Gender Equality – The negative impacts of stereotypical gender roles on men

As passionate advocates for gender equality, we often write about why and how women should be given an equal opportunity at all levels of leadership. In doing so we also often address how biased thinking based on traditional gender roles can hold women back. When we talk about men, we typically focus on how they can, and need to, support women in reaching gender equality.

Today we are bringing men into focus and reflecting on some of the reasons why men are also disadvantaged by traditional gender roles and how men could benefit from changing mindsets about gender stereotypes. As November 19th is International Men’s Day, we thought this would be a good time to discuss these challenges.

Societal expectations of ‘masculinity’ and its negative consequences

Which gender comes to mind when you hear the words ‘breadwinner’, ‘strong’, ‘decisive’, ‘strategic’, ‘visionary’?

Many of us would think of a male figure. In most societies men are expected to be ‘strong’, not show vulnerability or emotion and not communicate their feelings. It is no coincidence that expressions like ‘man up’ and ‘real men don’t cry’ exist in our language.

These expectations can lead to toxic masculinity. The meaning of this term has been changing and is still developing. The concept is used in academia, media and now a wide range of discussions on masculinity and refers to cultural norms that can lead to harming society and men themselves. Themes that are often associated with toxic masculinity include: mental and physical toughness, aggression, lack of displaying emotion, self-sufficiency and emotional insensitivity.

What impact can these expectations have on both boys and men?

The impact starts early in life. I had a personal experience with this. At one point I noticed that my normally polite and kind teenage boy started talking with his school mates with a certain meanness and at times in quite a confrontational manner. I was duly unimpressed and questioned him, why? His answer to me was the following: ‘If I wasn’t like this, everybody would come after me, you would just die’. In his exaggerated wording he was referring to a form of bullying.

Men are supposed to be “STRONG”. According to many research studies, men seek help for mental health issues less often than women. While men have similar issues to women with depression, they may not actually recognise some of the signs. As men are less likely to admit to themselves or others if they are feeling vulnerable, they may not seek help until it is too late[i].

According to the WHO, more than twice as many males die due to suicide than females (12.6 per 100,000 males compared with 5.4 per 100,000 females)[ii]. This is especially true for adolescent males who are at particular risk of suicide[iii]. It is also interesting to note that while statistics show more women attempt to commit suicide than men, the methods used by men are more often violent, leading to a higher death rate. Singapore statistics show similar trends with 12.9 per 100,000 males committing suicide compared with 7.7 per 100,000 females.[iv]

An additional risk factor for depression can be isolation. As most business and political leaders are men, they are more likely to experience executive isolation. While it can be argued that being in control of the company serves as a buffer to loneliness[v], isolation is still a distinct problem that CEOs face[vi]. High level male leaders may not have many people they confide in and the idea of not showing emotion and showing an external toughness can further exacerbate this loneliness.

Not all men are the same, not all individuals fit these roles and expectations. Those who don’t ‘match’ the ideal stereotype of a man also suffer as they may feel they cannot be themselves or they are inferior to others. Recognising that men are also diverse, with diverse experiences, needs and feelings is an important part of changing our mindset.

Fatherhood and Family Life

According to a McKinsey study[vii] 90 out of 187 countries in the world offer statutory paid paternity leave but in almost every country the paternity leave is significantly shorter than maternity leave. And even though in OECD countries men’s use of parental leave is increasing overall, the number of days taken is still fairly minimal. As women are still often considered to be the primary caregivers for children, men are often discouraged or even penalised for using this benefit.

Looking at Singapore, paid maternity leave is 4 months, while paid paternity leave entitlement is 2 weeks as mandated by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). In 2018, The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) found that six in 10 dads in Singapore did not take their paternity leave that year.[viii]

Studies show that men who take paternity leave overwhelmingly view it as a positive experience. In addition to building a much stronger bond with their children, they report that they are also able to strengthen their relationships with their partners and feel energised in a way that positively impacts their work[vii].

The stereotypical gender expectation that it’s the mother who has to be the primary caregiver is often guiding court rulings in divorce cases and means that judges would more often give primary custody of children to the mother, at times even automatically.

There are serious consequences to all this. Men have less time with their families and are less present in their children’s lives. They cannot serve as positive role models for their children and are not able to build connections that will benefit their mental health. Giving men the chance to balance work and family commitments benefits men, women and society in general.

What next?

In a May 2021 Straits Times article Corinna Lim, Executive Director of Aware, addressed the issues of the negative norms of masculinity and called for a stop to bullying at schools, a move away from abstinence-only sex education in schools and a ‘weeding out of unhealthy practices’ within the National Service as these all contribute to the image formation of “what we believe a man should be like[ix]”.

Men, just as women, should also have more support groups. In Singapore a good example for this is Dads for Life. Men should be able and willing to share their worries and emotions in these groups where they won’t be judged.

While it’s extremely important to talk about these subjects, I wonder whether using the term ‘toxic masculinity’ is helping solve these issues as much as we would hope. Mr. Tan’s reflection[x] made me think more deeply about this:

“I have to confess that I couldn’t resonate with the term ‘toxic’, and I know this is true for many men, because what is described (as toxic) is so much a part of who we are as men.”

We all grow up with these expectations and changing the way we think about these things requires mindset shifts by all genders. We also have to be careful how this term resonates or doesn’t with men and whether using the word ‘toxic’ may sound as an attack on their identity.

In summary: We need to develop mutual understanding and empathy that these stereotypes harm both men and women at work (e.g. in leadership roles) as well as at home (e.g. in childcare).


Gender equality is only possible if we change our mindsets and give equal opportunities for all genders to share household chores, equal parent benefits and the same opportunities in the workplace. All genders, individuals, organisations as well as governments need to work together towards gender equality.

[i] BBC, Why more men than women die by suicide, 2019.

[ii] WHO, One in 100 deaths is by suicide, June 2021.

[iii] BMC Psychiatry, Expressions of masculinity and associations with suicidal ideation among young males, 2020.

[iv] WHO, Suicide rates (per 100,000), by gender, Singapore, 2007.

[v] The New York Times, Not Lonely at the Top, 2015.

[vi] Forbes, Is it Truly Lonely at the Top?, 2018.

