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Global transformation work is not a one-size-fits all initiative. Global diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) change is both unique to each culture and is systemic—something I saw firsthand during my time working with the Saudi Sodexo team.
My trip to Bahrain to conduct a workshop with the team was both a moving and a compelling experience. I spent the day in a room of mostly men, including one Saudi man in his flowing white thobe. Three Saudi women in their tastefully embroidered pastel abayas remained at the other end of the room with me. Despite an initial hesitancy, the women participated fully in the workshop, sharing their views energetically.
Engaging with these Saudi women was a disruptive experience for me. I had heard about the high education level amongst Saudi women, but I also knew that Saudi Arabia is ranked 146 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report. I was familiar with the fact that for years, Saudi women were considered legal minors and subject to a far-reaching male guardianship system that required permission to travel, work, and more.
I was inspired and humbled listening to the life-stories that the women shared, awed by the drive and ambition with which they approached their work and their curiosity about the world.
But given the restrictive context for women in Saudi, I was perplexed at how we could advance the global gender equity strategy in the region. How do we understand and respect local contexts with their specific cultural values while simultaneously pushing for change? To what extent do we adapt to each context?
Given the complex and dynamic nature of global transformation work, there is no quick checklist or playbook for global DEI culture change. It’s not enough to have the right initiatives, strategy, or best practices. In my own journey and in my effort to figure out how to advance DEI culture change and progress globally, I’ve come to recognize some principles that provide a through line in working in divergent cultures. I share these in my upcoming book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Each principle is a simple, yet disruptive, statement. They are not intended to provide standards, nor are they a plug-and-play template based on what has worked in one country. In fact, these assumptions are some of the foundational mistakes in global DEI work. What makes them powerful and useful is they can be applied with sensitivity to any culture.
The first principle is Make It Local. Any global framework for DEI change must be rooted in local particulars, informed by the history, culture, language, and laws of each place ‘Make it Local’ implies understanding the context and with that knowledge and designing interventions to disrupt the status quo, but doing so alongside local change agents.
I learned that the Saudi Sodexo leadership team noticed things opening up and pushed to hire more Saudi women. According to Sharia law, women had to work in a separate room with the door closed. They were not to be seen by male colleagues, and they had to communicate via an intercom. Men could not enter the space where they were working without announcing themselves, and if women were to stray from that area—say for a work meeting—they needed a male Muslim chaperone.
I asked myself whether it would be productive to view this situation through a Western feminist lens. The answer was that if the leadership had taken this approach, these working conditions would be absolutely unacceptable and women would not have been able to work for Sodexo at all. I would never have had the opportunity to meet these amazing, inspiring women!
Now that they had increased the number of women on staff, the leadership opted for slowly stretching and disrupting the status quo from within. Some of the leaders were from outside Saudi Arabia, walking a fine line between not imposing their views while using their “outsider” status to raise issues that are difficult to broach from the inside.
The leaders told me that it soon became clear the women would occasionally need to meet with male colleagues. But conservative men on staff pushed back; they felt it was not acceptable for women to have work meetings with men without a Saudi or Muslim man to accompany them.
So the Sodexo leadership put the dilemma back to these men. Eventually, these conservative men proposed that women could meet with men, as long as they were sitting on different sides of the desk and the door to the office was open.
The Sodexo Saudi Arabia leaders’ approach disrupted the status quo. Using their outsider status, they had the freedom to push for increased hiring of women. Then, they invited the insiders—those with local knowledge, and even those most resistant—to propose fundamental changes to women’s career opportunities. These leaders worked toward gender equity in Saudi Arabia with an understanding of the local context.
Find out more about the OECD's work on Gender Equality in the MENA region
The second principle is Leaders Change to Lead Change. The Sodexo leadership in Saudi internalized the benefit of DEI to themselves and to the business, leading with purpose and passion to hire and retain Saudi women. Transformative leadership is critical to any successful DEI change initiative.
Equally important is identifying a powerful reason to change. Without a compelling change narrative, any transformational initiative will struggle to be sustained. The third principle, And Its Good Business, Too, exemplifies this necessity. These Sodexo leaders recognized an opening for hiring more local national women partly due to a nationalization program launched by the Saudi Arabian government in 2011. The program, referred to as Nitaqat, categorized private sector companies into various color-coded classes with varying benefits based on their number of local hires.
The fourth principle is Go Deep, Wide, and Inside Out. Organizations are comprised of interconnected systems that work in concert with each other and, as such, DEI needs to be infused into the processes, policies, and structures throughout an organization. The external ecosystem also influences organizational outcomes. The leadership in Saudi went deep and wide by seeding the organization with change agents who supported the success of the women hired. They embedded processes like benefits and work arrangements to make it a desirable workplace for the Saudi women. And they went inside out to partner with the government and NGOs to facilitate the hiring of women.
The fifth principle is Know What Matters and Count it. Metrics provide a global framework and a cohesive narrative. They communicate both an organization’s intent and its commitment. They spotlight problem areas and possible solutions, while enabling and promoting accountability. Sodexo had a global target of 40% women in senior leadership positions. The Sodexo leadership in Saudi translated this target to the local context and in doing so increased the representation of women five-fold.
Over the years it became clear to me that organizational leaders around the world struggle to implement large scale change initiatives globally—not because of a lack of technical competence, but because of a lack of nuanced understanding of the local context. My peers in other organizations are not always sure how to make DEI relevant across geographies. In my upcoming book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, I lay out how using these five guiding principles of localizing the strategy, transformative leadership, building a relevant and compelling case for change, engaging the entire ecosystem, and holding leaders accountable can successfully guide global change efforts.
Find out more about Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, by (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, November 2021)