Singapore embarked on a review of women’s issues in the move towards greater gender equality, leading to a White Paper in the early part of 2021.
The objective is to achieve gender equality as well as changes to Singapore’s cultural value system. At the workplace, this will address the issue of a gender pay gap.
Yet, gender is just one of the nine dimensions when it comes to diversity. There are age, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, disability, and nationality.
I have to admit that as a Singaporean who is a middle class, heterosexual Chinese male and practically atheist, I am often blind to many issues anyone in these minority groups face on a daily basis.
It only hit me during a trip to Japan when I was refused entry to a restaurant due to the colour of my skin. The sense of humiliation and anger overcame me quickly.
Even though I did not patronise the shop, I spread the word about this restaurant, whether people wanted to hear about my experience or not.
This is just one small example of how the lack of diversity can bring about negative impacts, especially for a profit-seeking business.
Such negative reactions are one reason why there is the creation of a new role at the workplace – diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) professionals.
ENTER THE DIVERSITY MANAGER
As the job title implies, DEI professionals support and enable their organisations to craft and manage DEI initiatives.
The role may reside on the business side, reporting directly to the CEO or more commonly, it sits within the human resource (HR) department, reporting to the chief HR officer.
DEI professionals facilitate the process and behavioural changes needed to build an inclusive organisation.
Their job entails – but is not limited to – highlighting diversity in job ads, implementing blind screening of resumes and teaching recruiters how to avoid biases. This isn’t limited to just hiring – they look at promotion and retention of staff too.
In the local context, that could mean ensuring you have prayer rooms for your Muslim employees or lactation facilities for new mothers.
A search on LinkedIn reveals 202 professionals working in Singapore in DEI-related roles for their organisations. Many of these are big brands such as Experian, Jones Lang Lasalle, Google, Red Hat and Micron Technology.
Even though this space is growing slowly, it is hard to ignore the overwhelming concentration of multi-national companies who hire DEI professionals. This is partly due to more progressive practices in the US and Europe and partly due to the fear of being taken to task for not having a diverse workforce.
Cisco found out the hard way when it came under fire from a shareholder lawsuit in 2020. That led them to go on an offensive and they committed to hiring 75 per cent more African-American executives.
The crux of the lawsuit was that there were no African-Americans on the company’s board even though Cisco’s publicly facing communications states that the Company is “committed to” and “embraces” diversity at Cisco, including at the very top.
Things are slow here in Asia too.
In Refinitiv’s 2020 top 100 most diverse and inclusive organisations globally as ranked by its Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Index, only two local companies are on the list – Singapore Airlines and Singtel.
In a separate 2019 poll by data, insights and consulting firm Kantar, Singapore is the second-worst performing country in terms of workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices, based on a poll of employees in 14 developed countries.
THE BENEFITS OF A DIVERSE ORGANISATION
When I was still running a recruitment business until about seven years ago, I met the managing partner of a 700-person audit firm. I was trying to pitch across our recruitment service and was told he would not hire anyone from a particular all-boys Christian school.
It was the first time I had heard of such a specific and irrelevant criteria.
Later I discovered that since the Managing Partner came from another top all-boys school, the well-known rivalry between the two influenced his hiring decisions.
This example may be an outlier but the more common complains you might hear would be those who prefer to hire males or those who speak a certain language. As a result, it is common to find workplaces and/or the management team to be completely homogeneous.
Increasingly though, there is a business case for ensuring diversity in the workplace.
According to consulting firm McKinsey’s Diversity Matters report, companies with more than 30 per cent women executives were more likely to outperform companies which had fewer or no women executives.
In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, their business-case findings are equally compelling: In 2019, companies in the top quartile of ethnic diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36 per cent in profitability, slightly up from 33 per cent in 2017 and 35 per cent in 2014.
Human performance coach David Rock outlined in a 2017 blog post for Psychology Today that diverse teams are often smarter, more efficient, more innovative and generally prove to be more valuable than others. Based on his research, diverse teams focus more on facts, process those facts more carefully, and are more innovative.
CONFRONTING THE CHALLENGES
So where does a business start if DEI is entirely new to them?
You can explore DEI analytics to visualise your exact company make-up across ethnicity, age and gender metrics or perhaps by using bias-free hiring tools to increase your reach to diverse talent, both of which are now being launched by Singapore-based tech company, Diversely.
Similar to culture building, DEI is an evolving process. It will take some time for any early attempts to get it right.
For a start, organisations have to acknowledge the lack of diversity and any kind of change is best championed by the senior management for better buy-in.
There are challenges of course – one of the most common complaints is that in ensuring diversity, companies hire to fulfil a quota rather than hiring for talent or skill. It may be the case that everyone applying for a software engineering job is male or belongs to a dominant race.
A common practice is to pre-determine the percentage allocation of diverse talents. This can be done by mandating that at least 50 per cent of the shortlisted candidates for the same role must have diverse backgrounds.
Once shortlisted, then look for skills, talent, and, if all things are equal, hire the candidate who adds diversity to your company.
Another is to ensure that there is diversity on the panel of interviewers.
Ultimately, common sense prevails. If your customers are mainly Malay women, it makes no sense to staff your sales team with Chinese men.
Diversity may also mean things like ensuring accessibility arrangements and infrastructure for persons with disabilities.
One example of a company that focuses on disability diversity is foodpanda. Their disabled riders have a unique indicator next to their names so they can create a personalised distance profile and allow live agents to take extra care to discussing and addressing issues that people with disabilities may encounter during their course of work.
Some banks in Singapore even have gender-neutral toilets to cater to their LGBTQ talents.
Diversity is something that the entire company has to buy into. That means diversity training across the workforce to help them better understand why these are important.
Ultimately it should not become a checkbox exercise and extend to prioritising differences over necessary skills and talents just for the sake of having a diverse workforce.
Done well, this change is well worth it because the data has shown that diversity works and has positive impact across many levels of an organisation.
And the earlier companies acknowledge and get started on this journey, the sooner we create a more inclusive economy and society.