Diversity & Inclusion

The Global Side of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

By Sylvia Gonner • March 6, 2024

Republished from Associations Evolve 2023 and Beyond

“Isn’t Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) mostly an American issue?” is a question often asked. Yet the need and desire to enhance DEI is not a US issue, it’s a global one. Every country in the world has its history of privilege, bias, and discrimination that impact the degree of power versus marginalization experienced by different groups of people. Yet, when organizations implement initiatives to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion, they need to consider that all situations and solutions aren’t universal and that there’s no “one size fits all” worldwide approach to DEI.

Depending on where we live and work there are differences in laws, terminology, and cultural norms about race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, ability, and other traits that trigger stereotypes and discrimination. Therefore, managing DEI initiatives on a global scale has its share of complexities. To ensure their efforts will have global relevance and acceptability, associations that undertake DEI initiatives should consider what fundamental differences matter around the world, what goes into choosing a suitable approach, and what simple measures can have global impact.

What differences matter around the world

When undertaking DEI efforts, it’s important to consider regional nuances in personal demographics, relevant laws, and cultural values.

Attempting to collect or match demographic data on race, ethnicity, religion, and language may prove to be very complex on an international scale. Firstly because of the multitude of cultures, languages, and religions worldwide, even within a single country. Consider that there are 100 ethnic groups in Chad and 37 tribal groups that speak one of 39 languages in Togo two of the most diverse nations in the world according to the Cultural Diversity Index.  Secondly, tracking certain information isn’t allowed in some countries like France where laws prohibit the collection of data on race or ethnic origin.

Any efforts to identify, engage, and promote inclusion of individuals based on their sexual orientation should consider that in more than 70 countries there are laws making homosexuality illegal. If not adjusted accordingly, such initiatives could put individuals in these countries at risk in their workplace and communities particularly if modeled after what’s effective in countries where there are strong protections in place for LGBTQ individuals.

Cultural values too have strong impact on DEI if we consider the vast perception and bias differences around the world about age. Policies to combat ageism need to take into account variants between cultures where youth is revered (as in the US) compared to places where respect for the elderly is paramount (as in most Asian cultures).

Developing a DEI strategy for one culture and exporting it to other places isn’t likely to work. At best, imposing cookie-cutter solutions will be inefficient, at worse such an approach runs the risk of perpetuating the exact type of cultural imperialism that DEI seeks to address in the first place.

What goes into choosing a suitable approach

It’s important for organizations to undertake their DEI efforts with a global approach from the start by considering their governance structure and their leadership’s commitment and risk appetite.

The adage of “think global and act local” is very appropriate with DEI. For organizations that have a worldwide reach but no local structures, it will be essential to conduct research and seek the support of outside specialists. For those that have a global footprint, the key is to leave the decisions for specific national objectives and tactics to local representatives who can help adapt global strategies to their environments. These voices can address even how to message the rationale for diversity because arguments like “it’s good for business” often used in the United States may not work in Europe where the benefits of DEI are typically more about “doing the right thing.”

The broader the scope, the more important it is to secure the commitment and engagement of senior leaders for any DEI initiative. Board directors and senior executives must be open to having difficult conversations, becoming champions in their own rights, and, if needed, have the courage to acknowledge wrongdoings as was the case, for example, for the American Psychiatric Association’s public apology for its historical support of racism in psychiatry.

As daunting as embarking on a DEI strategy might feel, it’s worse to make token efforts for appearances-sake or do nothing at all.

What simple measures can have a global impact

The good news is that there are simple measures that associations can take to create global impact. These include internal ones that will fuel future DEI efforts, and external ones that will create visible change.

As their voices can’t be heard if they don’t have a seat at the table, adding international representation among staff and volunteers is an important step to becoming a more globally inclusive organization. This may require getting rid of the perfect English bias which holds some organizations back from leveraging global talent.

Websites and conferences are associations’ most public-facing assets. A review and enhancement of the imagery to favor more diversity, and the accessibility features to assist those impaired will go a long way to promote inclusion. So will embracing culturally sensitive language and encouraging others, such as conference speakers, to do the same by creating inclusive language guidelines to replace problematic and outdated terms with alternative ones that encourage a respectful and welcoming environment.

DEI efforts that consider differences around the world and adopt a suitable approach are more likely to be globally accepted, effective, and impactful. While the global side of DEI is complex, the key is to start!

About The Author

Sylvia Gonner, CAE, is a consultant, trainer, and speaker specialized in everything international and inter-cultural. She’s the president and owner of CultureWiz (theCultureWiz.com) and chair of ASAE’s International Associations Advisory Council. Reach her at [email protected].