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How should businesses in APAC create a diverse workplace culture without virtue signaling?

How do companies create an authentic internal culture that promotes diversity and inclusivity?

Workplace diversity in the workplace is becoming important as it has several tangible benefits for companies and their employees. However, diversity and inclusion do not just extend to hiring diverse talent, but also ensuring the participation of these employees is equal. How are companies in APAC achieving this?

The corporate world still struggles with diversity and inclusion in 2021, often failing to attract diverse talent due to inclusivity issues in the workplace.

According to the Council of Board Diversity, Singapore failed to achieve its target of having 20% of its 100 largest listed companies include women on their boards by the end of 2020. They hit 17.6%, a 1.4% increase compared with the previous year.

In the UK, companies are required to publish their diversity statistics following increasing pressure from shareholders and boards. For example, five agencies have managed to reduce their gender pay gap year in, year out since mandatory data reporting began in 2017.

So how do companies create an authentic internal culture that promotes diversity and inclusivity, and goes beyond Pride messaging and promoting women’s rights for only one month of the year, to prevent harmful and cliched stereotypes?

As part of Pride Month, we have asked the industry what to do when faced with bosses and colleagues who do not believe in things like LGBT+, gender and racial equality and representation.

How does one work with someone who does not believe in things like LGBT+, gender and racial equality and representation when creating campaigns? How should they deal with this issue?

Pat Law, founder, Goodstuph

I am not sure how to answer the question because, basically, I do not work with bigots.

Huu Anh Nguyen, copywriter, TBWA\Media Arts Lab

Our industry claims to value diversity, so generally people will be outwardly supportive of equality and representation. However, what I have observed is that support does not always translate into the right kind of representation. There are still very few LGBT+ leaders, especially in Singapore.

Their understanding of the issues is often superficial at best. Clients are also reluctant to tackle sensitive issues, and we are not pushing enough to change this. I do not think there is an easy fix besides us having the courage to confront and educate those who are still struggling to understand the value of equality in the commercial space.

Sherlin Giri, senior facilitator and trainer, Catalyse, AWARE’s corporate training arm

Of course, it is important to note that it is not the responsibility of marginalized persons to educate others around them about prejudice and discrimination. Taking on these issues with antagonistic colleagues can frequently exacerbate psychological harm on the part of the marginalized. So these conversations should only be carried out if one feels comfortable and safe to do so. Ideally, allies can shoulder some of this work as well, so that the onus is not entirely on those already marginalized to perform yet more emotional labor.

As practitioners of non-violent communication at Catalyse, we believe in building ‘connection before solution’. Accordingly, you could encourage your bosses or colleagues to have a conversation about these topics on a casual basis. Ask them out for coffee – perhaps not the whole team at one go if that is too intimidating, but one person at a time. Listen to their concerns, not with the sole intention of rebuking or rebutting them, but to really understand where they are coming from, and prime them for a safe and non-judgemental conversation. Then reciprocate by sharing with them why these matters are important both for the workplace and individuals on the team, and therefore need to be included in ongoing campaigns.

Do some homework beforehand if necessary, so you may refer your colleagues to stats, articles or videos on these topics. For example, you can share that media plays a big role in perpetuating discrimination, and therefore affects the psychological health and wellbeing of marginalized communities. LGBT+ people have far higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population. In 2020, a survey by Sayoni found that a significant proportion of respondents were suffering bullying, social isolation, suicidal ideation and domestic violence.

Create allyships and support groups of colleagues with similar concerns to aid you in this process so you do not have to feel like a lone crusader on this quest for change.

We encourage organizations to look at these issues holistically, engaging with employees of all levels from the get-go. There is a larger conversation to be had around the entire ecosystem within organizations about having robust policies and procedures in place, as well as effective needs-based intervening strategies and programs. This is not a destination but a journey, and a good consulting partner could take you on this exciting and rewarding journey together.

Thankfully, there is much more awareness about such issues today compared to even five years ago. As these topics become more dominant in the media, igniting the spark to start such conversations at the workplace becomes much easier.

Benjamin Roberts, managing partner for APAC, DMCG Global

Company culture is a key to the company’s performance. People may not share the same beliefs individually, but they need to come together for the company’s cause. If someone is discriminatory within the company, grievances must be shared with HR so the appropriate channels and action can be followed.

Additionally, training and educating is a key factor in engaging and developing employees, so this is a tool that needs to be utilized in changing behavior.

Marie Lee, insights and strategy manager, Culture Group

The South East Asia region has experienced a major shift in attitudes about LGBT+ issues and that is evidenced in the content and conversations that are emerging around them.

We have seen a high volume of readership and creation of LGBT+-themed stories on social storytelling platform Wattpad in markets like the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. This indicates an active participation in shaping and changing the narrative among younger, more progressive Gen Z audiences. For example, the popularity of the BL (Boys’ Love) genre in SEA has gained faster momentum than any other mainstream genre, especially in markets like the Philippines and Thailand.

Representation is not a matter of the moment. If the media is where we play, then providing a platform for greater exposure – where these communities can be seen and recognized – can bring about greater awareness and understanding. Introducing lesser-known narratives to mainstream audiences is one of the ways brands can use their voice to shift the needle and spur more healthy, inclusive conversations on these issues.

Aaron Pearce, managing director for AMEA at Vice Media's Virtue Worldwide

Within Virtue, and Vice Media Group; I’m very proud of our stance towards diversity, inclusion and equality; as a business, it is something we have worked extremely hard on over the last few years and continue to do so. Equality is something we verbalise, train our teams around, and write/create content around on pretty much a daily basis. And it does not stop there as we actively try to share this knowledge and our insights with partners, clients and other stakeholders.

As a global business, we understand people have varying opinions and values, when working with partners we are very upfront around what our values are, and our stance around DE&I. This manifests in the work we make as our own IP, or for brand partners, whether coming via our agency, production houses, or media platforms. Being clear about our position, values and ambition around these topics attracts certain people and clients and manages expectations upfront, which helps in future conversations. My advice would then also be to be clear in external messaging what you stand for as a company as this is something you can refer to when in the face of a tough conversation.

We also do a fair bit of qualitative and quantitative research into audiences, trends and culture that speaks to our values and talk partners through this regularly. One recent example is Spaces In-between, led by Monika Prokop and Elena Kim; this is a research piece that explores the identity of women across Middle East and Asia to, in the end, help brands and partners navigate the cultural nuances and complexities of female empowerment and to avoid misrepresent of women in the region.

Data and research is a fantastic tool to convince and advise people on the importance of LGBTQ+ representation (and the positive effects and importance of this for businesses). Proactively involving clients, prospects and partners in this helps to change mindsets and serves as a validation of the importance. Seeing opinions from target audiences around the topic, stats on the positive effects on brand engagement and really getting a factual understanding of what is happening in the culture around us is an important tool in your arsenal when a client needs convincing.

My advice is to involve partners from the start, take them along the full journey so that when the destination arrives, nothing is a surprise and they have learned along the way.

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