Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in an international setting

by | May 19, 2023 | 0 comments

Diversity Equity and Inclusion in an international setting

Brigitte Opel,

with inspiration and contribution from Dr. Deanne de Vries

As an intercultural consultant, I was always bewildered when people would reduce “diversity” to the balance of males and females in a group.

Then I realized that also nationality or culture doesn’t cut it. There are so many different variations of diversity. There are those you can distinguish by visible factors: Gender, race, age, and abilities – unless you get fooled by your own misconceptions.

Religion is more difficult; Ethnic can also be tricky if we label too quickly and don’t know the possible differences.

And when it comes to variations by personality, the ice gets thin – as they say in the Netherlands. How do you ensure introverts feel invited to participate, just like the outspoken extroverts?

Because that is what we’re concerned with: We need to get to the point that we not only recognize the differences and learn to address them, we should see through the differences and make sure they all feel assured that they belong, they feel empowered, they’re not just invited to dance, but their dancing is natural, appreciated: is “normal”.

We all want to get to that point. The business case, the benefit is no longer questioned: with empowered diverse teams, we achieve a better understanding of the market, more creative solutions and more productive teams.

Our strategies and objectives are typically quite ambitious: we want to tick all the boxes by the end of the year. In businesses, we strive to have well-balanced teams representing all those diversities and everything is going smoothly.

Every organization and every team has a different starting point. Some struggle to increase the percentage of female teammates. Other groups find it hard to switch to English when new foreign colleagues enter the room – thus excluding them from the conversation. Colleagues that haven’t grown up with the idea of small talk might skip the networking event on Friday evenings. Some team schedules are more flexible than others to accommodate Ramadan meal schedules. Again other teams don’t know how to interact with the colleague they used to consider a ‘normal’ man: Since he introduced his husband at the last family barbecue, they’re not sure how to talk about their families and which jokes are still acceptable. In all these situations, we have expectations about communication, interaction, or life that aren’t automatically true for others. If we have learned to reflect on our cultural programming– as Prof. Geert Hofstede put it – then we realize that our upbringing has engrained us with an idea of ‘normal’ only true for a very small group of people. Once we leave our nest, we find that everyone’s ‘normal’ is different. It is, in fact, a very specific term with a unique meaning to every person that differs from every other person. There is no such thing as a ubiquitous idea of ‘normal’ – also not in the beforementioned situation of the normal = heterosexual man. Therefore, we better be alert not to talk about ‘normal’ or judge people and their behavior if it deviates from our idea of ‘normal’. We better accept it as ‘different’, learn from others’ experiences and broaden our own expectations.


DEI starts with the term Diversity. Diversity usually refers to a variety of different backgrounds, attitudes and approaches to problem-solving. These are some of the most common types of diversity that DEI strategies address:

  • Gender diversity
  • Racial diversity
  • Sexual preference
  • Ethnic diversity
  • Language diversity
  • Age diversity
  • Religious diversity
  • Cultural diversity

Bringing these diversities together in a stimulating environment should result in the most innovative solutions, most resilient organizations and most loyal teams (McKinsey, 2015)

It is a well-recognized fact that diversity is hardly seen or recognized as long as everything goes smoothly. Once things are not going as expected, that is the moment that we notice differences in any of the diversity types listed above. (Eungkyong Yu, 2013)

It is those situations of unexpected in which we suddenly start thinking and acting in ‘us’ and ‘them’. In most instances, these situations are unpredictable to us and others. Do we find ourselves holding on tight to our bags when somebody enters the bus who looks different than us? Do we keep listening to a story about an interaction when a person’s race, skin color or nationality is pointed out? Have you ever wondered if that information adds value to the story?

However, if you focus only on the differences, you might lose sight of the actual Equity & Inclusion efforts leading to belonging and psychological safety.


Various reports have shown that diverse teams are more productive and creative if they are empowered by their environment and their leadership (Jonson et al., 2007). That means that all team members should be empowered and feel empowered to flourish and contribute to the best of their capabilities. That means leaders and the environment must be supportive, empathetic and unbiased.

