While diversity and inclusion (D&I) is an initiative that is well-championed in the US, Europe and Australasia, the reality in Asia is often a different story.

A 2015 report by Hong Kong-based Community Business stated that over half (58% and 55%) of respondents in China and Hong Kong respectively saw D&I as a “Western concept”. Earlier this year, the China Daily reported that men typically earn about 15% more than women in mainland China and Hong Kong. In Malaysia, India and Singapore, this pay gap is wider at 30%.

However, the good news is that companies in Asia are starting to take concrete steps to embrace D&I. These include committing to having more women at board level (alongside competitive pay packages) and stressing the importance of having a diverse workforce.

To support this, a recent study published by The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that 83% of those surveyed thought that the presence of a diverse and inclusive workforce had improved their firms’ ability to capture and retain a diverse client base. Some 79% also felt that diverse teams could produce better and more creative ideas because of the synergy among contrasting approaches.

So what is happening with D&I across the region?

In Greater China, Hong Kong remains the most advanced in D&I, in part due to its status as a financial hub and financial services institutions have typically been at the forefront of diversity efforts around the world.  We are also beginning to see more firms recruit  ‘diversity champions’ or even heads of diversity  in some of the larger organisations — a move that is common in markets where D&I is often practised, such as the US, Europe and Australasia but, until now, rare in Asia.

Recently, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange also introduced a requirement for listed companies to report on their board diversity policy, and we have also seen the launch of the 30% Club in the region, a voluntary organisation which seeks to encourage female participation on boards.

The breath of D&I coverage in Hong Kong is slowly beginning to evolve as well, developing from a focus on purely gender to cover other less represented groups such as religious affiliation, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

We have also seen some industries become more creative in the way they encourage diversity. For example, it can be difficult for manufacturing businesses, or even technology companies, to recruit female engineers as candidates are relatively scarce. As a result, some companies have been actively appointing more women into non-technical roles or encouraging female students to pursue studies in these industry-related areas.

In mainland China, female participation in the workforce is actually high in comparison to some other countries, but the glass ceiling remains a challenge in many organisations, and the number of women in the most senior roles is quite small. MNCs are typically at the head of the curve on D&I, because they have policies mandated by regional or head offices, and because many of them are seeking to localise their workforces to become more representative in the markets they operate in.

Local Chinese businesses are just at the very beginning of this process, and for many, D&I remains a relatively low priority due in part to a lack of external pressure.

Interestingly, local companies that are taking the biggest strides in D&I are typically those looking to expand abroad: several Chinese banks opening in Hong Kong and technology businesses expanding across the globe have made determined efforts to look more attractive to international candidates, and this has included having clear policies on D&I.

Overall, it is great to see progress across the region, but we still have a long way to go.

Although much has been driven by external factors, such as formal policies in MNCs and a desire to internationalise for local businesses, we expect to see an increasing number of Asian businesses embracing D&I more actively. This will bring about different perspectives, more creative teams and a more inclusive working environment.

Ultimately, companies that embrace every aspect of D&I will be giving themselves the best chances of hiring and retaining top talent — an outcome which will help them to achieve success in their industries. 

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