Redefining DEIB With Local Needs in Mind

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Wednesday, June 21, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock / Akarawut Lohacharoenvanich
Western ideas of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are not universal. That’s why schools must tailor DEIB strategies to their local contexts.
  • If schools do not align their DEIB efforts with culturally embedded beliefs, those initiatives are unlikely to be successful.
  • Instead, a school should survey all affected stakeholders to determine their views of diversity and inclusion. Then, it can find ways to serve underrepresented stakeholders in ways that are compatible with local realities.
  • A good first step to designing culturally aware policies is to work with local stakeholders who understand DEIB—for example, the Sasin School of Management turned to the LGBTQ+ community.


How important is it for schools to approach diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) with the attitudes and beliefs of their stakeholders in mind? Very, says Drew Mallory, a professor of organizational psychology and management at the Sasin School of Management in Bangkok, Thailand. Conventional concepts of DEIB might seem universally applicable, but they often do not align with the realities of many non-Western countries.  

Mallory, Sasin’s Inclusion Ambassador, discussed the implications of this idea during AACSB’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Conference, held virtually in May. He urged attendees to dig more deeply into how their schools’ stakeholders actually define DEIB in a presentation titled “Beyond Best Practices: Rebuilding a DEIB Strategy That Meets Your Local Needs.”

Most DEIB scholarship assumes a Western—and often American—view of diversity, which applies “to 20 percent of the world at max,” he said. The tendency for scholars to import Western theories into environments where those theories haven’t been tested, instead of innovating within their own cultural contexts, “is actually causing a lot of harm within organizations,” Mallory said.

Designing culturally responsive DEIB strategies is not easy, he emphasized. But it starts with questioning Western-based assumptions about diversity and inclusion and testing alternative models in different local contexts.

“I will not be telling you any best practices,” Mallory told the group. Instead, he presented a series of questions he believes a school’s administrators and faculty should ask before setting any DEIB strategy in motion. He also shared Sasin’s own experience, which he hoped might inspire attendees to consider local context carefully as they design policies for their schools.

Question Your Assumptions

Mallory first guided attendees through a “thought experiment” to help them see DEIB from a broader perspective. The exercise involved reducing the term “diversity” to its simplest terms. “How would you define DEIB to a five-year-old child?” Mallory asked. By considering diversity in its simplest forms, “we can know that we’re all on the same page,” he added.

Next, he asked the attendees to share which stakeholder populations they believed their DEIB interventions would affect. Attendees began by pointing to obvious groups such as students, faculty, and staff, before branching out to include donors, alumni, corporate partners, Indigenous peoples, and the community at large.

Designing culturally responsive DEIB strategies starts with questioning Western-based assumptions about diversity and inclusion and testing alternative models in different local contexts.

Once attendees had a clear sense of their stakeholders, Mallory guided them through a series of questions that Sasin faculty have been asking in their efforts to reimagine DEIB within Thai culture. These questions include:

  • Would all stakeholders understand your DEIB definitions? Would they find those definitions important? How would you know?
  • What is the basis of your DEIB praxis?
  • Are you an insider or outsider for your stakeholders?
  • How might your position be used to innovate? How might it block you?
  • Could your stakeholders have ideas, concepts, values, or experiences that you don't know about? If so, how could you find out?
  • Are you the right person to find out? If not, where could you find champions who can help?
  • What does DEIB scholarship say about your discoveries? What does it not say?
  • What new questions will you need to pursue?

By answering these questions, schools could discover gaps that they need to fill before designing their DEIB policies. As one example, Mallory pointed to Thailand, which does not have the same racial and ethnic divisions as the U.S. For that reason, Thai citizens might not see how conventional DEIB concepts apply to them. If it wants its policies to have the desired effect, a school would need to consider alternative approaches that take this mindset into account.

The takeaway: If schools do not question their assumptions and tailor their efforts to the local realities of their stakeholders, their initiatives are unlikely to be successful.

Ask Stakeholders How They Define DEIB

As Sasin administrators and faculty build their own five-year DEIB policy, they face two central challenges. First, Thai citizens think of themselves as very tolerant of difference, so they question why anyone would lecture them about the importance of diversity. Second, even within this tolerant society, subtle yet pervasive cultural forces still lead to discrimination in the country.

With this in mind, administrators and faculty decided first to identify the different stakeholder groups they wanted to serve. Then, they conducted surveys to discover how each of those groups defined diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Once the school finished conducting its initial surveys, it was caught off guard by the results, Mallory said. For instance, when asked to define “diversity,” stakeholders often used terms such as trees, ants, flowers, and whales. Upon further investigation, the school realized that people in Thailand defined diversity in terms of nature and the environment. Those surveyed also defined “inclusion” unconventionally, linking its meaning more to welcoming someone into their homes rather than creating an inclusive society.

The takeaway: Traditional DEIB concepts can be lost in translation. To do DEIB right, schools should “do nothing” until they have clearly identified their communities’ needs and areas of concern. “It’s dangerous to start moving forward,” Mallory warned, “when you don’t really know what the impact of your intervention is going to be.”

Build on What Already Exists

Once schools understand how their stakeholders define diversity, their next step should be to identify existing resources, policies, and partnerships that could help them meet their DEIB goals. At Sasin, Mallory said, “we went back to the drawing board and said, maybe there’s energy in some other place where we can start and gain a little bit more momentum.”