Looking inward, they must be aware, reflective and conscious of their perspective and the resulting actions.

Looking outward, they must demonstrate understanding and fairness in all their actions to their teams and peers.

That might sound like a sound combination of characteristics. But besides that, a leader needs to have a clear objective: What is his aim for his own leadership and what is his ambition for his teams and their results? This is where equity comes into the picture. Although the facilitation of diversity in the workplace has slowly increased since the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation in the 1960s, the growing awareness for active pursuit was triggered by the #metoo and the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement in the 2010s. The objective for this active pursuit is equity.

Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.

                                                         (Illustration: Interaction Institute for Social Change)

Or as Paula Dressel from the Race Matters Institute puts it: “The route to achieving equity will not be accomplished through treating everyone equally. It will be achieved by treating everyone justly according to their circumstances.”

It seems that to achieve equity, everybody requires a different set and depth of approaches depending on the individual situation. At the same time, every organization has a different mix of teams, people and processes. Consequently, every organization requires a unique strategy, broken down into tactical steps and practical approaches.

As a result, organizations have different focus areas and objectives regarding the Inclusion of the Diversity they aspire to.


Inclusion requires the creation of a safe space where everybody feels heard and valued. In this safe space, everybody can be their true self and develop their own Identity.

When people are truly included, involved and accepted, they feel a sense of belonging to the team and the workplace. They develop an extraordinary sense of loyalty and dedication in return for being seen and treated as individuals. As they feel empowered, their self-esteem and self-conscience are strengthened, leading to more daring ideas and inventions.

It sounds easy, but the challenge is the awareness of our biases and blind spots. We tend to accept and trust people who look like us more – because we unconsciously assume they also think like us. That way, more CEO positions in the US are filled by a man called John than by women (Wolfers, 2015). The CEO’s name in the Netherlands is Peter (Equileap, 2020). Journalist Joris Luyendijk checked the background of Dutch leaders and found that they all match the following categories:

1) white, 2) male, 3) born in the Netherlands, 4) heterosexual, 5) graduated from highest level schools, 6) graduated from universities, and 7) have parents with higher level education (Luyendijk, 2022).

Although it seems outrageous that these prejudices and preferential treatment are possible in a country that considers itself liberal and progressive, it really isn’t unusual. A study performed by the Harvard Business Review revealed that employees face an average of 11 identity-threatening situations per week, resulting in a lesser sense of inclusion and belonging. (Slepian, 2020). The author reminds us to accept and respect people for who they are, consult them for their unique expertise and encourage them to get involved. Depending on their background and needs, everybody should be encouraged to connect to others with similar paths and preferences. It’s important to have leaders, mentors, sponsors and role models on the radar and to be able to interact and connect with them for inspiration and guidance.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Many organizations and institutions have cross-cultural communication or intercultural awareness in their Learning & Development curriculum. I have given these workshops at many colleges and universities, but I don’t know what happens with the awareness and communication skills when I leave at the end of the day. Several studies have shown that most DEI workshops do not result in any change in behavior or attitude. (Dobbin, Kalev, 2022).

To be effective, the interaction at the workplace needs ongoing coaching and moderation to ensure respect and appreciation. The team leaders and managers must be experienced in diverse environments to know how to read the signs of disrespect and marginalization. Their experience and empathy make them credible in their coaching role so that people will approach them for advice and guidance.

Suppose we don’t reflect on our biases and challenge ourselves and others in our decision-making and judgments. In that case, we tend to fall back into a pattern of decision-making that is rather habitual and quick than considerate and thorough (Kahnemann, 2011).

Diversity and inclusion are not just another HR strategy; everybody must review their biases and reactions. It requires a degree of openness of the entire organization to employ a diversity of coaches and staff. It requires constant awareness – if I find that your reaction or decision is tinted, then it should be ok for me to point it out (very respectfully, of course).

