We often see words like diversity or inclusion thrown around loosely by companies these days. Unfortunately, these terms have often become buzzwords, with little genuine intent or impact.
But what can diversity, equity, and inclusion truly mean for a company’s culture? And why should they matter in the workplace? We spoke with Christine Amour-Levar, DEI Advocate and founder of two NGOs that empower vulnerable women, HER Planet Earth and Women on a Mission, to explore this topic in more detail.
Empowering women from Paris to Singapore
Christine has a very diverse background, her mother is from the Philippines, whilst her father is French and Swiss. She grew up between Manila and Paris and worked in Japan, the United States, Latin America and France before moving to Singapore with Nike, to head their Marketing efforts. A few years later, she left Nike to set up her two non-profit organisations, Women on a Mission and HER Planet Earth. These organisations champion and support vulnerable women around the world.
“Women on a Mission focuses on supporting women who have been subjected to violence and abuse and by that, I mean women survivors of war, women survivors of domestic abuse, human trafficking, and other forms of violence and abuse,” she said.
Christine visiting Women for Women International’s Operations in Rwanda, 2017
Source: Women on a Mission
“HER Planet Earth supports underprivileged women who are affected by climate change,” explained Christine. This organisation raises funds to help women build livelihoods that are compatible and in harmony with nature, so as to ensure they are more climate change resilient.
The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary Kenya, 2019
Source: Conservation International - a partner of HER Planet Earth
Both of Christine’s NGOs take all-female teams on challenging expeditions to remote locations around the world. The purpose of these expeditions is to raise awareness and funds for the organisations’ charity partners. But where does Christine’s passion for empowering women stem from?
She shared that when she was growing up, she saw a lot of inequality in the Philippines. However, she also “saw that women in the Philippines were very strong and unafraid to push boundaries [...] Interestingly, in the Asia Pacific Region, the Philippines and New Zealand are actually one of the most gender-equal societies in terms of women’s representation in leadership roles. So, I had a lot of examples of women leaders while I was growing up. The Philippines has also had two women presidents, and Cory Aquino, our first female president, was one of my heroes.”
Christine believes it is her duty to help women who are less fortunate than her. “These past few years especially, I’ve learnt about the plight of women around the world, about all the injustice and issues women face surrounding violence and discrimination.” Christine also realised that climate change was affecting poor people disproportionately, and women in particular, since 70% of the world's poor are women.
As a result, she became a passionate advocate for people who are in vulnerable positions, such as individuals with disabilities or minority groups who don’t have the opportunities that she had growing up. “I do believe, with a strong conviction, that it is the right thing to do. Those of us who have a voice, need to speak up for those who do not. We must all build and work towards a more equitable and just world,” she said.
The WOAM Team in the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia, 2017
Source: Women on a Mission
Defining diversity, equity & inclusion
Christine pointed out that diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, are three mutually inclusive principles. She argued that a company should not focus solely on just one or two of these pillars, but instead on all three. Moreover, if a company truly wants to unlock the potential of a diverse workforce, it needs to focus on making sure that equity is achieved as a first step. Because without equity, you cannot have diversity and inclusion.
But what do these three terms really mean?
Christine explained that diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting or group. It’s having people of different backgrounds and origins within the same organisation.
In the workplace, this generally refers to psychological, physical, cultural, social, religious and ethnic differences that occur among any and all individuals. A diverse group, community, or organisation is one in which a wide variety of social, cultural, religious, sexual orientations and racial characteristics exist.
When it comes to focusing on equity, “it’s all about removing the barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups.”
Christine went on to say that research showns that unconscious bias can influence how we recruit. Employers often rate male applicants as significantly more competent and hireable than the identical female applicant. As a result, they offer higher starting salaries and more career mentoring to male applicants.
The third pillar in DEI is inclusion. “Inclusion is an interesting one,” says Christine. “Because it's really about belonging to a group. First of all, even if you have diversity, it doesn't mean that it translates into inclusion. If you focus on diversity only, that's not enough, because an employee or a person's sense of belonging (inclusion) is also tied to his or her experience of fairness (equity), which is equally important.”
So why should companies focus on DEI?