[vii] McKinsey, A fresh look at paternity leave: Why the benefits extend beyond the personal, 2021.

[viii] Asia One, Why Singaporean dads aren’t taking paternity leave, 2021.

[ix] Straits Times, Review national service to weed out toxic masculinity: Aware chief, 2021.

[x] Straits Times, Both legislation and mindset shifts needed to counter toxic masculinity: IPS panel, 2021.

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How to include Men in Gender Equality efforts?

“Companies with more than 30 percent women executives are more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranges from 10 to 30.”

Diversity wins: How inclusion matters – McKinsey Report, May 2020


Most companies now realise the importance of promoting women in the workplace and have decided to progress on Gender Equality.

While specific female development programs are a must to help women climb the corporate ladder, we also need to create a system that supports gender equality. For this, we all have to work together, we must ally with men, include them in the conversation and engage them in making the changes.

In her Roadmap to Gender Equality in Organisations, Dr Zsuzsanna Tungli, Founder and Managing Director of Developing Global Leaders Asia, presents this alliance as one of the 8 key steps to gender equality in organisations.

In this article, you will find best practices on how men can be more involved in conversations about equality and become the best gender equality allies.


What Organisations can do

  • Set up a network for gender equality including men

Companies can set up a Gender Equality or Inclusion Network and invite men to networking events supporting gender equality. This will involve men in the discussion and engage them to act.

  • Encourage gender discussions

Give men space to share and focus on gender equality topics. For example, set up group discussions with fathers of daughters on how they would like to change the work culture for their daughters’ futures.

  •  Share and suggest concrete actions

Empower men by letting them know what actions they can take to support their female colleagues. Create a list and share this information on posters, send emails, put it on internal web portals.

  • Include men in gender equality trainings

Subconscious bias training should be offered for all employees at every level. Let all employees see why awareness about subconscious biases is important in their day-to-day roles and how these impact equality and inclusion.

  •  Set up cross-gender mentoring

Set up a mentoring program where men mentor women and women mentor men. This will create opportunities for both genders to encourage each other, share their challenges and successes, and address their biases.


What Women can do

  •  Include men in gender equality networks and conversations

Women can also play their part by including men in the gender conversation.

Men should be invited to networking events and group discussions to build awareness and give them the opportunity to share their opinions and ideas. This will help create alliances with men for all of us to act together.

  • Tell men (and women) when you feel excluded

Men often just don’t realise the challenges women are facing. Tell them why you feel you don’t have the same opportunities as men do. Tell them when you don’t feel listened to or included enough. Let them know when you are being cut off or ignored in a conversation.

  • Request a fair distribution of career enhancing and high visibility projects

Managers and colleagues often want to protect women from demanding jobs and assignments based on the assumption that women with family responsibilities would prefer not to take these on.

Make sure people know about your ambitions, make your voice heard if you want to have a new role or be involved in a specific project.

  •  Be a mentor to men

A mentor provides guidance, emotional support, and role modelling. As a mentor to men, you can play an important role in helping men address their own biases and fears as well as prepare the pipeline for the next generation of men allies.

  • Ask men to be your sponsors

A sponsor will not only provide you with career guidance but will also use his/her influence to open doors for you and push for your career advancement.

Ask men leaders to sponsor you and give you more opportunities and visibility in the (potentially male dominant) organisation.


What Men can do

  • Listen

Listen to what women have to say with focus, empathy and without interrupting.

Respect women’s voice in meetings and discussions and listen to their messages and needs.

  • Ensure women’s voices are heard in meetings 

Did you know that, in an average business meeting, women’s participation is 75% less than the participation of men?[i] Be aware of the tendency for men to dominate conversations in meetings and in everyday discussions.

Notice when a woman hasn’t contributed to the conversation and involve her by asking for her opinion on specific questions.

Acknowledge both men and women when they contribute positively to a meeting.

  • Distribute fairly and volunteer for ‘less promotable’ tasks

Recent research[ii] shows that women volunteer for less promotable (e.g. note-taking, planning and tracking of administrative requirements, organising office parties) tasks more than men and are far more likely to be directly asked to take them on.

Raise your voice when tasks are regularly directed to a female colleague, or volunteer to do it yourself. Encourage women you work with to say “no” more often and have their back when they decline less promotable workload.

  • Mentor/ sponsor female talent

Sponsor and/or mentor emerging female talents to provide them with more visibility, connections and opportunities. Encourage and promote talented women in your organisation to support them in climbing the corporate ladder.

  • Be a change agent for gender equality

Speak up when you notice inequalities, harassment or poor treatment.

Share articles and videos that support gender equality.

Support inclusive initiatives such as inclusive recruiting by considering more female resumes and having gender-balanced representation in panel discussions and presentations.

Ask yourself and others how you can support women better in your organisation, networks, or at home.

gender allies gender equality

With open eyes, sincere discussions and the will to progress together men and women can be the best allies to face inequalities.

As a woman, ask yourself what you would like men to know and how you would like them to support you.

As a man, be conscious of the challenges you can see and hear around yourself and find out how you can do more for the women in your environment.



Contact us to know more about our Roadmap to Gender Equality in Organisations and to get some support in implementing it in your organisation.



Resources include:


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Creating a Culture of Inclusion – Levelling the Playing Field
Affirmative Action: the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.

Artist: Angus Maguire. Original available from and

Over the last few weeks, we’ve held several workshops, with participants from various cultural backgrounds, on addressing gender bias to create inclusive organisations. In all our sessions, when we’ve shown participants the image above, it has led to a debate on affirmative action – whether it works, whether it benefits minorities and whether we recommend affirmative action for companies. This article addresses some of these questions.


Equity and Equality

Before we talk about Affirmative Action, it’s important to understand what we mean when we say equity and equality and why we differentiate between the two terms. As the image shows, equality, which is ultimately our goal, is being fair and treating everyone the same. However, we see that this fair treatment may not always give everyone the same access to opportunities – the shortest boy cannot see the game. This is where equity comes in – it involves providing individuals with the unique support they need in order to have equal access to opportunities i.e. giving the shortest boy an extra boost so he can see like everyone else instead of giving the tallest man a boost that he may not need.