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are only successful if it saturates the entire organization. At the 2023 Year Event of the Agora Network, panelist Onur Sahin pointed out that the DEI officer needs to report to the Board of Directors to be effective. If it is just another HR staff function, it is often equipped with insufficient resources and impact.

If we want to enable long-term change in awareness, we need to implement policies that detect biases in our decision-making; we need to create an open corporate culture that allows constructive feedback in case of tinted comments and incentives that foster diversity and inclusion.

“Inclusive Intelligence is the meeting point of Emotional Intelligence and Inclusive Leadership” (Karayel, 2021).

The focus on inclusion starts at the top – with objectives, targets, and personal buy-in. Lip service and window dressing won’t work. A lot of money is spent on awareness-creating workshops and training. Still, inequality and discrimination in the workplace haven’t changed much for the better – unless the efforts address the systemic and structural issues that feed biases and inequalities. (Asare, 2019)

On the contrary: In several instances, anti-bias training has become such a politically loaded topic “that it can ‘backfire’ and create a negative response” (Coughlan, 2020).

Often, the little steps in the right direction make a difference.

Feeling seen and heard and free to speak up and contribute to the team effort are factors enabling psychological safety. Psychological safety allows the free flow of creativity and constructive teamwork. It feeds into people’s intrinsic motivation to keep learning and develop themselves. In an environment with psychological safety, individuals give each other feedback and reflect on their own behavior. The resulting bond leads to loyalty and resilience: A virtuous circle. (McKinsey, 2020)

One company that has quietly achieved a high level of Equity and Inclusion is SAP. Several employees have participated in “Inclusion in Tech” events and confirmed in discussion groups and private conversations that tolerance and support are very high. By coincidence, it was also the first company on my radar with a Diversity Officer reporting to the CEO.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in different settings

Every country has a focus area on DEI.

In Germany, the focus is generally on gender equality. The public debate is whether there should be quotas for women in leadership positions and whether that adds to equal opportunities.

In the USA, the focus of the public debate seems to circle more on the equality of skin color or race. Several words have been banned during that effort as they are considered derogatory. The struggle for ‘politically correct’ words has swept the world and is often connected to the woke movement (Purnell, 2021).

In the Netherlands, the public debate is on sexual orientation and gender equality. Often enough, the DEI discussion is reduced to tolerating homosexual marriages and questioning the need for gender-neutral toilets.

In many other countries, the social gap that requires closing is along the lines of belief systems or religions.

For India, we suspect that caste-related traditions form an obstacle to equity and equality. And at the same time, people seem to have developed ways to accept and cope with the inequality that we see as an obstacle to social mobility and perceive as an equity issue.

DEI in Africa

When we look at Africa, other aspects play a role. Whereas in many Western countries, you can achieve anything as long as you have a decent education, the level of education plays a much bigger role in African countries. There’s a strong ambition to achieve the highest possible level of education. Many young and smart people attempt to study at the best possible schools. I have interviewed quite a number of amazing students in their application process to study at the best schools internationally. They aim to learn about international business practices and acquire a diploma to help them be recognized as a serious business leader, domestically and globally. They all state that they plan to return to their home country to strengthen its economy and business position and make it a better place for those who live there. There is a strong sense of giving back to the country and even the continent, a trait that is probably related to the Collectivist culture prevalent in most of Africa.

This ambition to be educated and recognized internationally is true for students but is also about inclusion on a larger scale. Most of the African countries were colonized by European powers during industrialization. The European nations controlled the economies in their colonies, harvesting agricultural products and natural resources and exporting them for further processing in European factories. As a result, there was little industrialization and economic development during colonization. There was also very little social development among the indigenous people.

