Diversity does not automatically translate into inclusion: Sarah Knibbs, UN Women APAC


“Women in management positions are twice as likely as men in the same position to spend more time on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities,” says UN Women APAC’s Sarah Knibbs. Read on for Sarah’s thoughts on creating sustainable DEI impact, eliminating tokenism, and accelerating equity.

In this exclusive interview, Sarah spoke to People Matters about the key to sustainable DEI impact, the essentials to shaping transformative learning experiences, and the role of men in enabling gender equity.

Here are excerpts of the interview.

Sarah Knibbs, Officer-in-Charge for UN Women Asia and the Pacific. Photo: UN Women/Pairach Homtong

What are your top three DEI priorities for 2022? 

DEI is a broad agenda, but in the context of gender equality and women’s empowerment, the priorities for this year include:

  • Promoting Women in leadership positions: The Asia Pacific region has made progress in increasing women in leadership, but there is still a long way to go to reach parity. In ASEAN, women make up only 24 per cent of middle and senior management positions and account for only 14.9 per cent of board members.

Having 30 per cent of women in senior management is an important threshold as this is the minimum representation needed to change decision-making processes, according to research. There are many business benefits to be reaped from this. Studies confirm that companies whose boards are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28 per cent more likely than their peers to outperform financially. Businesses must take comprehensive and concerted efforts to not only reach the 30 per cent milestone but also to ensure women sit at all leadership levels – on boards, in the C-suite, as unit heads, and in senior and middle management roles.

  • Expanding workplace policies for gender inclusion: While we see many corporates taking more steps to implement policies like equal recruitment and non-discrimination in professional development and promotion, the additional childcare burdens placed on working women as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic require increased attention to family-friendly policies. Even before the pandemic, women in the Asia-Pacific already performed on average four times more unpaid care work per day than men, and this unequal burden has been exacerbated by ongoing lockdowns and school closures. 

In fact, a new ILO study showed that, globally, more than 2 million working mothers have left the workforce in the midst of the pandemic. Key determining factors in their decision include women’s disproportionate burden of unpaid care and that men are still paid on average 15 per cent more in Asia. Beyond providing parental leave, employers have a major role to play in consistently supporting working parents, especially women, with flexible working arrangements, expanded care leaves, and subsidies for on-site or on-demand childcare.

  • Moving the DEI agenda beyond the workplace and into the marketplace: While workplace policies are crucial to keep working women in the workforce and to build the pipeline for women in leadership, businesses need to expand the scope of their DEI initiatives to look at how to include women and disadvantaged populations in their supply chains through targeted gender-responsive procurement schemes. 

For example, data from the recent WEPs Gender Gap Analysis Tool (GAT) report show that only 21 per cent of companies in the region take steps to procure from women-owned businesses (WOBs) and only 7 per cent set procurement targets for buying from WOBs. Firms can start with incorporating more women in functions where they are typically underrepresented, such as procurement, which allows for the opportunity to inject new thinking on DEI. This can include setting targets for procurement spending on women-owned businesses, conducting outreach to communicate procurement opportunities to women-owned businesses, and also integrating gender criteria into supplier codes of conduct.

With the pace of change still slow, how can organisations better balance the needs of underrepresented communities across access to employment, mental healthcare, career growth, and cultural inclusion?

The pandemic has posed major threats to recent hard-won gains for gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, and it is more important than ever before to reaffirm and be accountable to commitments for gender equality. The Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs), launched by UN Women and UN Global Compact in 2010 as a set of 7 principles guiding the private sector to become more gender-responsive across the value chain, is a powerful framework that allows businesses to take a holistic approach to addressing gender inclusion from recruitment to career growth and progression. In the past three years, more than 1,000 companies in the Asia-Pacific have become WEPs signatories and began their journey to infuse women’s empowerment across their organisation.

Taking this holistic view of the WEPs, businesses can help build a pipeline for access to employment by supporting community initiatives and leading advocacy efforts within their industry to ensure more women are included in fields like finance, logistics, and STEM. To support women in the workforce, businesses need to actively implement gender-equal recruitment and hiring practices and then further provide ample training and professional development opportunities for women. 

How can organisations steer clear of tokenism in their hiring and cultural transformation efforts?

We must understand that diversity does not automatically translate into inclusion. Many companies set quotas for women in management and leadership and think they’ve solved the issue once they achieve these targets.

One key to moving beyond tokenism towards deeper inclusion is mandatory and annual training on gender bias – especially assessing unconscious biases that have tangible impacts on workplace dynamics. 

  • For example, research has shown that when men and women work together on tasks, women are given less credit for a successful outcome, viewed as having made smaller contributions to it, and blamed more for failure – this is called performance attribution bias. When male performance is overestimated, women are often not given the same opportunities as men and are held to higher/stricter standards. Women tend to be hired or promoted based on what they have proven, versus men tend to be hired or promoted based on their potential. 
  • When it comes to promoting women in leadership, competency/likeability trade-off bias can lead to women leaders being seen as effective only when displaying ‘feminine’ aspects. As a result, women have to produce results and be liked which makes it harder for them to get hired and promoted, negotiate on their own behalf, exhibit decisive leadership and avoid “office housework”. 