Quotas and targets

The concern that a lot of participants had when they looked at this image, was the thought of losing a true meritocracy in the workplace and hiring and promoting based on race, gender, religion etc. Diversity is now seen as desirable for companies, with research indicating that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity outperform companies in the bottom quartile for diversity[i]. In order to improve their diversity, companies have created diversity targets, encouraged “diversity hires” and some have even set up quotas to push diversity and achieve more balanced numbers as part of their efforts for creating better balanced leadership teams.

Our participants were concerned that all the above can create a greater hurdle to inclusion, instead of resolving the issue. “Diversity hires” can be seen as less deserving by their colleagues and may be viewed with resentment or contempt. They may have to work harder to prove themselves compared to their peers and this might foster more competition, instead of inclusion, resulting in less innovative, effective and profitable teams.

The main goal of “affirmative action” was to communicate to firms something like “Don’t just stand there. Do something.” However, what they were supposed to do, aside from not discriminating, was unspecified[ii]. This resulted in the targets and goals and opposition from parties who believed that banning discrimination would promote diversity without the need for unfair quotas that are perceived to penalise those in the majority; or people who cannot understand how discrimination could end discrimination.

Diversity or merit?

One of the chief criticisms of affirmative action is that it seems to erode meritocracy, and in turn reduces the competitive advantages of a society and economy built on talent[iii]. While a completely meritocratic society, i.e. an equal society where all individuals have access to the same opportunities regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity etc., is what we are ultimately striving for, we also need to analyse our current systems: is our status quo truly meritocratic? Or do some individuals still benefit from privileges and advantages that have nothing to do with merit?

If the answer is yes, addressing these issues without compromising on the meritocracy is what equity is meant to achieve and, while discriminating to end discrimination would not work, increasing diversity has helped to change attitudes towards diverse groups. So, while “diversity hires” are counterproductive, actively seeking out diversity is helpful. An example of this is a company who, recognising that they lacked gender diversity, began actively seeking out CVs from diverse candidates in order to create a more diverse candidate pool from which they could still select staff based on merit.

Promoting inclusion

Instead of targets and quotas, we need systemic changes within companies and society — targeted recruitment, mentoring programs, open skill and management training, and diversity task forces — which can lead to significant and persistent increases in workforce diversity and opportunity[iv].

Ask yourself the following:

  1. What are the current numbers in terms of diverse representation across all levels of my company?
  2. What are the possible reasons for any imbalances I have?
  3. How can I address these imbalances in
    • The hiring process at all levels by ensuring I have a diverse candidate pool
    • Promotions and performance reviews by removing any potential unconscious biases existing leaders might have and actively encouraging diverse staff
    • Talent retention by understanding the reasons why diverse candidates might not thrive in the current work environment
  4. How can I further support my diverse talent? (Don’t be afraid to ask your staff what they need)
  5. How can I create workplace policies and practices that will benefit not just my diverse talent, but the existing majority as well eg. flexible work arrangements and greater work life balance.


The key to getting the best out of your workforce and staff is creating a real culture of inclusion in the workplace. This can be done by getting to the root cause of exclusion and a lack of diversity instead of setting targets that do not truly promote an inclusive workplace culture we all seek and benefit from.

[i] McKinsey, Diversity wins: How inclusion matters, May 2020

[ii] New Yorker, The Changing Meaning of Affirmative Action, Jan 2020

[iii] Forbes, How Valid Are The Arguments Against Affirmative Action?, Apr 2021

[iv] Harvard Business Review, Companies Need to Think Bigger Than Diversity Training, Oct 2020.

Want to learn other ways to make your workplace more inclusive? Join one of our upcoming programs to build your skills and support your inclusion journey.

Supporting Inclusion for LGBTQ+ team members – Practical tips for Individuals

One of the main requirements to create a truly inclusive work environment is to have a safe space for all individuals to thrive. This can be created at both the individual and company level. This article focuses on what individuals can do to support their LGBTQ+ team members.

As we approach the end of June and the first half of this year, we also approach the end of Pride Month around the world. This is a good time to reflect on the inclusion initiatives and campaigns launched over the past month and the first half of the year in order to plan a more inclusive end of the year and continue the momentum gained during Pride Month. We caught up with Jean Illyria, Growth Manager at Google and one of our panellists from our Inclusive Leadership Forum, to talk more about what companies and individuals can to support their LGBTQ+ staff and colleagues.


  1. Educate yourself

There is now a wealth of information available online to better understand the issues that LGBTQ+ individuals face and to answer any questions you might have about the community, the movement or individuals’ specific needs. Be aware of these resources and refer to them when you need[i].

  1. Avoid asking invasive, personal questions

Be mindful of the fact that not all individuals may be comfortable speaking about their experiences or challenges. While you may be asking with good intentions, respect your team members’ privacy and don’t push them to share more than what they are ready to share.

  1. If you do have a question you would like to ask, contextualise

Remember that as a representative of the LGBTQ+ community, your colleague may have received several similar questions about themselves or other members of the community. If you would like to ask a question, ensure you have built a relationship with your colleague and contextualise your question by explaining how much you already know about the subject and why you are asking.

  1. Introduce yourself with your pronouns

When meeting a new team member, state your pronouns along with your name. This demonstrates that you will support your team member to reveal their gender identity and respect their pronouns.

  1. Use gender neutral terms

Where possible, use gender neutral terminology if you are not sure about a person’s gender identity or sexuality. For example, instead of inquiring about a person’s wife/husband, consider asking about their spouse/partner.

  1. Be sensitive

Often the language we use or the jokes we make may be offensive to certain minority groups. Be mindful of this and choose your language carefully.


It’s important to remember, that while you may mean no harm, individuals who are different from you have different experiences and may not respond to things in the same way that you might. Pay attention to your colleagues’ responses and comfort levels. Focus on building relationships and trust between yourself and your team members so you are all able to communicate openly.

[i] Resources include:
Asia Pacific Transgender Network
UN Free and Equal
Want to learn other ways to make your workplace more inclusive? Join one of our upcoming programs to build your skills and support your inclusion journey.
Supporting Inclusion for LGBTQ+ staff – Practical tips for Companies

One of the main requirements to create a truly inclusive work environment is to have a safe space for all individuals to thrive. This can be created at both the individual and company level. This article focuses on what companies can do to support their LGBTQ+ staff.

