DEI in 2023: How leaders must navigate regional issues
27 April 2023
“Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is far more than just a catchphrase. Both the concept and its goals are vital to good business practise and ultimately an organisation’s bottom line,” says Alexander de Freitas, Signium Partner Greater China, Co-Leader Global Technology Practice.
However, De Freitas notes that even while global policies and programs may be designed to create opportunities for fairness and equality in business, the actual playing field can be very different in certain countries or regions where tradition or other social practices hinder local execution of global policy.
“Some aspects of western thinking may be easily implemented in various regions, but attempting to force a western outlook on other localities may become a cautionary tale,” he says, adding that it may be easy for western companies to attempt to influence their operations based in other countries with policies and programs that work in the USA or Europe, it is easier said than done.
“Implementing any big change must begin with respect for a country’s culture and in a country the size of China some cultural aspects are regional, which further adds to complications and sensitivities. So, business leaders operating outside of their home base must be prepared to understand and take cognisance of differences.”
Flexibility and guidance drive transformation
Some of the practices highlighted in DE&I make sense to implement in Asia and many other countries, but leaders would do best to take advice on what will work and what is unlikely to, so flexibility is key.
“China is home to a very homogenous population, the vast majority of who are Han Chinese,” De Freitas says. “This equates to a variety of cultural differences even within each of the various provinces. From an executive search perspective, we understand the kind of culture our clients want to instil in their China operations, and feel that our role includes sharing our knowledge of regions and consumers built on actually operating here.”
While many companies are receptive to learning from Signium’s experience, some would prefer to replicate their own market. “We’re fortunate to have clients we’ve worked with for many years, so we understand their requirements and in what areas of the business they can be flexible.
“What we can assist with is where a company’s headquarters are in, say, Shanghai, but they have satellite sales offices 2000 kilometres away. Creating the same diversity, equity and inclusion in the satellite office will depend on the influence and supervision head office has on remote office.”
The age-old challenge for business leadership
Current challenges for C-suites in China centre around the preconceptions of local companies about suitability for specific roles in relation to age, gender and general background.
“One area we see is what would be considered ‘ageism’ by overall DEI standards is where it is often perceived that a candidate over the age of 45 may not be ‘agile’ enough for the position,” says De Freitas. “This can lead to a disconnect between the age the client wants the candidate to be versus the years of experience they require them to have.”
De Freitas also notes, however, that there are areas that are undergoing change in the same way they’re changing globally and one of these is age. “It was recently announced that the Chinese population growth is in decline, while the ageing population is rising due to the advances China has made in alleviating poverty and focusing on healthcare.”
“This means a far smaller pool of young candidates from which to choose, so companies will need to figure out how to engage – or re-engage – the older workforce. China will likely face the same issues we see in the West, in terms of pensions running out before life does,” he posits. “Retirement age is already being raised in companies and government workforces, and we are seeing a push towards hiring people once considered ‘too old’ for certain posts.”
Overall, De Freitas reiterates what many business leaders cite when rising to the challenges presented by DE&I: “Change is never an easy thing to implement or undergo, but many changes will occur organically, as is happening with ageism,” he says. “And, in our dealings with various companies, we see efforts to grow the share of women in the workforce, where female representation is a priority and training is being undertaken by firms looking to create a pipeline for women from entry-level positions to managerial posts.
“The path to diversity, equity and inclusion path must be maintained and expanded, for today’s actions to have any impact on tomorrow’s successes.”