For some institutions, this second step will reveal that there aren’t any existing policies, whether for their curriculum, admissions, or hiring. In this case, the easiest and most immediately effective next steps might be to develop non-policy-based approaches to promote DEIB and then partner with groups positioned to put those approaches into effect.

By building on the momentum of existing policies and partnerships, schools can open up many more possibilities to connect with organizations and drive change.

This examination led Sasin to two groups of stakeholders who already had a strong understanding of DEIB: LGBTQ+ leaders and neurodivergent individuals. LGBTQ leaders, especially, “knew exactly what we were talking about. They had the statistics. They had the facts because they were living it,” Mallory said. “This stakeholder group was ready to go.” Better yet, several of Sasin’s faculty were already conducting projects with members of this community.

It made sense to take advantage of these relationships. So, the school created an initiative called the TransTalents Project, for which Sasin released two videos. The first highlights the perspectives of 16 transgender business leaders. The second features Mallory and trans activist Nikki Phinyapincha as they speak about the discrimination and sexual harassment that transgender individuals face in the workplace. Mallory and Phinyapincha also urge businesses to embrace inclusive policies and serve as models for the upcoming generation of students.

The takeaway: By building on the momentum of existing policies and partnering with communities that already prioritize DEIB, schools can open up many more possibilities to connect with organizations and drive change.

Be Aware of ‘Hidden’ Values

Some Thai citizens have responded to the TransTalents videos by saying that they “had no idea that it was even possible for trans people could become business leaders,” Mallory noted. This response reflects the fact that while Thai culture is outwardly very kind, warm, and tolerant of difference, it’s not very inclusive, Mallory explained.

He referenced a 2019 UNDP report on Thailand’s “hidden” attitudes toward LGBTQ+ issues. The report’s prospectus notes that Thai citizens show “significant support for inclusive laws and policies, but also persistent experiences of stigma and discrimination, violence and exclusion.”

The basic tenets of Thai Buddhism play a big role in these paradoxical reactions, Mallory explained. Thai Buddhism combines Hinduism, traditional Buddhism, and Indigenous Animism, which makes it difficult “to tell what’s religion, what’s culture, and what’s individual tendency.”

As further explanation, Mallory introduced several local concepts that shape Sasin’s approach to DEIB:

  • Krengjai encompasses the idea of social consideration and respect. Krengjai means a school’s students and staff “will never say anything to offend you or to make you look bad,” Mallory said. They might agree wholeheartedly with a new policy, but then never think about it again.
  • Boonkun refers to the debt or gratitude one owes to others for their efforts on one’s behalf. Boonkun will prevent people from sharing negative opinions with those to whom they feel indebted, such as their parents, bosses, or other authority figures.
  • Kam (which means action in Sanskrit) refers to karma. This is the belief that people’s current circumstances reflect their past actions in this life or previous lives.
  • Tambun is the practice of “making merit,” or offsetting bad karma by helping others. With good actions today, Mallory said, individuals can improve their reputations and future karma.
  • Nata refers to reputation or “face.” In Thai society, Mallory said, “you never want to lose face.”

Unfortunately, some people in Thailand are automatically viewed as not having face because they are thought to be suffering from bad karma, Mallory explained. These groups include members of the transgender community, the neurodivergent, and people living with disabilities.

The school confirmed this through surveys conducted by its Neurodiversity at Work Research Centre. Researchers found that “many people with minority identities … are looked at as having gotten a bad deal because of karma, the bad karma that their families had or that these individuals had,” Mallory said. “Once you know this, it completely changes the conversation.”

It does not work to fight against culturally embedded beliefs. Instead, schools should find ways to serve underrepresented stakeholders that are compatible with those beliefs.

For instance, a transgender applicant who appears cisgender during the interviewing process might initially receive a job offer. But once recruiters receive the necessary documentation showing that the applicant was assigned a different gender at birth, “they’ll often come back and say, ‘We know that you’re qualified, but we can’t do this, because it would make our organization lose face as well,’” Mallory said. “That’s not actually necessarily true, but that’s the belief.”

The takeaway: It does not work to fight against culturally embedded beliefs, Mallory said. Instead, schools should find ways to serve underrepresented stakeholders that are compatible with those beliefs. For instance, while Sasin’s TransTalents videos might take Thai citizens by surprise, these videos bring attention to the success and good actions of transgender leaders.

The school also conducts surveys that make stakeholders feel comfortable sharing their true opinions. In addition, its faculty equip students with skills they need to have genuine and meaningful conversations (such as active listening), so that they feel safe sharing their true beliefs about difficult topics in the classroom.

‘Start Where You Are’

DEIB strategies can be successful only if they are created “in local contexts with local people represented by local values,” Mallory reiterated. “Start very small. Start where you are and just build outward from that.”

Mallory encouraged attendees to question “some of the fundaments you’ve always accepted as golden.” As schools do this work, they might discover that some of their policies were designed without stakeholders in mind. If so, they should embark on deeper investigations to identify intersections between their DEIB aspirations and their stakeholders.

If schools are willing to pursue DEIB “with a little bit less fear and a little bit more willingness to recognize that what we were taught is not always going to be the reality,” Mallory concluded, “we’ll probably be able to innovate a lot more in the spaces that we’re in, wherever they are.”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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