As we approach the end of June and the first half of this year, we also approach the end of Pride Month around the world. This is a good time to reflect on the inclusion initiatives and campaigns launched over the past month and the first half of the year in order to plan a more inclusive end of the year and continue the momentum gained during Pride Month. We caught up with Jean Illyria, Growth Manager at Google and one of our panellists from our Inclusive Leadership Forum, to talk more about what companies and individuals can to support their LGBTQ+ staff and colleagues.


  1. Include a sentence on your website and job descriptions to demonstrate your commitment to inclusion.

For example, your mission and vision could state “we ensure that all our talent, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion etc. is able to thrive in our corporate environment”. All job descriptions could also similarly state “this role is open to all individuals regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion etc.”. This can make diverse candidates who might fear discrimination feel more at ease.

  1. Ensure you have strong anti-discrimination and harassment policies

This protects all staff in your company regardless of how they are perceived by the rest of the community and provides a safe space within the company. When making any amendments to existing policies or creating new policies, ask for feedback and comments from all employee groups to ensure that you understand how these policies impact and protect all staff as intended.

  1. Organise mandatory sensitivity training for all staff

In order to create a truly safe and inclusive environment, all staff should receive training to understand how to sensitively work with individuals who are different from them. For LGBTQ+ this training should include subjects like unconscious bias, inclusive behaviours and gender sensitivity.

  1. Ask new hires during onboarding how you can support them to perform better

Make it a point to ask all new hires whether they have any specific needs and require any additional support to ensure they thrive in your company. This could include discussions about workplace norms and rules such as dress codes, bathrooms etc.

  1. Support diverse Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Provide support for diverse communities to have their own employee resource groups so individuals can network and connect in order to feel supported in the workplace. These ERGs are also a resource for you to tap into when thinking about policy changes. Publicly list the ERGs that you have in the company so potential applicants can see that your company has already created space for diverse communities.

  1. Have a procedure in place for staff to ask for special provisions if needed

Ensure that staff know how to make requests for any special needs they might have and encourage all staff to state their needs by providing support and understanding to all requests.

  1. Encourage all staff to introduce themselves with their pronouns

This is particularly useful when hiring so applicants feel comfortable talking about their own gender identities.

  1. Use preferred names for all non-legal, non-medical activities

While it may be necessary to ask for and use an individual’s legal name for legal or medical purposes, always ask for their preferred name as well and ensure that this is used for their email address and all other communication within the company.

  1. Provide access to healthcare

If needed, amend company policies to provide employees with medical coverage for transition-related treatments, including mental health support, hormone therapy, or surgeries.

  1. Re-evaluate policies related to spousal support and parental support

Provide health care benefits to long term partners of employees regardless of marital status and provisions for all caregivers regardless of gender.


In addition to the tips stated above that companies can implement within the workplace, it is also important to recognise the pivotal role that companies play in creating community cultures today. If companies consider reaffirming their commitments to inclusion and equality when visiting recruitment fairs or conducting interviews with the next generation, we might slowly be able to create a society in which all individuals are valued mainly for who they are as people and what they contribute instead of their gender, race, religion or sexuality.

Want to learn other ways to make your workplace more inclusive? Join one of our upcoming programs to build your skills and support your inclusion journey.
From Categories, Stereotypes and Roles to Intersectionality

The most recent Global Gender Gap report states that due to the pandemic we have taken a step back in Economic Participation and Opportunity for women. If we continue on our current trajectory, it will now take 257 years to close this gap[i]!

We need to take action NOW to speed up the process and move closer to achieving gender equality in our lifetimes. During our first annual Inclusive Leadership Forum we asked our speakers and panellists to address the challenges associated with reaching gender equality. This article is based on comments from senior leaders at Keppel Data Centres and Google, our guest speaker Juliet Bourke, and from ourselves at Developing Global Leaders Asia.

Stereotypes – How do you see people?

We asked Wai Meng Wong, Chief Executive Officer at Keppel Data Centres about the challenges the tech industry faces. He stated that the largest problem with creating a pipeline of female leaders is the small number of women who opt to pursue careers in these fields in the first place. He also added, “I think most parents today will tell a little girl, ‘No, let’s not go into the engineering industry because it’s for men’. I think the narrative that we use to describe engineering and tech fields needs to change.”

We recently wrote another article on how gender stereotyping prevents us from achieving gender equality in leadership roles. Gender equality requires cultural change, and this culture change needs to take place not only in the workplace, but also in the home. The challenge is both encouraging little girls to take up careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and also to dispel the stereotypes associated with STEM and gender.

Wai Meng then continued, “One of the biggest challenges we see is the mindset of parents. We lose half the battle before we even start. Think about the toys little baby girls play with and little baby boys play with. Media publicity and education need to change so that the perceptions can change.” While we do have a great deal more STEM related toys that cater to little girls now, anecdotal evidence suggests that only parents who already question traditional roles buy these toys. But what about other parents? It’s likely that these stereotypes will continue to be prevalent regardless of the types of toys we produce. We need to think about them at a deeper level.

Categories – Making sense of the world

Why are these stereotypes and roles so deeply entrenched in our cultures? Jean Illyria, Growth Manager at Google explained, “I think it’s partially connected to our desire as humans to categorise everything. Sometimes we ask these questions, on surveys and forms, what is your gender, male, female? And then, of course, now we have that extra field that says others, trans, non-binary and all that. But really, the question is, why are we even asking this?”

Categories help people make sense of the world. But do our current ways of categorising people make sense? Do we need to add more categories to the idea of gender or to completely rethink how we view gender? Echoing what Wai Meng mentioned in his panel, Jean reiterated that the need to categorise can often do more harm than good in the workplace. She suggested that instead of asking these questions and forcing people to identify as one or the other, companies need to create policies and practices that don’t require categorisation at all e.g. gender neutral toilets, equal parental leave etc.

