Two months ago, Shivya Nath posted a rant on LinkedIn, expressing her disillusionment with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) movement. After spending a decade building her credentials as a travel writer and sustainability consultant, she was still repeatedly hearing prospective clients approach her, saying:

“I’ve been looking for you. Not you exactly, but someone like you, who’s a woman, preferably of colour. We’d love to have you speak at our event since we really want diverse voices and perspectives on our panel; we want to include international voices in the story, so I thought of reaching out to you.”

As a freelancer, Shivya, who currently resides in India, was grateful for the opportunities that came her way. Yet, “… to be told that I’m being invited to contribute, speak, or participate only because I count as (part of) ‘diversity’, and not so much because of my expertise or credibility, is belittling and frustrating,” she told me recently over a voice call.

The illusion of inclusion

Verna Myers, a leading diversity and inclusion expert who exited Netflix last September after spearheading the streaming giant’s inclusion and diversity initiatives over the past five years, famously said: Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. In Shivya’s case, companies were eager to reach out to her to ensure diversity, almost akin to a tick-box exercise, but “…is my voice actually being valued?” she wondered.   

Sadly, it is a familiar pattern; many organisations take big action in the realm of DEI because it is the buzzword, and they see other companies do it. But when they realise that DEI work is too nuanced and complex, too hard, and the results are not immediately apparent, those grand gestures eventually fizzle out, leaving employees frustrated.

It is a frustration that Kay Formanek has seen play out. Formanek, 57, who grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era, has built her career around inclusive diversity. She lectures and travels worldwide, nudging organisations and leaders to harness the benefits that purposeful inclusivity and diversity can bring to a company and its bottom line.   

Window-dressing diversity

When she was in Singapore last year, she spoke of how study after study conducted on millennials (like Shivya, who is 35) and Gen Zs — who will soon form a significant part of the workforce — suggest that they are motivated, more so than previous generations, by values of “equity, fairness, sustainability, and doing the right thing”.

Formanek tells me these younger workers, who incidentally are among the most diverse generation to date, “are highly cynical yet very astute” and will not hesitate to leave a company that attempts to window-dress their DEI efforts.

Indeed, window dressing is a real concern, agrees Hosea Lai, which is why, as the director for Culture of Inclusion (DEI) at semiconductor equipment maker Applied Materials, part of his outreach efforts with the senior management is to remind them — constantly — that “DEI is no longer a good-to-have; it is a must-have.”

While DEI is now a global concept, its roots lie in the 1960s, when anti-discrimination laws were introduced during the civil rights movement in the United States. Since then, DEI has taken on many iterations, broadening its reach to encompass people of diverse backgrounds, sexual orientations, and disabilities, so much so that it is estimated that the global market for DEI will reach USD$24.3 billion ($32.3 billion) by 2030.

At Applied Materials, Lai, 47, says his conversations with the senior management typically involve showing them the data: Globally, 40 per cent of the company’s workforce is made up of millennials, and that number is set to increase over time with the entry of Gen Zs. “My job is to remind them that their lived experiences (versus the younger generation) are very different. So, how can each of them leverage the other’s strengths?”

Walking the talk

Organisations that do so and “translate the promise of DEI into practice” end up differentiating themselves in the market, observes Formanek. But that starts from the top, she says, because “the practices of leaders have a 70 per cent-plus impact on whether people feel inclusive.” Leadership and inclusion, unsurprisingly, go hand-in-hand.

This is why, when Lai joined Applied Materials in 2022, he spent six months and drank copious amounts of coffee — all in a bid to build relationships and identify key leaders within the organisation whom he termed as “early adopters”; individuals who were excited by change and ready to implement DEI practices. Because “when you work with them, they will move mountains. Then, they can influence the rest of the organisation.”

So, when one leader wanted to hire persons with disabilities, Lai worked with a non-profit organisation to shortlist five potential individuals with autism. And, in true DEI flexibility style, the traditional interview process was redesigned into a three-day work experience to select the best candidate for the job.

At the time of my interview with Lai last month, the workday experiences had concluded, and the company was having “deeper conversations”, he says, about the entire process. His challenge, Lai explains, lies not in influencing leaders but in reviewing processes to ensure inclusivity because “DEI is never one-size-fits-all”.

The path forward

But this takes time, effort, a strategic narrative, and tremendous clarity, which, as Formanek quickly points out, only the best leaders and organisations are willing to invest in. Therein lies one of the main challenges with DEI work: investment.

In a downturn, DEI initiatives and sustainability efforts are among the first to be scaled back. Lai says this is why he urges leaders to support employees via continued investment in DEI initiatives, even amid economic uncertainty and corporate belt-tightening.

“That’s really the crux of DEI, right? How leaders show up in these times will determine longevity,” he says. The statistics bear that out, too, with nearly 3 in 5 Singaporeans, particularly millennials and Gen Zs, preferring to work for an employer who supports DEI, according to Randstad’s 2023 Employer Brand survey.

It is also why, more than ever, companies need to recommit to DEI. As Lai points out, “…we cannot use what worked in the last 10 to 20 years to solve for what’s coming in the next 10 to 20 years.” The way forward, he suggests, is through intergenerational collaboration to “co-create solutions” for which resolve and resources are required. Companies that do so have a chance to lead the way now, and as Formanek says, they are “the diamonds that Singapore needs”.