This article is part of a content series on diversity, equity and inclusion for Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch, created in partnership with Essence.
Asia is a multicultural and diverse region, but has typically been slower to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. There are positive signs for DEI across many countries in APAC, but the pandemic has pushed this important issue down corporate priority lists.
While slow but steady progress is being made on diversity in the workplace across APAC, socio-economic diversity is one area of DEI that business leaders still don’t focus on enough, says Essence’s APAC CEO, T. ‘Gangs’ Gangadhar.
“Socio-economic discrimination doesn’t get spoken about that much, compared to other aspects of DEI, such as gender, ethnicity and nationality,” Gangadhar notes during a conversation with Campaign Asia-Pacific. “But everything we do is influenced by our socio-economic background, and people from different socio-economic backgrounds face both conscious and unconscious biases. As a result, it’s common to find people constantly covering up any indication of their background, just to fit in at the workplace.”
Diversity is vital for business. We live in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, yet society often feels more divided and polarised than ever before. Maintaining diversity in the business environment is one way to nurture empathy, foster creativity and broaden our horizons.
“At Essence, we believe in fostering creativity through diversity and inclusion,” says Gangadhar. “At a fundamental level, a company should be made up of people who represent the communities it serves. That’s the only way for us to provide meaningful and relevant solutions for diverse clients’ businesses.”
Numerous studies also show it pays to prioritise DEI. During the Great Recession, the S&P 500 index declined by more than 35%, but stocks of the most inclusive companies increased by 14%. Research has also shown that companies in the top quartile for executive teams’ gender diversity are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.
From improving productivity in the workplace to sharing the benefits of economic growth more evenly throughout communities, the benefits of promoting socio-economic diversity are plenty and proven. But people from different socio-economic backgrounds face a raft of both conscious and unconscious biases that can leave them at a significant disadvantage.
“The problem feels most pronounced when the culture at home is different from that at the workplace,” explains Gangadhar. “That can be potential factors such as the language spoken at home, what school they went to, family members’ occupations or even the location of the home. And the wider that gap is, the more challenging it becomes for people to fit in at work.”
T. ‘Gangs’ Gangadhar talks to Campaign Asia-Pacific about the challenges of socio-economic diversity in the APAC region
Be aware of cultural norms and regional nuances, and act with sensitivity
APAC’s vastness means that the intricacies of socio-economic diversity are nuanced across the region. Gangadhar spotlights the distinct rural-urban divide that exists across much of Asia, creating more visible gaps in large countries such as India and China, compared with city-states such as Singapore.
“Your place of origin should not dictate the opportunities you get. It should not limit those who are preparing to pursue opportunities in the workplace,” he says.
In China, the hukou system can sometimes offer challenges such as worker mobility to employers, and corporate recruiters can therefore have difficulties attracting and retaining skilled workers.
Methods used to tackle this include Chinese companies providing assistance to employees in obtaining urban hukou, and the offer of social welfare to attract candidates. As for the growing number of migrant workers who want to retain their rural hukou, companies can offer indirect benefits such as insurance, housing allowance, healthcare and transport subsidies.
The role of language in socio-economic inclusion across the region is fundamental, exacerbating that gulf between at-home and workplace culture referenced by Gangadhar.
“For example, in India, the main language at work is English, while a very small population actually speaks that language at home,” says Gangadhar. “So for people who come from that background, there’s a constant consciousness that they have to keep switching between the home environment and the work environment, and that can be very stressful.”
This is an issue that extends to more developed countries in the region too. In November, Campaign Asia-Pacific published findings from the Framework for Agency Inclusion and Representation (FAIR) and Think HQ that depicted poor diversity practices among Australian agencies. The survey of 131 representatives across the country’s communications industry found most respondents did not equate cultural diversity with business success. Surprisingly, only 26% of respondents recommended targeting CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) audiences, despite 30% of Australians being born overseas.
“According to a national census, more than one-fifth of Australians spoke a language that is not English at home,” says Gangadhar. “After English, the next most common languages spoken at home were Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese and Vietnamese. So it’s a big mistake to think that this issue of linguistic differences exists only in developing countries.”
The FAIR and Think HQ survey provides one example of the dangers of having one dominant group in an industry – in this case, how Australian agencies are reinforcing an Anglo-Celtic image as the default, despite the country steadily becoming more diverse.
Research done by Bridge Group in 2020 shows that “those from lower socio-economic backgrounds frequently expressed that they spend time and effort on assimilating to dominant higher socio-economic cultures”. This is likely to have “serious implications for individual and organisational productivity, and well-being”.
How can companies tackle bias in the hiring process?
Weighing socio-economic backgrounds and language within hiring practices is essential, but avoiding tokenism is equally crucial. For example, many second or third-generation respondents to the same survey in Australia stated they did not necessarily want to be identified based on ancestry or ethnicity.
To create awareness from the top down, companies need to give all of their employees unconscious bias training, says Gangadhar. “You have to encourage managers to lead by example. They need to be made aware of actions and their consequences.” He adds that such training can start conversations that help create a safe environment at work “where everybody feels secure to bring their whole selves”.