We need to encourage all genders to take up roles in engineering and physics. Let’s think about what prompts us to have these perceptions and categories in the first place. Most likely we learnt them from our parents, schools, wider environment and the media. It’s time to question these perceptions and categories, therefore we all need to shift our mindset for the future. Only then can we truly encourage girls to pursue careers in any field they choose. The same goes for little boys, instead of discouraging boys from pursuing traditionally feminine careers, perhaps allow children to select toys and activities based on interest instead of conservative or traditional gender expectations.

Intersectionality – Embracing people for who they are

Our need to categorise people based on gender, race or other identities prevents us from knowing and supporting people for who they are. It can also prevent us from having happy and motivated employees. When talking about the future of inclusion, Juliet Bourke, speaker, author and expert in Inclusive Leadership said “one of the things that is becoming increasingly important into the future is people self-defining their own diversity. So, I can define what aspect of me is important.”

As we all move through the world, we have different experiences that define us and therefore we may have different values and needs compared to others of the same gender, race, age etc.. As mentioned earlier, instead of companies creating categories, companies need to focus on how people see themselves and recognise that all people have different life experiences and needs.

We already know that the business case for diversity and inclusion is stronger than ever [ii] with inclusive teams outperforming other teams. A company culture cannot be truly inclusive unless all employees feel respected, which, in turn, is not possible if companies continue to attempt to categorise employees based on labels that do not fit the individual. Intersectionality, or embracing each person for who they are, thus further improves a team’s performance and a company’s brand as a desirable employer.


In companies as well as societies, we need to start seeing people for who they are and not place them into boxes, categories or roles that don’t make sense for all of us as individuals and for us as communities. Perhaps the question is no longer “How can we change gender stereotypes and roles” but rather “How can we ensure that all individuals receive the support that they need to flourish and reach their full potential regardless of gender”. This could be the key not just to gender equality but also to inclusion.

[i] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2020. Available at:
[ii] McKinsey & Co, Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, 2020. Available at:
Inclusion and Unconscious Biases

Unconscious biases

Biases are learnt associations that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, and influence our behaviour. We pick them up from our environment, such as family members, teachers and media. According to psychologists[i], we are particularly sensitive to these messages in our early childhood years as we simply absorb the world around us without questioning it[ii]. This explains why experiments[iii] with kindergarten aged children show that they already ‘know’ what colour of people are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Therefore our responsibility is enormous. We need to ensure that the next generations know that all people deserve respect and equal and fair treatment from everyone.

Why do we have these general points of view? We actually need generalised thoughts. Our brain receives approximately 11 million bits of information every moment, yet it is capable of processing only about 40 of these[iv]. Therefore, our brain distorts, i.e. emphasises or diminishes, deletes or completely ignores nearly all the information it receives.

Let’s say that you participate in a team meeting. There is a finance, a marketing and a technical manager present, and someone who is responsible for a big advertising campaign you are running. Depending on how each person’s brain is going to process the information presented, it is literally possible that they each hear something different. They may pick up all the information their brain deems relevant for them, and those data points which support their assumptions and thoughts. It has always been good practice to confirm understanding, get alignment about the conclusions, action points, persons in charge and deadlines in writing after each meeting, but now that we know our brain will react this way, we can also understand why it is so important.

In order to manage all the information we receive, we need categories which help us decide how to react to people and situations. We create these categories based on prior experience. From babyhood (or perhaps even from before our birth) we absorb information like a sponge and categorise this information. Imagine these categories like tiny drawers in your brain e.g. you may have a ‘drawer’ where you have the information about men, another one for women. When you meet a transgender person for the first time, you may not have a ‘drawer’ and you may not know how to react, or what to say. As you meet more and more transgender people, the amount of information you accumulate in this drawer will help you in your future encounters. If you collect positive experiences, see role models, etc. about certain groups of people, it is more likely that you’ll be able to interact with them in an appropriate and positive way.

Different sources discuss different biases. One issue with the early unconscious bias programs was that they covered too many of these and our brain was not able to process and remember them all. As we would like the reader to remember their biases and make a commitment to positive behavioural change, let’s focus on the following four biases that have perhaps the most impact on our every-day work activities.

  1. Conformity Bias: The tendency to take cues for proper behaviour from the actions of others rather than exercise our own independent judgment.
    Example: In business meetings where decisions need to be made, if the majority are people who are more similar to each other (e.g. men in most MNCs’, Japanese in most Japanese MNCs’, Europeans in most European MNCs’ senior leadership teams) they are more likely to have similar opinions. Due to the conformity bias the minority often may not speak up or may even pretend to agree with the majority’s decision even if they disagree.
  2. Affinity Bias: Favouring others that are just like us.
    Example: Due to affinity bias it may happen that we only listen to or put more value on someone’s opinion whom we consider (unconsciously or consciously) more similar to ourselves. Therefore, we are missing out on or even discredit diverse points of views.
  3. Recency Bias: A tendency to put too much weight on the most recent events.
    Example: Managers may rate employees based on their most recent performance without proper consideration of the overall picture. It can happen that the manager gives a higher ranking or better performance evaluation to someone who did really well in the last two months although they didn’t perform well prior to then, rather than to someone who had been a great performer for most of the year, but didn’t do as well during the last project, which is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
  4. Confirmation Bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs/hypotheses.
    Example: If you have a bias that a certain group of people does not perform well in the workplace and you have a team member from this group, you will look for evidence to support this belief instead of being fully open minded and consider that person’s actual performance.


Managing unconscious biases

Unconscious biases can lead to unfair outcomes in the employee lifecycle, including recruitment, promotions, assignments of high visibility projects, development opportunities, P&L responsibility, compensation and more. Most leaders would genuinely believe they are assigning and promoting employees based on merit, but the confirmation, recency and affinity biases often sway our perceptions, interpretations and actions.

Here are a few steps you can take for managing these biases.


  • Use neutral language in job descriptions.
  • Delete names and photos from CVs.
  • Use a diverse panel for interviewing.


  • Question your decision: Is it based on merit or am I ‘cloning’ myself?
  • Encourage high performers who are less likely to nominate themselves.
  • Seek out the opinion of a diverse group of people for promotion decisions.

Talent review/ performance management:

  • Don’t fall into the trap of ‘recency bias’, keep notes during the year and have regular one-to-one feedback discussions.
  • Be aware that some cultures and women are more likely to give themselves lower ratings because of their modesty and humility.
  • Don’t mistake humility for a lack of confidence or competence.