Christine explained that without strong standards of DEI in a company, employers miss out on the full potential of their employees. With strong DEI policies and standards in place, people can come to work with their full personality. That's why Christine reiterated “It’s not just because it's the right thing to do, but it also greatly improves trust, engagement, and makes people feel accepted. DEI a powerful and important concept that we all need to champion and get behind.”
Championing change for good
Christine has been passionate about empowering women for many years. However, it was not until the last few years that she saw a shift in how companies are addressing these issues in the workplace. “It started about a decade ago with companies publishing annual diversity reports,” she said. “This was initiated by some of the big tech firms like Google, Microsoft and Apple. These companies also started publishing a gender pay gap report.”
“What this did was highlight the inequalities very blatantly. And it also gave us a roadmap in terms of where we wanted to go and what KPIs we needed to set, such as X percentage of women in leadership positions at every level, by a certain date.”
Whilst Christine said these reports were important, she also explained that it was not until the more recent #MeToo Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement, that DEI garnered global attention and raised much-needed awareness around injustice and inequality. “It woke up many people and made them advocate for change and a better and more equitable way of doing things,” she said. “I believe these two movements especially, finally brought these important issues to the forefront in a big way.”
Source: Pexels (fauxels)
However, apart from the duty of making the world a more equal and fairer place, Christine shared that businesses are starting to recognise the financial benefits of DEI. “Big consulting firms are coming up with more and more data, making the business case for a diverse workforce, diverse management and diverse boards, impossible to ignore.” She continued to say that diversity breeds more creativity and innovation. In fact, companies that are more diverse are between 15% to 30% more profitable than companies that are not.
Change for the better is happening faster every year. This is partly due to more and more millennials entering the workforce. “Millennials care deeply about DEI and in fact, I work with a lot of millennials,” she said. “My second NGO, HER Planet Earth, is mostly made up of millennial partners. They are deeply passionate about protecting the environment and about engaging with companies that have the same values as them. DEI is something millennials champion naturally. And remember that by 2030, 75% of the workforce will be made up of millennials, so this bodes really well for DEI.”
Christine talked about the fact that times are changing and that employees and students are demanding more from the companies and institutions they work for. “Twenty years ago, people were not asking their companies about diversity and inclusion. It’s changing and people are demanding more from their employers, from their schools and from their governments. This growing trend will make people and organisations more accountable and it's going to make DEI much more important.”
How companies can genuinely implement DEI
There is no quick fix to implementing DEI. At least if it is done correctly and with sincerity. It is a gradual process of changing a company’s culture for the better. However, it’s not that difficult either. “There are some really practical steps that can be taken by organisations to promote DEI,” explained Christine.
She shared that the very first thing that needs to happen is to make sure that everyone has equal opportunities and chances for advancement. Without equity, efforts to promote diversity and inclusion are commendable, but not sustainable in the long term. To enact equity is to provide all people with fair opportunities to reach their full potential.
So, what does implementing equity mean? Christine explained that “equity means having rules and policies in place that allow people to apply for jobs in a way that doesn't hinder their chances and where unconscious bias does not become an obstacle.”
She went on to say that people all over the world enter the workforce with disadvantages and unequal opportunities. So, what is considered “fair opportunity” for some may not be the same for everyone else. Furthermore, she explained that companies need to include this awareness in their communication, showing a deep understanding of the reality and current trends, while setting clear goals toward greater equity. Only then can we build the foundation of the organisation’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
Next, companies need to embrace a diverse workforce. “They should celebrate diversity,” explained Christine. “So this means recognising and supporting women’s groups, or LGBTQ groups, and other minority groups within the company - and genuinely celebrating those differences.”
When it comes to inclusion, Christine spoke about how we can communicate better with each other in the workplace. “The most important aspect is to use communication that is inclusive. This is something that all of us can learn to do better,” she said. “So that's where you can activate workshops and training, to encourage the use of more inclusive language. This will help ensure that everyone feels they are part of the conversation.”
Christine explained that one of the best ways to promote inclusion is to use language that is personalised to the audience. Just like a keynote speaker, leaders need to put their audience first and adapt the message to the needs and demographic makeup of their listeners. This takes time and a conscious effort to think about what language, anecdotes, references, or examples, the audience will relate to.
