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Photo: Frenchercar Lim

“What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts in the APAC region today?” I ask Chris Chen, the VP and DEI lead (APAC) at Wells Fargo. He replies without hesitation, “An ageing population.”

It was a response for which I was completely unprepared. Gender imbalance, issues with accepting sexual orientations, racial bias — these are familiar challenges. But ageism? How very 2023. Chen explains that by 2050, 35 to 40 per cent of the population in some Asian and European countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, will be over 65 years old. “Are we prepared to integrate more older workers into our workforce?” he asks. “How will different generations within a company collaborate and understand each other?”

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Photo: Statistica

For all his fluency in the subject matter, surprisingly, the DEI maverick’s career trajectory didn’t start in this field. A University of Leeds law graduate, he spent five years working at Scoot in compliance before transitioning to DEI, first as an associate at Yara International, then as a DEI lead at Wells Fargo. His motivation for this change was personal. “My experiences as a cisgender gay man in Singapore profoundly influenced my career path. I’ve felt the difference it makes when I’m able to bring my whole self to work,” he shares. He notices that being open about his identity positively impacts his ability to contribute more effectively in the workplace.

DEI differently

Today, Chen finds himself thick in a world that’s increasingly concerned about DEI initiatives at work — Singapore included. But it’s not all good news on this human-capital-dependent island. A report by the ADP Research Institute, “People at Work 2023: A Global Workforce View”, found that 47 per cent of Singapore-based employees saw no improvement in their company’s gender pay equality in the past three years. Additionally, 43 per cent stated that their organisation’s DEI remained “the same” as it was three years ago.

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Photo: ADP Research Institute

It’s why Chen’s work is more crucial now than ever. He describes it as “creating equitable opportunities, reducing biases, and helping employees overcome internal barriers”. All of that makes sense — if you already understand the importance of DEI. “It’s like preaching to the choir, right?” I ask, playing the devil’s advocate. Chen concurs; his approach to someone less informed about DEI is a little more, well, fundamental. 

For them, he first “defines ‘diversity‘ as the range of characteristics, similarities, and differences among people; ‘Inclusion’ refers to creating a sense of belonging in the workplace or society; ‘equity’ is about ensuring fair opportunities and treatment”. Still, Chen remains realistic, acknowledging that for the unfamiliar, it requires time for them to comprehend what DEI is about fully.

“DEI is a deeply personal topic,” he admits. “Its understanding and significance can vary greatly depending on an individual’s experiences. Each person should take the time to reflect on and understand their own privileges and the perspectives of people from underrepresented groups.”

An unrealistic comparison

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Photo: Frenchercar Lim

Chen’s passion for the DEI space is evident, and working at Wells Fargo as its DEI lead is a perfect fit. The company has a number of initiatives in place to encourage diversity among its employees, customers, and vendors. In the USA, its 10-year Banking Inclusion Initiative aims to accelerate the access of unbanked communities to affordable banking services and financial education. Wells Fargo also supports the OneTen coalition, committed to upskilling, hiring, and promoting one million Black Americans into family-sustaining jobs.

DEI is a deeply personal topic. Its understanding and significance can vary greatly depending on an individual’s experiences.

However, compared to the USA, it’s clear that DEI initiatives and enforcement in Singapore are still in their infancy. Yet, Chen isn’t worried, although he believes one of Singapore’s biggest challenges is understanding and accepting its unique DEI journey. “Often, there’s a temptation to compare our progress with that of regions like Europe or the US,” he says. Chen stresses the importance of recognising the distinct stages in each region’s DEI journey, considering the different historical backgrounds, cultural contexts, and geopolitical environments. “Acknowledging these differences is important.”

Measuring success

Differences aside, the DEI work continues. For Chen, accountability is crucial for ensuring DEI initiatives are effective and not just performative. And when accessing DEI initiatives, he advocates using qualitative and quantitative data, such as hiring data and employee engagement surveys.

But companies with the means should go above and beyond common measures of effectiveness. At Wells Fargo, for instance, Chen tells me that DEI has been integrated into the performance objectives of their senior executives. “It extends to how we assess and compensate for their performance, directly tying it to their DEI efforts,” he elaborates. The company’s CEO also shares this information in Wells Fargo’s DEI report

Beyond performance objectives, assessments, and outcomes, there’s also a cultural expectation that all employees champion DEI. This means embedding DEI into everyone’s responsibilities, not just those of senior leaders or the HR department. He adds: “I believe it’s vital to establish this level of accountability across all levels to foster an inclusive environment truly.”

I ask Chen what gives him hope for the recognition of DEI initiatives in the workplace. “That more organisations, individuals, and even governments are understanding the necessity of fostering a diverse and inclusive society,” he responds. He cites the implementation of initiatives like the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices in Singapore as a positive step. Chen notes that enshrining these guidelines into law, as seen in Singapore’s proposed “Workplace Fairness Legislation”, is crucial.

“Seeing these kinds of concrete actions reassures me that society is moving in the right direction towards greater inclusivity and diversity.”