High visibility projects, development opportunities, P&L responsibilities:

  • Gather other opinions before you make your decision. You may think a decision is based on merit but try and reflect to see if a bias was involved.
  • Don’t assume certain people (e.g. women, shy people) would not want to travel to certain places locations alone. Try asking them and you may be surprised.
  • Don’t automatically ‘protect’ others (e.g. pregnant women, young mothers) by not giving them too much responsibility. Ask them regularly how they are doing but don’t let your bias negatively impact their development and career progression.

The cultural bias

Cultural biases are less talked about during unconscious bias programs, but have a significant impact on people who are working with different nationalities, be it in a multicultural office or virtually across borders.

We can only perceive people and events based on what we know. In the case of cultural bias – we need to understand our own culture and learn about other cultures’ norms and ways of doing things, otherwise there is a good chance we misperceive and potentially misjudge people as well as situations.

An example for this is promotion opportunities for Asian leaders in Western multinational companies. The leadership expectations are often formed based on Western behaviour patterns, and would include: speaking up, accountability, being transparent. However, in an Asian setting, employees may interpret these things differently. For example, hierarchy may play a bigger role as to who is going to speak up and when, the group may want to take responsibility for good and/ or bad performance as opposed to the individual, and being transparent, i.e. saying everything directly, can be tricky for those who want to keep the group harmony or save face (to protect someone’s reputation, dignity).

Misperceptions and misinterpretations can lead to broken careers and lost business deals. Therefore, all people working internationally should learn about general cultural differences, such as direct and indirect communication, different approaches to hierarchy, comfort with silence in communication, time perception etc., and build cultural awareness and competence this way. The next step is then to learn about specific cultures. The more you know, the more likely it is that you are able to communicate and collaborate effectively across cultures.

 Becoming inclusive

In summary, we know we need to simplify all the information we receive and we need to categorise people and events. Thus our aim should not be to try to rid ourselves of our biases, but to identify the few which may cause us to be unfair, prejudiced and/ or judgemental whether at work or in life in general.

The process we need to go through is the following:

Inclusion has gained momentum in 2020, although it has been around for a while. This was perhaps due to factors such as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Whatever the reasons, most organisations now recognise that building an inclusive culture is key to their success in the long-term.

In an inclusive culture all employees feel respected and valued for who they are and feel that they are given a fair chance for development and success.

We should think about inclusion on all levels, i.e. organisational, team and individual.

In an inclusive organisation

  • The leadership team set the tone and “walk the talk” on inclusivity. The top leadership (including the Board of Directors) should aim to be diverse and inclusive
  • The organisational culture is built on an inclusive mindset of all employees
  • The organisation’s policies, practices and infrastructure reflect the culture and create an inclusive framework

In an inclusive team you

  • Accept and respect each person for their authentic self
  • Encourage collaboration between different points of view
  • Have a sense of belonging and feel safe

An inclusive person is

  • Non-judgmental – reflects on and examines their own assumptions and behaviour
  • Is curious and keeps learning about all types of diverse people
  • Open and respectful to diverse ideas and opinions
  • Listens and asks questions

Unconscious biases are the biggest barriers to inclusion. Because of their very nature, the problem is that you cannot address them until you become aware of them. Therefore, the first step is always greater self-awareness. You need to reflect on your own perspectives and attitude. You can only stay or become an inclusive person and leader if you are genuinely open to and respectful of different people, views, ideas, perspectives, etc. If you are, then the table below suggests a number of simple steps to establish more inclusive behavioural habits.

Inclusive behaviours

Be a role model – An inclusive leader – Here are a few pointers how:

•       Mix with different people, search out and talk to people you don’t typically interact with. Try to understand their needs, thinking and behaviour.

•       Be curious. Ask questions in general. Ask a question before you share your own opinion.

•       Ask ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions – and give time for people to answer.

•       Actively listen to people, listen to their words and pay attention to their body language.

•       When you have to make a decision about recruitment, promotion, assigning someone to an important project, ask yourself: Would I make the same decision if this person was a different gender, nationality, had a different sexual orientation, etc. Or even better: try to imagine someone else’s perspective. For example, you are sitting in a meeting: Imagine, if I were a man/ woman, if I were British/ Singaporean/ Canadian/ Chinese, what would I say? How much would I contribute?

•       Watch yourself in stressful situations, such as being overworked, tired or hungry because we then tend to rely more on our unconscious assumptions and behaviours.

•       Find an ‘inclusion buddy’ to provide feedback on how inclusive you are.

•       Make small changes in your environment and encourage others to do the same. This can lead to a great ripple effect and ultimately make a real difference in your team or even organisational culture.


Your commitment

By this point I hope we all have identified at least a couple of action points we should take to better manage our biases. I encourage the reader to stop and reflect for a moment: What are the two or three steps you will take to further your inclusion journey?

[i] Amanda Williams, Jennifer R. Steele. Examining Children’s Implicit Racial Attitudes Using Exemplar and Category-Based Measures. Child Development, 2017.
[ii] Lee, K., Quinn, P. C., & Pascalis, O. Face race processing and racial bias in early development: A perceptual‐social linkage. Psychological Science, 26(3), 256–262, 2017.
[iii] Perszyk, Danielle R.; Lei, Ryan F.; Bodenhausen, Galen V.; Richeson, Jennifer A.; Waxman, Sandra R. Bias at the intersection of race and gender: Evidence from preschool‐aged children, 2019. (
[iv] Forbes, Your Brain Sees Even When You Don’t, 2013.
Asian leaders – Why so few in Western MNCs?

Our workshops on effective communication and collaboration across cultures explore the differences between Asia and the West and how these differences impact companies. In a recent article, we discussed different ways for developing gender neutral leadership. This article explores why most Western MNCs lack Asian leaders and how companies can create more diverse and inclusive leadership.


