused on race and differences between white and Black populations (and increasingly Hispanic people). The UK tends to focus more on ethnic differences, categorizing many white residents in unique minority groups.
Even at the organization level, companies have their own cultures and understanding of diversity. Within a single company, there can also be microcultures that impact an employee’s workplace experiences and ability to advance. Consider, for example, the “Bro culture” that many women have found intolerable within some tech companies and departments. These work contexts have contributed to the proportion of female undergraduate computer science majors declining from 40% in 1984 to 20% today. What’s happening in your organization, department or team that might make it more difficult for some people to belong and advance?
“Ultimately, it’s about meeting someone where they’re at, understanding the nuances of the country and their culture, and adapting the conversations accordingly to intentionally and effectively build inclusion at work,” explains European DEI consultant, Kay Fabella.
How we communicate
Another key area to understand when doing business in other countries is how people in that region approach communication. From a sociological perspective, British culture, for example, is considered “high context,” whereas the United States is a “low context” culture.
In the U.S., words count for a lot and the expectation is that people say what they mean and mean what they say. On the whole, Americans don’t expect to read between the lines or read the context of the situation as the primary form of understanding. If you agree, disagree or have a problem, you’re expected to state it clearly.
In the UK, by contrast, (similar to Japan, Korea and many Arab cultures) communication relies almost as much on what’s not said. Body language, tone of voice, a shared understanding of cultural values, eye contact and even family background can all factor in as part of the message. What Americans might view as straight-forward communication can be interpreted by UK colleagues as aggressive and overbearing.
Being aware of communication differences is especially important when discussing sensitive DEI issues where people are asked to share personal experiences, opinions and even biases.
Tailor DEI efforts to your situation
One of the biggest recommendations from DEI scholars and trainers today is to add more diversity, meaning that DEI efforts themselves must be tailored specifically to the country, region and even company or department to make them most effective. Consider these guidelines to help you get there.
- Invest time to develop regional historical understanding and cultural competence
- Know who has been marginalized and how
- Engage with local leaders
- Listen to and value perspectives from members of marginalized groups
- Use local examples, narratives and role models to share DEI concepts
- Respond to current events with courageous and candid conversation
- Monitor language for local fit
- Test interventions for efficacy and adapt based on results
DEI efforts customized to a specific setting stand a much better chance of success.