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The global challenge around Race and Ethnicity for senior leaders

Dr. Doyin Atewologun and Dr. Manjari Prashar

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3-steps for moving from resistance to readiness for action



At the end of many of our Race Fluency and Allyship workshops and Delta Action Circles, we’re often told by business leaders of African, Asian, European, Middle Eastern, and Pacific regions that concerns about race and ethnicity are not as relevant in their jurisdictions as they are in the US and the UK.


This tells us that many of our clients in multinational organisations are struggling to develop a shared understanding of race and ethnicity in their global Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (ED&I) plans.


Such views are understandable; these leaders’ lived experiences and cultural lenses can seem far removed from the work on ethnic inclusion more recognisable in the UK and North America. However, these perceptions can prevent organisations from creating a cohesive strategy for equity and representation across their global offices – and they’re being publicly called-out when they fail to do so. Increasingly, we’ve been invited to facilitate discussions with senior leaders across regions to help formulate, not only a shared global perspective, but also an understanding of local considerations in diversity and inclusion. 


This article is a starter toolkit to help leaders across the globe identify the universal issues and address local resistance to action on race and ethnic inclusion. 



Racism is a global issue with local dimensions 


In recent months, Black Lives Matter, social protests, and regulatory pressures for more equity have persuaded many organisational leaders in the US and UK to talk about race and ethnic discrimination. It’s important to understand that racism, bias, and discrimination against minoritized ethnic groups is a global issue, though it plays out distinctly in different regions.


In the US and UK, the focus might be on Black and Asian colleagues who have been minoritized in contexts where White Male colleagues have an ethnic advantage. Similarly, other (socially constructed) categories of people will be explicitly or implicitly advantaged or disadvantaged in other regions. Racism morphs into different forms of oppression around the globe – for example, colourism in Asia, classism in Africa, and xenophobia in Europe. 


Leaders need to build a shared understanding, a shared purpose and a global strategy for eliminating barriers for talent from minority groups throughout their international offices. In doing this, not only can leaders ensure a bias-free work environment for all employees, but they can also facilitate smooth transfers for staff across offices. Without this, employee transfers can often be hampered by problems caused by bias and cultural differences. For example, a successful Black female leader from the UK who expects her leadership team, colleagues and clients to be reasonably race fluent and aware of biases, finds herself being told that “a woman like you will never be taken seriously as a leader in this office” when she is transferred to an office in Europe. In contrast, her White male counterpart is fully accepted and acknowledged as a leader in any jurisdiction he is sent to. 


Business leaders need to address these risks and recognise that race and ethnic equality are  Environmental Social Governance issues. There is a global call to action and the world is looking at business leaders for change. 


Excuses for inaction 


To respond to the call to action and create a cohesive global strategy on race and ethnic inclusion, leaders can start by learning to spot when it appears their colleagues are avoiding and resisting action on race and ethnic equality. Working with leaders from a range of global offices, we find ourselves coming up against the same excuses for inaction by leaders time and again. The top three reasons for inaction we hear are: 


We need more proof: “We require proof or evidence of race and ethnic discrimination, so we are not concerned with race and ethnicity in ED&I, we are focusing on other diversity strands.” This position is particularly challenging when it comes from regions where it is illegal to gather data on race and the myth of being colour blind becomes an excuse for inaction. 


It’s not a problem in our region: “We have different issues around race and ethnicity and we are dealing with it locally, the approach you take in the UK or US does not apply here.” This idea dismisses the issue of bias by focusing on exceptionalism, denying structural racism with even the concept of race being taboo for some. 


We don’t know what to do about it: “We understand the business and social case, but we’re still not sure what actions we can take.” This acknowledges the problem but avoids personal responsibility and misses organisational opportunities for change. 

Leaders can start by learning to spot when it appears their colleagues are avoiding and resisting action on race and ethnic equality.

From Resistance to Readiness for action 


We offer 3 reflective steps to move from resistance to readiness for action: 


  • Find demographic data for your region and check to see if your office is demographically representative at all levels of hierarchy. If data is not available, simply look around your (virtual or physical) office and note who’s in which role, reflect on the common stereotypes of certain groups and judge for yourself if some groups are under-represented, under-supported, and undervalued. 
  • Reflect on your own biases against these groups and also on your individual sense of equity. In what ways can your workplace be more just, fair, equitable, and representative? 
  • Reflect on your values and sense of justice, find out what’s going on in your organisation, think about how you can initiate or join conversations on race and ethnic equity and be more proactive to create an organisational environment that values all talent equally, regardless of race and ethnicity. 


Once you have reflected and feel ready for action, please read our article: Advancing racial equity – 15 practical actions for leaders 


As consultants at Delta with expertise in inclusive culture change, we advocate an Inclusion Ecosystem© approach to address workplace racial bias and improve equity and inclusion, for wider organisational benefit. Our evidence-informed approach considers different positions, people, and practices for sustainable change that can disrupt systemic racism in your organisation. Our impact and track record with clients is based on the philosophy that everyone has a specific role to play to make sustainable and meaningful change to build inclusion across ethnic, gender, and other social categories. 

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