  1. The problem – low Asian representation in Asian and Global Leadership teams of Western MNCs


Recent studies show that the percentage of Asians in Executive Leadership Teams (“ELTS”) of the top 200 global companies is low. In U.S. companies, only 8% of ELTS are Asian, this number is even lower at 2% in European organisations. It is interesting to note that the single biggest group of Asian leaders are of Indian origin (see graph below)[i].

asian leaders in mnc

Source: CCL Research, 2018


The data clearly indicates that more work needs to be done to promote cultural diversity in global MNCs. Let’s consider the reasons for this lack of diversity:


Why do we have fewer Asians? Possible reasons

As the CCL research[ii] also suggests, we need to look at different levels: Country, organisational and individual.

Country: Development opportunities for talent may vary significantly. This could mean various levels of education, political environment, government policies or cultural norms that don’t support labour mobility as well as the lack of companies present with adequate resources. 

Organisational: Lack of resources, structural and policy issues can certainly be important factors, but headquarters’ and the senior leadership’s general lack of global mindset and trust in non-native talent may perhaps play an even bigger role.

Individual: The expectations of a ‘Western MNC culture’ and the perceptions/biases on both sides may put an Asian leader at a comparative disadvantage. Asian people in general also have more family obligations (due to cultural expectations as well as at times larger, extended families) which makes international moves that are often a requirement for senior level positions more challenging.


Why do we have so many expatriates? Possible reasons

Subconscious (and Conscious) Affinity Bias[iii]: Many Western MNCs employ expatriates in hiring positions and the recruiting firms also often pair up these managers with their expatriate employees.

Affinity bias suggests that we employ and promote people who are similar to us in some way, e.g. having a similar background.

Networks: Expats may have more extensive social networks to get to know about job opportunities or simply to get things done.

Company culture: Many companies’ governance structure, mission and value statements reflect the norms of the headquarters’ country culture. Western expats may ‘fit’ this culture better and you also need expatriates to spread and support the organisational culture’s expectations and norms.


  1. Why does this matter?


Diversity is good for business. McKinsey’s research[iv] indicates that “companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability. In addition, overall, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/ cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability”. Thus companies do not just benefit from diverse leadership, they are also penalised for the lack of it.

Asia – An area of growth. We cannot and should not underestimate the importance of Asia in terms of economic growth, population and potential workforce size. Companies who do not adapt their strategies to support Asian leaders with their unique knowledge and perspectives are likely to fall behind.

A mix of balanced global and local mindsets is needed. Expatriate assignments, international short-term projects, virtual teams are all providing an opportunity for widening one’s horizon, a more in-depth understanding of the customers, clients, suppliers, etc. in different parts of the world. The development of a global mindset is crucial for individual leaders as well as whole organisations. At the same time companies need localised knowledge to address the markets’ specific needs. It’s safe to assume that an Asian local leader is most likely better equipped to do this than a foreigner.


  1. Cultural differences


As we consider the clear benefits of having more Asian leaders, it is important to note the cultural nuances and dimensions that differentiate Asians from Westerners and may impact how Westerners view Asian leaders.

In general Asians are usually more indirect with respect to their communication style, have a strong sense of hierarchy, prioritise relationship building over task execution and are more comfortable with silence. This might mean that they do not often speak up in meetings or conversations with more senior colleagues and may be misunderstood by their more direct counterparts.[v] Often, in Western MNCs the definition of leadership is based on the Western model of leadership; a model that may not fit most Asian leaders.



A comprehensive understanding of these differences is therefore essential for creating inclusive leadership teams, company cultures and a space for Asian leaders.


  1. Next steps


For Companies: How can you develop your Asian leadership pipeline

  • Embark on a culture change: Commit to creating more balanced leadership teams, set targets, require succession planning involving local successors, etc.
  • Ensure that locals are key stakeholders in recruitment and promotion decisions.
  • Design and deliver development programs to advance local talent (workshops, mentoring, coaching, etc.).
  • Promote cross cultural competence and awareness for all.
  • Raise awareness and manage subconscious biases amongst diverse groups.


For Individuals: How to advance your career

  • Know who you are, be that person but also be able and willing to adapt your behaviour and communication styles depending on the situation and the persons you are interacting with.
  • Tell people what you want, i.e. if you would like to be on a project, get a promotion, etc. – say it explicitly to your manager or the relevant decision maker.
  • Be excellent at what you do, keep learning.
  • Develop communication skills across cultures.
  • Learn how to engage and influence senior leaders.
  • Build your internal and external network with diverse people in it, focus on those who can have an influence on your career.


As we mentioned in our previous article on gender, it is now more crucial than ever to build inclusive organisations that are ready to face the challenges in this new, uncertain and increasingly virtual world. Diversity of thought is key to creating resilient organisations and it is time to actively work towards filling the Asian leadership gap.

[i] Centre for Creative Leadership Research, 2018
[ii] CCL, The Global Asian Leader Research Report, 2018
[iii] CNA, Commentary: Why do companies still hire expat staff even though they seem to cost more? 2018
[iv] McKinsey, Delivering through Diversity, 2018
[v] Tungli, Zsuzsanna. The Culture Key: Between Asia and the West. 2020
Tips for Managing a Local Remote Team

I’ve been working remotely on and off for over 20 years; often in virtual teams across the globe, but also running a virtual team locally. Here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way:

Is the task completed? This was one of the main concerns for me. Not because I didn’t trust my colleagues, I simply wanted to know where we stood on certain projects. When you are sitting next to each other in the office, it’s easy to ask a quick question, and know everything is fine. When you are sitting in front of your computer and want to make an extra call or send a message just to follow up on a certain task, it can come across as a lack of trust, impatience and micro-management. I realised I needed to put a few processes in place. Based on my experience I’d recommend the following:

Managing tasks

Ask everyone to create a task list and share the updated version with you at the end of every week. This helped me keep track all projects and worry less about whether everything is being done and nothing forgotten.

Ask your team members to identify their priorities according to deadlines, importance of projects or other criteria. Ask them to mark these on the task list and review these priorities first thing on Monday morning. This helped me focus on the most important objectives.

Urgent tasks. If something suddenly comes up, as has certainly been the case in recent weeks, make sure to put into the email subject line something along the lines ‘urgent- please do this now’ and/or text as well as call your colleague. Flexibility and agility are crucial in today’s environment. I’ve discussed this with my team members, and they rose to this challenge wonderfully, and supported the seemingly chaotic task distribution extremely well.

