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When Numbers Fall Short: The Challenge of Measuring Diversity in a Global Context

January 31, 2020

Hands-Tree-Diversity-editAt the 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 sixty-plus 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 reveal.

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 underscored some of our own implicit biases.

We worked with U.S.-based consultants to prepare the survey — which covered age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, disability, race, religion, and educational status. Unknowingly, the very act of selecting these categories imposed a U.S.-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 U.S., 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 in Brazil 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 for centuries played a powerful role in reinforcing social group dominance and oppression. 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 underrepresented in the country's economic life.

Across 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 the 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, given the importance of country and cultural context, in the end 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 on globally in the future. But for our sixty 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 recommend other foundations undertaking similar surveys do?

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 and/or 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 that specializes in placing Afro-Brazilian professionals. And we are looking carefully at how to create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities across all our country offices. For us, this kind of targeting does more to address diversity than a broad-brush effort.

Lastly, another value of this approach is that you'll be seen to be leading by example by your grantees when you ask them (as you are likely to at some point) to provide you with their demographic data. Just as we understand the limitations with respect to what we can do with this data, we also must understand and respect the variety of approaches that our grantees may use to tackle their own diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges. At the 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 it is a further compelling reason why we plan to continue our own internal journey.

Headshot_Bama_AthreyaBama Athreya is the gender and social inclusion advisor at the C&A Foundation, a corporate foundation committed to making fashion a force for good. In 2020, the C&A Foundation's work in fashion will become part of the Laudes Foundation — a new, independent foundation designed to support brave initiatives that inspire and challenge industry to harness its power for good. The foundation is part of the Brenninkmeijer family enterprise, which includes the COFRA businesses and the family’s private philanthropic activities, among them Porticus, the Good Energies Foundation, and the Argidius Foundation.
This post originally was published on Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog.

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