If the audience is made up of investors, they’ll want to hear about the initiatives in terms of ROI; if they’re sustainably minded consumers, the speaker needs to address the environmental impact of the initiatives. This requires a high level of self-awareness and an openness to receiving feedback. The good news is that communication is a behaviour and can be learnt and mastered just like a science.
Joshua Gan in conversation with Christine Amour-Levar. Source: EHL Webinar
Leadership and DEI
To initiate this change within a company will require good leadership. Leadership that does not just have a top-down approach, but one that is empathetic and understanding. Because without leadership, the culture in the workplace will not change. “You can have a Chief Diversity Officer but the buy-in has to come from the bottom up as well, not just from management,” added Christine.
Her recommendation, and something she has seen happening more and more in the corporate world, are for small communities to be created within a company. She believes that setting up communities within a company is a great way to encourage engagement and foster inclusion. “It’s an effective way of mixing individuals with similar interests, who may have very different positions or levels of seniority, within the same company,” she shared.
Once communities are formed, it is easier for companies to work together with these groups to propose policies that will make DEI the norm. Being part of a community with shared interests within a bigger organisation, allows people to feel they belong and increases levels of satisfaction and fulfilment at work.
Christine also explained that leadership has an important role to play in promoting DEI. Leaders have to listen to their employees with the intent to understand. They need to show they care deeply about what the employee is going through. Empathy and compassion play a crucial part.
Leaders also need to understand how to create environments where everybody feels valued and where they see a pathway for advancement. Companies don’t just need to be mindful of who they are placing in positions of power, but how those leaders are fostering supportive workplaces.
Christine believes executives should consider many strategies to empower their employees. This includes rotating the people who lead projects and meetings, investing in structured mentorship programmes, and having clearly defined procedures to address scenarios where bias leads to exclusionary or disempowering behaviour.
DEI in a virtual workplace
The pandemic has made work-from-home the norm, and it is a trend that’s likely to continue. But how can companies ensure DEI happens in a virtual workplace? “Employers now see inside the home of their employees,” she explained, “In fact, Covid-19 has blurred the lines between work and home life. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of the pandemic, is a global increase in domestic violence, including intimate partner violence. Despite this new reality, the majority of employers still don’t have a plan for dealing with domestic violence and abuse.”
Christine believes avoidance of the issue is no longer an excuse for employers in this new world of working. Employers who are focused on their employees’ welfare should have a policy that addresses the issue of domestic violence. “We have to work on the workplace culture around this issue,” she said. “So, employees will not be afraid or embarrassed to tell HR or their managers about domestic violence concerns at home.”
When we asked Christine what she hopes to see more of on this topic, her answer was clear. Women are playing their part, but she wishes more men did too. “One of my big asks is that more men, especially men in leadership positions, champion this cause,” she said. “You know, we have a lot of women advocating for gender equality and working toward progress in DEI, but there is no doubt that we need more men to step up and voice their support.”
Christine would like to see more men push the female empowerment and DEI agenda forward to help break down the barriers that prevent women and other minority groups from feeling truly empowered and safe. “Because issues of gender violence such as sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment and the sexual abuse of children, inequality and discrimination are often seen as women’s issues when in reality, they are also men’s issues,” said Christine. She believes that if men remain silent about these topics in our society, it allows injustice to go unchecked and perpetuated in our families, workplaces, university campuses and everywhere else.
“That's my big ask to any man out there. Even if you are still a student, you can do something. You can speak out and say, “This is not right and it needs to change.” In truth, we need more equality in our society, in our culture, and we can all start by becoming advocates today, thank you.”
Christine is a French-Swiss-Filipina Social Entrepreneur, Author and Advocate. A passionate champion of female empowerment and environmental conservation, she co-founded Women on a Mission and founded HER Planet Earth, two award-winning NGOs, that support vulnerable women. Christine is also Head of Impact Partnerships at Force for Good, a Social Tech Startup that is disrupting philanthropy and connecting purpose-driven changemakers globally. Find out more here.