Why Is Global Diversity So Difficult?

January 20, 2012 10:19 pm

By Barbara Frankel


DiversityInc recently completed an in-depth examination of data, demographics and best practices in 17 countries in Europe, Asia and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries. Our data found a dramatic difference by region, as well as strong cultural attitudes that shape how various countries view the notion of difference. Our full findings are only available to the corporate sponsors of the global research but an abbreviated version is available here. Our 2012 global research, which involves extensive interviews and details on best practices in these and other countries, is just getting under way.


In DiversityInc’s second round of global research, we took an in-depth look at 17 countries in Europe and Asia and the BRIC nations to understand what challenges companies face in creating inclusive workplaces and increasing recognition of the business value of diversity. Our goal was to ascertain a greater comprehension of the cultural concerns in each country/region as well as to learn from the best practices being implemented locally.

Our findings illustrate the complexity of this subject and the different views on what constitutes inclusion in varying regions and countries. In the United States, with a historical emphasis on civil rights, “progressive” corporations have been seen as those that help society and government advance equality for disadvantaged groups. In recent years, that emphasis on the corporate level has included the “business case for diversity,” the documented belief that elevating people from traditionally underrepresented groups benefits the workplace and leads to marketplace gains.

In most countries, the notion of “civil rights” is not part of the history and culture as it is in the United States. “Inclusion” is seen primarily as a means to bring in more women to better reach women in the marketplace, whether the company is B-to-B or B-to-C. In some countries, notably in Europe, other underrepresented factions, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and people with disabilities, are being included in recruitment and talent-development efforts. In a few countries, inclusion covers racial/ethnic minorities, people of minority religious groups, immigrants, and people of lower-income/caste groups. However, inclusion of these groups is infrequent and rarely formalized.

We are exploring the differences between the regions and countries—both qualitatively and quantitatively—as well as the greatest challenges to diversity and inclusion that they face and the best practices they are using.


This survey was created as a collaboration with our 17 corporate sponsors, listed here alphabetically: Accenture, Aetna, American Express, Cisco, Colgate-Palmolive, Dell, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, IBM, KPMG, Kraft Foods, Merck & Co., Microsoft, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sodexo, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide and Wyndham Worldwide. Global representatives of those companies spent more than three months working with our staff to devise a questionnaire that was culturally competent across geographical barriers. They suggested early on that we make the survey at least 50 percent qualitative, as the emphasis on measuring diversity results is largely a U.S. concept. They also vetted our questionnaire with their local offices to ensure cultural competence.

We focused the survey on 17 countries in Asia and Europe and the BRIC nations, chosen by the sponsoring companies (in alphabetical order): Belgium, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Vietnam. We received 126 completed submissions from more than 25 companies. The great majority of responses came from multinational corporations’ local offices. (Most of these multinationals, but not all, were headquartered in the United States, but the responses were filled out by local people in these countries.)

Most comments from companies here are anonymous to guarantee confidentiality. In some cases where the information is a best practice only, company names are being used.

A note about terminology: “Diversity” is a primarily U.S.-based word that many in Europe, Asia and the BRIC countries don’t use. It is DiversityInc’s belief that the term “diversity” suffices for all efforts to create equitable opportunities in the workplace, for suppliers, and to reach new marketplaces. But in this survey, at the urging of our corporate partners, we used the term “diversity and inclusion.”

Key Findings by Region


Several of the European countries’ cultures dissuade any perception of valuing difference, preferring a homogenous approach to “multiculturalism” and restricting, often by law, what demographic data can be collected. This includes France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain.

As an example, here’s a submission from a company’s German office in response to our question on their greatest challenges: “It is very difficult to divide humans in more or less distinguishable groups … the visible differences among the people deceive us.” Another company wrote: “In Italy, there are no distinct demographic groups and we do not identify them.” Yet another company in Italy noted: “There is resistance to multicultural change … the prevailing culture and present government are quite conservative.”

The exception to this in most European countries—Belgium, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, especially—is gender, which is being examined and promoted. Efforts and best practices to advance women, including leadership training, mentoring and the start of employee-resource groups for women, are ahead of other countries. For example, 50 percent of the companies in the European countries have formal mentoring versus only 38 percent of the Asian countries.

The chart below shows best practices in place in Europe, Asia and the BRIC countries to advance women in leadership. Note that for the most part, European countries exceed the other two regions studied.

