When Numbers Fall Short: The Challenge of Measuring Diversity in a Global Context
At C&A Foundation we believe many of the challenges we seek to tackle are rooted in social exclusion. We are on a journey to deepen our approach to gender justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. As part of our own effort to learn, we recently undertook a demographic survey of our 60+ employees worldwide to find out how “diverse” we are as an organization and what it might imply for our efforts to create an equitable organization. It was a first for us and we learned far more than the numbers alone revealed.
The process itself was both eye-opening and humbling. It forced us to reflect on what really matters for our global organization when it comes to diversity and it revealed some of our own implicit biases.
“We believe many of the challenges we seek to tackle are rooted in social exclusion.”
We worked with US-based consultants to prepare the survey—covering age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, disability, race, religion, and educational status. Unknowingly, the very act of selecting these categories imposed a US-centric world view, particularly with respect to our understanding of race and ethnicity.
For example, the category “Latinx” was used in the initial survey; this category is very relevant in the US, but reductive in Latin America, confusing in Europe, and irrelevant in South Asia. An important category for Europe—Roma—was not available for selection.
So we tried again, re-surveying our country offices in an attempt to create meaningful country-specific data. This proved far more useful in revealing what we should be considering as we seek to foster an inclusive workplace culture.
In Brazil, for example, race is a very salient concept and we are developing a much stronger understanding of why power dynamics around race may be the single most important thing we can address in that context. Less than half the Brazilian population is white —yet, political and economic structures are predominantly controlled by whites.
In Mexico, we need to consider the significant proportion of indigenous people and “mestizos” (mixed ethnicity). Although Mexicans of European descent are the minority there, they too remain a dominant political and economic class. In India, race itself is a problematic construct. Instead, caste discrimination has played a powerful role in reinforcing social group dominance and oppression for centuries. A dizzying array of ethno-linguistic groups suggests diversity but masks the real and sometimes violent social exclusion based on caste and religion. While historically disadvantaged “scheduled” castes and tribes make up around 25 percent of India’s population, they are significantly under-represented in the country’s economic life.
And throughout South Asia, religion is a political and social flashpoint. This applies to Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country where Hindus and Christians face increasing sectarian violence, as well as India, where, as recent events show, laws and policies excluding Muslims reflect rising Hindu nationalism.
Since C&A Foundation always aims to be open and transparent, it is our practice to openly share what we learn from our research, and this exercise was no exception. However, in the end, due to the importance of country and cultural context, the only demographic categories we felt were appropriate to include in our annual report were gender, disability, and migration status. Age is another context-neutral category we might report globally in the future. But for our 60 staff people spread across the world, we realized that inclusive hiring, promotion and retention policies needed to do more than just look at the numbers, even for these categories.
So what did we learn, and what do we suggest to other foundations undertaking similar surveys?
First, generic global surveys aren’t the best way to tackle region-specific diversity and inclusion challenges. Instead, start with a social inclusion assessment that looks at the local context. Who has power? Who is marginalized? From there you can craft context-specific demographic questions for your employees or your partners.
Lesson two: don’t just play the numbers game. With, at most, a dozen staff in any given country office, we found there is limited value in trying to add them all up to some global statistic on diversity. However, it is important to look at who’s not present in your workplace. For example, in Brazil, we’ve taken affirmative steps to recruit more Afro-Brazilians by hiring a consultancy specialized in searching for Afro-Brazilian professionals. And we are looking carefully at how to create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities across all of our country offices. For us, this kind of targeting does more to address diversity than a broad-brush effort.
“It is important to look at who’s not present in your workplace.”
Finally, another value of this approach is that you are leading by example to your grantees since you likely ask them to provide you with their own demographic data. Just as we realize the limitations to what we do with this data, we can understand and respect the variety of approaches that our grantees may take to tackle their own specific diversity, equity and inclusion challenges. At C&A Foundation we see our efforts to address inequality as another means to encourage our local grantees to prioritize and embrace their own equity and inclusion agendas. This is where our broader influence may lie—and offers a further compelling reason to continue our own internal journey.
In 2020, C&A Foundation`s work in fashion will become part of Laudes Foundation – a new, independent foundation designed to support brave initiatives that will inspire and challenge industry to harness its power for good. The organization will works both to influence capital so that investment encourages good business practices, and through industry to tackle its deep and systemic challenges.
Laudes Foundation is a part of the Brenninkmeijer family enterprise, next to the COFRA businesses and the family’s other private philanthropic activities, including Porticus, Good Energies Foundation, and Argidius Foundation.