In many African countries, the level of education for the children of local families was considerably lower than the level of education for the children of the colonists. Due to this educational disadvantage, local families had little involvement in business or administration. If local families had any ambition to partake in business or politics, it was attempted along the lines of the order that the European colonizers established. In the 20th century, the dissatisfaction of the local population of being marginalized in all public affairs grew steadily. Eventually, the disadvantaged students started to unionize and rebel against this obvious form of segregation. What began as a struggle for equal education developed in the mid-1900s into demanding equality in political power and, eventually, their fighting for independence as a country (deVries, 2022)

The line of exclusion has moved to a different aspect now: At the GSBN (Global Business School Network) conference in 2022, I was honored to be a panelist on the topic of DEI in business schools. After the discussion, I was approached by a coordinator at the Business School Nigeria about her efforts to invite people with physical handicaps to participate in their courses. Physical deviations from the ‘norm’ are a stigma in many cultures and societies; they are seen as a curse, most likely by deities for bad actions in a previous life. As a result, these people are often considered a shame for the entire family and hidden in the house. They might be brilliant thinkers, but it is difficult for them to receive formal education.

This is very different in Western Europe and North America: If you cannot participate in the workforce with your physical strength, an academic degree is your best bet to make a living and have a career.

In an environment that values formal education, including students with physical handicaps is an important step to developing and employing the smartness of all people. Awareness is the first step on the way.

However, let us revisit the political landscape after they reached independence. In Africa, the country borders do not align with tribal boundaries. Since their independence, any political leader has to be very conscious of the ethnic diversity in the region and the country. They must demonstrate their leadership to all their people, regardless of tribe or ethnicity, to maintain peace in their country. As one of the Heads of State explains: “Political leadership is being able to deploy power on behalf of the disadvantaged, providing equity for and including them in society.” (deVries, 2023)

Besides this internal struggle to create an inclusive environment in the country, African leaders are also trying to improve their economic and political position globally. Very few business leaders from the Northern Hemisphere are aware of the competencies and capabilities of the African workforce. There is still a kind of post-colonial arrogance, the idea that the African economies are less developed, the political leadership corrupt and the infrastructure hardly reliable. Still, African countries are far from being seen, heard, respected, or valued globally. When we try to apply the terms that we connect to inclusion, we find that they don’t describe how countries and continents interact. The sense of Belonging in the global arena has yet a long way to go. (deVries, 2022)

Regional economic trade unions are meant to protect internal markets from international competition. That way, the trade unions’ markets and economies flourish while others are excluded from trade benefits. That makes trade with Africa difficult: African products need to comply with various standards, the passing of borders and payment of tariffs make the flow of people and goods difficult and time-consuming. There have been good reasons to create these economic trade unions, which might still be valid, but from a global DEI perspective, their existence is highly questionable.

Fortunately, Africa benefits from rare natural resources and a growing labor force. It is expected that the population will grow to surpass both India and China. At the same time, the need for skilled labor will grow in Europe and North America due to declining birth rates. Sooner rather than later, the dependence on Africa for the global workforce and for rare metals will empower the countries and their leaders to a level of Equality and Equity.

Another factor is the delayed industrialization that we mentioned in connection to the colonization of Africa. Many areas are highly industrialized. But there are also regions where mass-produced items are difficult to come by. Therefore, people must be resourceful to develop solutions for their everyday problems with whatever is available. In our industrialized countries, we could use this inventive resourcefulness well. It could help in finding solutions for the overload in packaging as well as the increase in garbage.

Besides that, there is more that we can learn from Africa: The Central bank governor in Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, has been very vocal in pursuing the requirement of the Nigerian Sustainable Banking Principles that requires banks, including Nigeria’s Central Bank, to have

– 30% of female workers

– 30% female board members

– 40% of top management positions filled by women

This resembles the quotas on female representation currently discussed in many European and North American legislations. Some countries have adopted requirements along these lines. Unfortunately, the general acceptance and enforcement are not where they should be.