Blinding out information on CVs is one technique Essence uses to avoid unconscious bias in the hiring process. “Like any issue, we have to be aware of the problem to tackle it,” Gangadhar says. “For example, it’s common to perceive people from certain socio-economic backgrounds as more suited to certain kinds of roles. And stopping that stereotyping needs to begin at the hiring process.”
Gangadhar reveals that, in a previous role, he once witnessed a prospective candidate being profiled as unsuitable for a communications position based solely on the neighbourhood they lived in. “That was a telling sign,” he says.
By blinding certain information on applicants’ CVs, such as residential address or college, Gangadhar says companies can take a more egalitarian approach to hiring, and create a diverse footprint.
“Ultimately, you want to hire the right person for the right job. When we blind information, the hiring process mandates that the pipeline is diverse, but the hiring manager or interviewer doesn’t get to see everything. So you’re hiring the best person without distractions like which neighbourhood they come from or which college they went to.”
Gangadhar also suggests companies must become “a lot more democratic” in the way they approach campus recruitments. “Make sure you’re hiring not just from ‘prestigious’ business colleges, and go to a more diverse set of schools.”
Covid-19 continues to widen the gap
The pandemic, now raging for a full two years, has brought many pre-existing gaps in socio-economic diversity to the forefront and, in many cases, is accelerating the perceived divide.
Everyone coming together at a physical workplace will always have parity as far as the workplace is concerned. But working from home has changed that. “One could even argue that working from home is an elitist concept, because only those with some threshold privileges can work remotely with minimal discomfort,” Gangadhar says.
Dr. Devon Lee, a leading scholar-activist in DEI, describes privilege as “certain benefits that someone is born with in society”.
For those with modest homes and fewer privileges, Covid-19 has been incredibly disruptive. This has become even more apparent with video conferencing becoming the norm, which has made some people feel conscious about displaying their home surroundings to coworkers.
“At Essence, we’re constantly trying to create awareness around all kinds of diversity and inclusion, including socio-economic inclusion,” says Gangadhar. “And we recognise that there are people who are coming from less privileged backgrounds and who might not be comfortable switching on their camera for a variety of reasons. So we have let supervisors know that it’s fine for people not to have a camera on, and they don’t owe an explanation as to why it’s off.”
The advertising industry still perpetuates negative stereotypes
We also spoke with Gangadhar about how the advertising industry perpetuates socio-economic status discrimination in APAC, and how agencies can be mindful of this issue.
“We do see examples of how advertising perpetuates socio-economic bias,” he says. “We see stereotypes based on socio-economic background that lead to, say, a depiction of exaggerated accents – that’s not funny, and we need to be more mindful of that.”
Gangadhar adds that brands must be careful when demonstrating how their product will change an individual. “I think commonly there is a negative and unflattering portrayal of socio-economic class in the ‘before and after’ kind of ads, where there’s an association between certain socio-economic backgrounds and low self-esteem, and then the brand comes in and transforms them into something else altogether,” he says.
“I feel those kinds of depictions are avoidable, and people must find more positive ways of addressing these issues. I feel brands and their agencies should take up socio-cultural causes; leverage the power of marketing and advertising to make the world a better place, even if it means the pace is slow and gradual.”
Earlier this year, we highlighted a campaign for the HP Omen brand of gaming hardware by Wieden+Kennedy, which takes on status culture in Korea. Gangadhar calls the campaign out as a powerful example of turning status culture on its head. “It’s a great example of recognising what’s happening in a culture and a country, and going against the grain and seeking inclusion,” he says.
Socio-economic inclusion begins at a grassroots level
Socio-economic bias is a deep-rooted problem fuelled by inequality. It cannot be solved quickly or easily – particularly against the gruelling and disruptive backdrop of the pandemic.
“A lot of times, issues like gender and ethnicity take centre stage, but we need to make sure that the dialogue is open at all times and that this is an issue that doesn’t sort of fall by the wayside,” says Gangadhar. “There needs to be a conscious effort made to make sure that this is something that’s at the centre of the plate.”
Gangadhar says that workplace training programmes can help tackle unconscious bias, promote honest conversations and offer valuable, alternative perspectives.
“We have three significant training programmes that are aimed solely at making sure that all kinds of discrimination are addressed,” he says. “We offer a specialised reverse mentoring, where junior staff mentor senior folks, and help them understand their life experiences and the challenges that they face, so our leaders and managers have their ears more to the ground. It’s very, very important.”
Similarly, the Equal at Uber programme aims to better reflect the community they serve by promoting socio-economic inclusion. In India, Uber has sponsored and helped to launch the First-Generation Graduate Programme for drivers. This initiative offers a six-month internship where the company hires six promising interns related to driver-partners who are first in the family to attain a graduate degree. Uber says it has received more than 100 applications from drivers in Hyderabad and has rolled out internships to 14 first-generation graduates.
Companies have a vital role to play, but promoting socio-economic inclusion needs to start at a much earlier stage, says Gangadhar. “It needs to be part of our upbringing, our education,” he says. “Equality has to be a dinner table conversation in the family unit. It has to be at that grassroots level for us to tackle this. I think the bottom line is everyone must feel, regardless of their socio-economic background, that they have an equal shot at reaching their dreams.”