Is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion too western-centric?
To be truly inclusive in multi-national contexts, we need to interrogate how our DEI work translates across cultures.
(Photo by Nejc Soklic on Unsplash)
I recently facilitated a virtual workshop with a team based in India, for an American company, from my office in London. I grew up in India, studied in the United States, and have lived in the UK for the last 20+ years, so I was excited about the opportunity to work with this multi-national client, on a project that spanned these three countries.
Like all my workshops, the session was designed to be interactive and discussion-driven, inviting participants to play an active role in their collective learning. The format, content, and questions were ones that had been tried and tested and had had a positive impact with many other clients based in the United States and Europe – but something about this workshop was slightly off.
On the surface it all seemed to be going well. People were listening, sharing, and asking questions. But suddenly, about halfway through, I had a moment of reckoning.
We were talking about ‘microaggressions’ – a term that has become commonplace in the DEI world. We were discussing what the word means and why it’s important: how it can impact our ability to be ourselves and bring our differences to work… and as I started trying to explain the concept in Hindi… I began to sense a palpable gap in the room. It wasn’t a gap of understanding – people got it… but there was something else missing. Some deeper kind of relating.
One of the participants made an off-hand remark: “Why would I want to highlight my differences at work?” and everyone laughed. But it made me stop and wonder if there is something more there that we might be missing when we are speaking about and teaching these ideas across cultures.
We explored this in the group, and ended up having a very interesting conversation about the differing contexts of the US, UK and India - and how terms like "ethnic minority" (that are used globally) fit in with local ways of speaking and thinking. The session became about untangling what applies, what doesn't and distilling what ideas really add value in furthering equity and inclusion in the local context.
Reflecting on this, I think that to be truly inclusive in multi-national contexts, we need to dig a little deeper to interrogate whether, and how well, our work in DEI translates across cultures.
By this, I don’t just mean looking to change words and phrases, or replacing examples with locally relevant ones – yes, that’s important, and it’s something most good practitioners already do.
But beyond superficial edits and localisation, I think there is something more fundamental in the work that might not always translate across from the West to the East, or from the US/UK/Europe to countries in Asia.
It goes deeper than words: it’s about underlying values, priorities and cultural assumptions.
Here are some of my reflections on how we can approach this:
(Photo by Haseeb Jamil on Unsplash)
1. Inclusion and exclusion is relatable everywhere
To be clear upfront: I am not saying that the work we do in DEI is not relevant in other countries - it absolutely is. And I’m not suggesting we resort to pure cultural relativism.
Regardless of where we live or grow up, we all know what it means to feel included or not. On a personal level, this awareness often starts on the playground – as children, most of us can remember the feeling of being in and out of friendship groups or sports teams, and the pressure (and desire) to fit in and be accepted.
At a social scale, inequity shows up across all cultures, albeit in different ways. Whether it’s class, caste, surnames, skin colour, language or religion, all societies have hierarchies along spurious lines, that divide us and create inequities which need to be addressed.
So the issues are relevant everywhere. But the way we frame those issues can be different.
2. Conceptual frames don’t always transpose perfectly
The language and rhetoric used in DEI is often very US-centric. Key concepts that are used globally in the field (such as microaggressions and intersectionality) were introduced by American scholars and originate in the context of American history and society.
There is no doubt that these are valuable and core ideas that can be very relevant and helpful in understanding power dynamics in all parts of the world.
However, when we use a frame from one context to interpret realities in another, a little something always gets missed. This doesn’t mean we don’t use the frames, but I think we need to be more in tune with reading ‘between the lines’ and being open to seeing the gaps.
3. Uniqueness versus Belonging
National cultures have different fundamental assumptions that interplay with DEI.
For example: If I asked you “Who are you?” what would your response be?
(Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash)
In the US and UK, we tend to focus on individual uniqueness and personal needs much more than in many Asian countries, because Western culture tends to be more individualistic and less collectivist.
This doesn’t mean that individual needs don’t matter in Asia, but generally, in the West, the individual is the default and primary unit of reference when we think and talk about who we are, while in Asia, our group memberships and our relationships take prominence. (For example, in Hindi, there are several different words for ‘Uncle’, depending on exactly how the person is related to you!)
So “inclusion” can have different connotations in individualistic versus collectivist cultures.
Whether or not I can be my true and whole and unique self at work might genuinely matter less to me, than my relationships and sense of belonging.
4. Caste, class or race?
The aspects of identity that carry the biggest power differentials also vary. Race may be the most significant aspect in one context, but in another it may be language, region or caste. Ethnicity isn’t a category on the census in India, for example, but Scheduled castes and tribes is, as is Religion. Of course, there are similarities and patterns in how marginalised groups are treated and how social inequity plays out, but it’s not the same.
Even gender, which is sometimes seen to be universal, carries different meaning in different places. Gender roles play out in very culturally-specific ways at a personal and social level. Using universal language can sometimes water down these differences and stop us from seeing the nuances, which can then block us from genuinely serving the needs of the people we are working with and for.
(Photo by Vitaliy Lyubezhanin on Unsplash)
5. Cultural humility not expertise
This doesn’t mean that we need to be experts in every culture. On the contrary – it’s about having the awareness to realise and acknowledge when we don’t know.
When I first moved from India to the US (and subsequently to the UK), I was struck by how often people made assumptions about me based on what they had heard or seen about Indian culture and Indian women. For e.g. many assumed that I had an arranged marriage, that I don’t drink, that I don’t eat certain types of meat, that I am softly spoken… These assumptions didn’t come from a negative place – people were trying to make a connection with me by showing that they knew about my culture – but honestly, it would have felt much more open and welcoming if I was asked rather than being put in a box based on the cultural “knowledge” others possessed.
What we need to hone, therefore, is not our “content knowledge” of other cultures, but the ability to notice and work across differences in an open and inclusive way.
All of us – including and especially DEI practitioners – need to have the humility to question our assumptions and approaches, and be open to other ways of thinking, knowing, and sense-making.
When we work across countries, we need to push ourselves to not only translate the words we use, but also examine the underlying assumptions that frame our ideas if we truly want to take a global and inclusive approach.
To do this, we must first ask:
· What is our purpose here and who is this work serving?
· What are the core values that are driving this work?
· And who gets to decide?
That is the starting point because it sets the direction for how “we” talk about DEI and why, and where we focus.
Pooja Sachdev is the co-author of 'Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference' (published by Bloomsbury), which was described by the FT as "the most refreshing approach to diversity I have read" (Nov 4, 2015).
She is a coach, counsellor, consultant and founder of Rewire Consulting. Specialising in organisational development, diversity & inclusion, leadership and culture, Rewire helps people and organisations to fulfil their potential.
Get in touch if you’d like to know more about our work.
 https://www.rewireconsulting.com/post/what-s-a-micro-aggression-and-why-i-don-t-like-that-term  https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways  https://www.e-ir.info/2014/04/25/western-human-rights-in-a-diverse-world-cultural-suppression-or-relativism/  https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-collectivistic-cultures-2794962