Diversity, equity and inclusion: Asia urged to look beyond gender

While gender was one of the first items addressed and remains a priority, experts say Asia has lingered on this issue for too long, neglecting other vital areas.

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Despite being one of the most diverse regions in the world, only 16 per cent of companies in Asean have invested in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Asia’s perspective on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) must look beyond gender by considering the different social priorities in the region, experts said.

Speakers at Fuller Academy’s Promoting DEI in Asean Workplaces unanimously called for a change in the way businesses view DEI and how they implement related policies in the Asean context.

Kishore Ravuri, the head of strategy at Dutch Lady Milk Industries Berhad, said Asia’s perspective on DEI was very narrow, tending to only focus on the diversity aspect.

Citing the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023, Ravuri highlighted that “nearly 79 per cent of the 803 companies surveyed from 45 global economies are implementing DEI programmes with a focus on women.”

While it would take 131 years more for the world to reach full gender parity and 189 for years for Asia specifically, Ravuri said the focus on gender was not wrong. However, businesses needed to address other key areas vital to the region.

According to him, using DEI as an overarching framework to promote organisational justice, expanding its scope to include multiple stakeholders and applying DEI in the broader context of social sustainability to build better ecosystems, are crucial aspects for Asian businesses to consider.   

The journey of DEI in Asia is still at its infancy, posing a direct challenge for companies to successfully incorporate it into business practices.

While the development of DEI is a challenge, it’s also a huge opportunity for companies.

Fellow panellist, Dr Sandhya Karpe, who heads Imagine Education Design, said that the ability to craft a unique and contextual path forward by considering local contexts and priorities in Asia would yield greater benefits for businesses.

“Asia is one of the most diverse regions in the world, yet the investment in diversity is so low from an organisational perspective.”

“Our research indicates that only 16 per cent of companies in Asean have any kind of serious investment in DEI. Whether it is roles that are focused on DEI, dollar investments on projects, etc.”

She stressed the need to tailor country specific DEI implementation strategies and not simply mimic what was happening in the West, due to dissimilar cultural values.

While gender continues to be a priority and was one of the first things that was tackled, the event’s speakers said Asia seems to have stuck on this topic for a very long time, neglecting other issues that also needed to be addressed.

“There are many other priorities that are very important, whether it’s LGBTQ inclusion, disability inclusion, ethnic inclusion and all these other things. So, there’s a lot that we have to work with in Asia and I think we really need to push forward,” Karpe added.

In recent years, corporate diversity programs were seen to be facing a backlash in the US, with high-profile DEI executives of major corporations like Netflix and Disney leaving their jobs and thousands of diversity-focused workers laid off since 2022.

Despite the increasing anti-DEI sentiment in corporate America where companies seem to be pulling back on the framework, Asia has the opportunity to lead by example to continue striving for diversity and inclusion.

Cities like Hong Kong are spearheading DEI, where Hong Kong Stock Exchange has implemented quotas to eliminate single-gender boards in order for companies to be listed in the stock exchange since 2022.

Likewise, Japan is also facing growing pressure from institutional investors and the government to increase female representation on boards.

Last week, the CEO Action Network launched Malaysia’s first DEI Implementation Guide to help companies understand and apply DEI principles in the context of local culture and broaden the scope of application beyond employees.

The guide also covers DEI principles for suppliers, partners, communities and the most critical stakeholders within the business ecosystem.


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