Most of the companies surveyed in the European countries are focused on work/life benefits as the most tangible solution to retaining and promoting more women. Consequently, many of their benefits are more developed than in Asian countries.  The chart below shows the most prevalent work/life benefits cited by the countries in these regions, compared against the U.S.-based DiversityInc Top 50.


There are two dominant challenges in the Asian countries: making senior management aware of the business values of diversity and gender equity.

The issue of building growing awareness of the value of diversity and inclusion was expressed by companies in all the Asian countries, but this seemed especially critical in Japan, India and China. Here is a comment from a company in India about senior management: “As a business imperative, D&I has not been fully understood and embraced by leaders and team members.”

The chart below shows the most prevalent responses, by region, to our question “How is diversity/inclusion used in your business strategy?” Note that in Asia, the most frequent responses were: part of objectives in a corporate scorecard; built into the company branding strategy; and included in corporate social-responsibility initiative. But Asian percentages of companies that include diversity/inclusion in the business strategy, even in some of the leading areas, were significantly lower than in Europe and the BRIC countries.

Gender equity remains the most pressing issue in all of the Asian countries, with the difference here being fewer work/life benefits. A company in India wrote about gender equity: “Women are not encouraged to work late hours and are discouraged from traveling at odd hours—and career decisions for women are made by their husbands and in-laws and parents. There is a lack of good support infrastructure for working women like quality daycare or eldercare.”

In Japan, the issues were similar, with the autocratic, top-down style of management cited by some companies as hindering female talent development: “We have a male-driven culture with some conventional thinking among middle management … as a result of those factors, there’s a lack of ambition among women to pursue a way to the top.”

The greatest challenges in the Asian countries to achieving gender equity seem to revolve around the lack of work/life benefits, especially when compared with European countries. Many Asian countries have family structures that, in the past, provided automatic childcare options, lessening the need for corporate or governmental assistance. But with more younger women as well as older women working, those options are diminishing.

BRIC Countries

We separated the BRIC countries (and added Brazil and Russia to our study of Asian and European countries) because of their fast-growing economies and rapid rise in gross domestic product. However, our study did not find substantial differences between the BRIC countries and the Asian/European countries in terms of their diversity/inclusion efforts.

It’s important to note, however, that the tenure of diversity/inclusion programs in the BRIC countries is noticeably shorter than in Europe and the United States. Anecdotal evidence tells us the BRIC countries are moving more rapidly to advance these efforts than many of the other countries are. We expect to see them show significant progress in the areas they’ve identified over the next two years.

The chart below shows the tenure of diversity/inclusion programs in these countries and includes comparisons to the DiversityInc Top 50 and all of the 535 participants in the 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 survey.

LGBT Issues

For the most part, the European countries are years ahead of the Asian countries on LGBT issues. Most have legalized same-sex unions and a few are legalizing same-sex marriage. The Asian countries generally ignore LGBT issues culturally (but the companies surveyed tried to have cultural-competence training on orientation to prevent discrimination) except for Malaysia, in which “homosexuality” is against the law and cannot be mentioned.

People With Disabilities

There is a groundswell in several countries (China, India, France, Italy, Belgium, Brazil and Germany) to hire people with disabilities, and some countries are mandating hiring percentages and requiring companies to pay a fee if the percentages are not met. As a result, we see a huge effort to connect with universities and programs to hire people with disabilities globally.

Supplier Diversity

The concept of supplier diversity is not widespread globally, even by gender. There are European countries, especially the United Kingdom, where gender-based supplier diversity is catching on. In a few cases in Europe, LGBT supplier diversity has started, and in the United Kingdom, we see supplier-diversity efforts aimed at racial minorities. Efforts by WEConnect International will change the trajectory on women’s supplier diversity globally over the next few years, but it is a huge educational challenge at this point.

What’s Next?

Our next step, starting in early 2012, will be to reach out to companies headquartered in these countries and conduct in-depth interviews of how they structure their best practices and how they are impacting their workforces and business challenges. We will also talk with people at their global corporate headquarters to ascertain their perceptions of how the local country business units are adhering to corporate diversity policies and goals.

We expect to see increased prevalence of gender, age and disability efforts in the next two years globally, as well as more concentrated efforts to educate workers/managers on the importance of diversity and inclusion to business goals and cultural competence.