Conducting regular employee surveys to assess DEI efforts and take regular ‘temperature checks’ on the perceptions to which efforts have been instilled into deeper business culture of inclusion can also be a powerful tool to gather genuine feedback and assess where gaps and opportunities exist.

Another key element is addressing DEI at multiple levels – Focusing only on one metric, such as the number of women on boards or in senior management, leaves out inclusion efforts for all other women in the workplace. Businesses need to take a holistic approach to offer training and networking opportunities, supporting women to advance in non-traditional roles, and providing mentorship opportunities for promising talent to advance to leadership positions. 

One final critical area of support that can have a major transformative effort is around what employers can do to support women’s unequal care burden. As I stated previously, COVID-19 has exacerbated the already unequal burden of care shouldered by women around the world, and this has a major impact on women’s economic empowerment.

Compounding these external factors is the higher rates of burnout experienced by women, and with the onset of the pandemic, burnout is escalating much faster among women than men. One in three women says they have considered downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce within the year (2021) compared to one in four women who said this a few months into the pandemic, according to a McKinsey report. 

Employers have a major role to play in supporting working women to address this burden and ensure they stay in and advance in the workplace. In addition to the actions mentioned previously, they can also explore innovative and creative solutions, such as contracting care enterprises (many of whom are owned by women) to provide care services for employees. 

A recent Harvard Business School report coined the term 'hidden workers' to reflect the missing talent pool in global hiring efforts. In your opinion, what is keeping underrepresented talent hidden despite the spotlight on DEI today?

There is still a hidden bias in many recruitments and hiring processes that mean women are left out of consideration. For example, automated review systems may overlook women who have taken career breaks to have children. Corporates need to look past gaps in resumes and also retain the talent they already have by offering a phased return to work options to ensure support for women to re-enter and stay in the workforce successfully. 

According to new data from the WEPs Gender Gap Analysis Tool (GAT) report, we see that currently less than a third of companies in the region (only 28 per cent) provide an option for a phased return to work after parental leave. As well, less than a third of companies in the region (23 per cent) provide mentorship, support, or training to refresh employee skills when returning from parental leave. In Asia, over one-third (36 per cent) of companies track the effectiveness of their approach to retain women after maternity leave. However, when it comes to reporting publicly to company stakeholders on the number of women who took maternity leave and the return to work and retention rates, we see only 25 per cent of companies doing so. 

What are some of the biggest challenges prolonging sustainable DEI? How can organisations overcome these?

Accountability is key to creating impact, and further measuring progress by integrating KPIs across pillars – from the c-suite into the workplace and marketplace – to ensure efforts go beyond a ‘tick in the box exercise.

To support companies to sustain efforts and deliver on promises, UN Women has created the WEPs Transparency and Accountability Framework, which has been developed using globally aligned benchmarks and sets out a series of essential indicators that any company can report on and that are most likely to create positive impact.

Making progress visible and publicly reporting on progress – which all WEPs signatories can now do on weps.org – can have a powerful catalytic effect to drive change within industries and among peers. At this critical juncture for gender equality and particularly women’s economic empowerment, we need more multinationals to take bold steps and publicly report things like women at all management levels, the gender pay gap, the percentage of new hires and promotions that are women, retention of women after maternity leave.

How impactful are virtual learning programs to sensitise the workforce and leadership towards being more inclusive? What are some essentials to shaping meaningful and transformative learning experiences and fostering a sustainable mindset and cultural change?

Virtual learning programmes can be a great asset to sensitise employees, but the impact depends on several factors. First, commitment and participation need to be secured at the highest levels. If trainings are attended by those without the real power to make decisions and influence organisation-wide strategy, results will be difficult to achieve. 

Second, learning experiences require a self-assessment before jumping into action. This needs to happen first at the individual level – recognising biases both conscious and unconscious – and how those result in tangible inequalities in the workplace. 

Third, reflection and assessment must happen at the organisational level. We have found that the most successful trainings are not based solely on passive input but involve active reflection on where the company currently stands on different inclusion efforts. We start this by requesting that all companies complete the WEPs GAT Tool and bring their results to our trainings. Further, all trainings are interactive and include worksheets to engage participants in personal and organisational reflection throughout. 

In UN Women’s ‘WEPs Activator’ capacity-building programs, which support companies to implement the WEPs and have been carried out virtually with hundreds of companies across the region, all participants are guided through the completion of the GAT tool and creating a plan for action using the WEPs Action Planning Tool. Both of these tools are fully aligned with the Transparency & Accountability Framework, and companies are encouraged to report their progress on the global WEPs site.

Particular to gender diversity, how do you see the role of men in enabling and accelerating gender equity?

It’s absolutely essential that men are involved in gender equality efforts and sensitised to their own biases so they better understand the unconscious ways they may be unintentionally furthering workplace inequalities.

As mentioned, it’s vital that male leaders, unit heads, and managers are involved in championing the cause of gender equality. We need them to not only affirm their support publicly or within the organisation, but back this up by participating in trainings, being part of DEI committees, modelling the role that fathers play in childcare, and speaking in panels about gender equality.

Originally published by People Matters in the section: Organizational Culture: Diversity on 16 March 2022.