Let us take another look at the banks in Nigeria, where Mr. Emefiele monitors and publishes the banks’ status and success annually. With such an active promotion by a sponsor who is well established and well respected, it should be no surprise that the current situation (March 2022) has exceeded the targets set out by the Sustainable Banking Principles:

– 32% of the workforce in Nigeria’s commercial banks are female (exceeding the goal of 30%)

– 35% of the board members are female (goal is 40%)

– 8 out of 23 commercial banks in Nigeria are run by female CEOs = 35% (exceeded the goal of 30%)


The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts relate to every individual’s desire to be seen, heard, respected and valued. Moreover, the further development of human civilization requires innovative solutions for living together in harmony, producing food and goods, and responsibly using resources. Prof. Geert Hofstede coined very appropriately: “The Future of Mankind will depend to a large extent on the ability of People who Think differently to Act together.”

On a different level, businesses and organizations have proven to be more profitable and resilient if they embrace the diversity in their own people, allowing them to connect better to their customer base. Inclusive environments have proven to foster more creative and sustainable approaches. Teams that feel true belonging are more loyal and focused: they feel more empowered and less distracted by doubts or threats.

To ensure such a perfect world, we all must stay alert to hidden biases and prejudices and keep searching for inspiration and best practices. With the variety of situations and challenges, we need a variety of approaches and strategies.

Sometimes, the best ideas are in the most unexpected of places. And that in itself can broaden our horizons and open our minds.


Asare, Janice Gassam 2019: Your Unconscious Bias Trainings Keep Failing Because You’re Not Addressing Systemic Bias by Janice Gassam Asare, 29 december 2019 in focus magazine; https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2020/12/29/your-unconscious-bias-trainings-keep-failing-because-youre-not-addressing-systemic-bias/

Coughlan, Sean 2020: “‘ Unconscious bias training’ to be scrapped by minister” by Sean Coughlan, 15 December, 2020 in BBC News; https://www.bbc.com/news/education-55309923

DeVries, Deanne. 2022: Africa: Open for Business, Discover the ABCs of doing business in Africa by Dr. Deanne de Vries, Best Seller Publishing LLC

DeVries, Deanne 2023: Africa: Reframing Political Leadership, Discover new insights and the importance of leading from life through interviews with Africa’s Heads of State by Dr. Deanne de Vries, Best Seller Publishing LLC

Dobbin, Kalev, 2022: Getting to Diversity – What Works and What Doesn’t, by Frank Dobbin

Equileap, 2020: Gender Equality in the Netherlands, Special report 2020, https://equileap.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Equileap_DutchReport.pdf

Eungkyong Yu, Alex, 2013: Personal Conversation: “As long as everything goes smoothly, you don’t notice cultural differences. It is when things don’t go according to expectations, that cultural behaviour and cultural reactions become apparent.”

Jonsen et al, 2007: “Unraveling the Diversity-Performance link in Multicultural Teams” by Stahl, Maznewski, Voigt, Jonson, INSEAD, France; https://sites.insead.edu/facultyresearch/research/doc.cfm?did=2742

Kahnemann, Daniel 2011: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Random House

Karayel, Furkan. 2021: Inclusive Intelligence: How to be a Role Model for Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace by Furkan Karayel, Panoma Press

Luyendijk, Joris. 2022: De zeven vinkjes – Hoe mannen zoals ik de baas spelen Uitgeverij Pluim

McKinsey, 2015: Why diversity matters – Report on Diversity January 1, 2015, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/Organization/Our%20Insights/Why%20diversity%20matters/Why%20diversity%20matters.pdf

McKinsey, 2020: Diversity wins: How inclusion matters – Report on Diversity May 19, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/diversity%20and%20inclusion/diversity%20wins%20how%20inclusion%20matters/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters-vf.pdf

Purnell, Derecka. 2021: We need to discuss the term ‘woke’ The Guardian on Nov 9, 2021;https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/09/woke-word-meaning-definition-progressive
Slepian, Michael 2020: Are your D&I effort helping employees feel like they belong? In Harvard Business Review on August 19, 2020; https://hbr.org/2020/08/are-your-di-efforts-helping-employees-feel-like-they-belong
Wolfers, Justin 2015: Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John March 2, 2015 in New York Times; https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/upshot/fewer-women-run-big-companies-than-men-named-john.html





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