Meetings and communication

Regular team meetings. I tried to run my local team almost 100% virtually for a few months, but it became clear to me that we all needed physical contact as well, even those of us who loved working from home. So, we started weekly face-to-face meetings, often followed by a team lunch. Since you may not be able to have any face-to-face meetings currently, make sure to have these regular team meetings, on the same day, at the same time every week – with video camera on!

Regular calls with team members individually. Just to check in. In addition to the regular face-to-face or online team meetings, we also established regular calls. These calls could last one minute or an hour, depending on how much we had to discuss at that point. These calls and the team meetings established a regular rhythm which helped  all of us function as a team.

Emails and any other written communication. I am trying to be much more clear and exact describing what I need compared to how I would verbally. It’s so much easier to misinterpret a casual message, there is no immediate feedback of a frown on the face, a hesitation in the body language or indeed anything at all.

Most of us would probably not get on a call immediately to clarify. This leads me to my next point.

Encourage quick, intermittent phone calls just to clarify emails. Again, the call can be very quick: Do you have any questions about the email I’ve sent you? What will be the first thing you think you’ll need to do? How can I help you do this? If there is already a great amount of trust between you all, the first direct (Do you have questions?) question will work, if the relationship is perhaps newer and the trust/ credibility is still being built, it’s probably better to ask open ended questions.

Establish the rules, and communicate your expectations, and most importantly follow through! Make sure you keep to the rhythm; it will decrease the immense uncertainly so many of us are experiencing now. Be transparent and share the ‘communication schedule’ with your team.

Communication shouldn’t always be about work

Don’t forget to bring fun to work, even if it’s more challenging than it would be in a face-to-face work environment. Fun should be part of our every-day work anyway. Yet, so many (most?) workplaces feel so ‘serious’ with their white walls and cubicles. A growing number of companies have finally introduced more colours, ergonomically designed and also fun looking furniture to their offices. You cannot bring fun easily to people by using colours in the office now but try something virtually. Ask your team members what funny or just personal stories they would like to share. Make this a regular activity. Every Tuesday morning, or every Tuesday and Thursday morning, or every morning at 10am or 4pm we will have a 15-minute fun meeting. People can share video links, cartoons, stories, pieces of advice, etc. during this time. Introduce themes to make it more structured if necessary: Remote working – fun moments, the virtual holiday – I’ve just been to Paris (saw the film An American in Paris), and so on. It may feel forced at first, but it’ll help with the everyday monotony, plus it may also bring all of you together. Try to make sure everybody shares something. Give a call to those who are shy, introverted, etc., and encourage them perhaps to submit something in writing, or just share a link of what they’ve read.

Virtual team lunch and tea break. Also try to arrange virtual team lunches, or if this is too big a stretch, virtual tea breaks. Everyone brings their cup of tea, coffee, water, etc. to the computer, and you have a chat. Ask your colleagues to share one thing that is positive about being at home, then also have a conversation about the associated challenges. Be the first to admit something is less than ideal. Have a toolkit of suggestions about what people can do to manage some of the negatives of working from home.

Create a team space online where all this can be shared. IT companies are currently offering a number of solutions even free of charge. Make sure you utilise technology to keep your team motivated. But make sure everyone has access! If someone doesn’t, reach out to that individual separately and make sure other colleagues reach out too.

Agree on which technology to use for different types of communication. We for example agreed that the general business communication is going through emails. When there is something urgent, then it’s time to use WhatsApp or give a call to each other. You may also want to split the channels for ‘serious’ and ‘fun’ messages and dedicate a place where everyone can post the fun pictures, videos, etc.


Summing it up: Set up a clear and transparent structure for workflow and communication, clarify understanding regularly and be patient. Most importantly, communicate, clarify and communicate more!

Top Tips for Effective Multi-Cultural Virtual Team Meetings

In the globalised business environment, virtual teams are a common organisational structure. This is even more so in today’s crisis-led world.

Virtual team meetings are becoming more commonplace than ever.

As long as you choose a capable set of underpinning technology, provide your employees with appropriate equipment and access, as well as apply more rigid disciplines than you expect in face-to-face gatherings, virtual meetings can be just as effective as the real thing.

Read on for our top tips on running effective virtual team meetings.


Tip 1. Pre-meeting

  • Ask for input for the agenda by sending out a group email. Call those who are less likely to respond on group emails.
  • Send out the agenda at least 48 hours in advance (when you have participants from different time zones).
  • Agree on the role of facilitator with responsibility for time keeping, agenda and ensuring everyone participates. Make sure the role is rotated among different team members.


Tip 2. During the meeting: Cultural Awareness

Every participant needs an understanding of the different cultures present; their cultural norms, their communication style, their behaviours and values. Basic cultural intelligence is essential to determine what aspects of an interaction are simply a result of personality and which are a result of differences in cultural perspective.

  • Learn about each other’s cultures by sharing tips on business behaviour expectations of your culture. Make this a recurring meeting agenda topic.


Tip 3. During the meeting: Understanding & Participation

  • Check for understanding by repeating, summarising and paraphrasing.
  • Unless the number of participants exceeds 7, ask each person for comments to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate.
  • At the end, summarise and confirm next steps, including tasks, deadlines and ownership.


Tip 4. During the meeting: Your Behaviour

  • Be courteous & polite.
  • Speak clearly & potentially a little slower than usual, especially for international teams. Don’t be loud and/ or patronising though.
  • Maintain eye contact by looking straight into the camera – don’t be vain & watch yourself.
  • Share the mic. Let others talk without interruption.
  • Limit side conversations at your location. Others will see your lips moving even if you have muted your mic.
  • Avoid the urge to multi-task. Don’t read emails, text, eat lunch.
  • Avoid pushing too hard if someone doesn’t want to share. Follow up individually afterwards.


Tip 5. Post meeting

  • Send a written summary of the meeting including: decisions made, follow-up actions, people responsible for these actions, agreed deadlines.
  • Ask for feedback on the meeting and the summary. This gives another chance for people to contribute if they didn’t feel comfortable doing so during the meeting.
  • Follow-up informally to check understanding and agreement by individual email/phone.

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