The Cultural Lens in the Glass Ceiling: Diversity and Inclusion in Context

By Christina Heinrich, LCW Summer Intern

One of the greatest things I’ve learned interning at LCW is how absolutely critical it is to first understand one’s own culture to become more culturally competent. Although difficult, cultural self-awareness is critical because it turns us into third-party observers of our own behavior. It is an exercise in “trying on” a different set of cultural lenses. For me, getting to know my own cultural lens this summer has turned culture into something incredibly more tangible and malleable. I’ve reflected on how this process of self-interrogation applies to understanding diversity and inclusion as well.

Last year, two women were barred from taking their exams at Lycée Descartes in Rabat because they chose to wear the hijab, or Muslim headscarf/veil. Lycée Descartes is a French high school and is one of the top secondary educational institutions in Morocco. Though Morocco is a Muslim country where the hijab is prevalent but by no means obligatory—neither legally nor socially—many Western institutions there balk at hiring or admitting women who choose to be veiled, in large part because the hijab symbolizes gender inequality and female oppression in the context of Western culture. However in Morocco, the hijab can signify many things: defiance to Western imperialism and even freedom. As women have increasingly gained access to the workforce in North Africa over the last few decades, the hijab has in many ways facilitated women’s foray into public life, allowing them access to traditionally masculine spaces. Not to weigh in too much on the controversy surrounding French Islam, (public displays of religiosity clearly have different significance in Islamic and French societies for a variety of historical and cultural reasons) but when French institutions discriminate against veiled women in Morocco, they undermine the empowerment of women despite their intentions to do precisely the opposite. In a society where practically everyone is Muslim, discriminating against women who wear the veil forces them to make compromises between religious and cultural expression on one hand, and education and a career on the other. Even if disproportionate expectations of modesty in women exacerbate gender divides and creates a double-standard, a Moroccan woman that must choose between getting a job and wearing a veil may choose to simply stay home. In this way, banning head-coverings from the workplace or from premier schools actually disproportionately inhibits female access to careers, elite universities and other elite Western institutions and thus thickens the glass ceiling.

Here is a critical intersection of culture and inclusion where inclusion itself is deeply embedded in culture. Western institutions must treat Islam as a fact of Moroccan society in order to include women there. In the example of the two veiled students, a third party can observe how this cultural blunder undermined a French institution’s desire to uphold Western ideals of gender equality: in a Muslim country, denying veiled women certain privileges excludes many women simply based on their cultural and religious expression.

Let’s take an example from a culture a little closer to home: an Australian man named Kim O’Grady with experience in engineering, sales, and managing technical and trade supply business was down on his luck applying to jobs—until he tacked “Mr.” onto his name on his CV. After months of coming up empty handed, O’Grady got an interview for the very next job he applied for. At his previous job there had been one female manager at his level. O’Grady’s experience called into question prior misconceptions about women in his field: that his female colleague was proof that women are not forbidden from reaching the top, but most just didn’t want to. O’Grady’s experience of “getting hit on the head with a big sheet of unbreakable glass ceiling” caused him to question his own biases just as experiences of cultural dissonance force us to examine our own culture. In my own experiences with cultural dissonance (when my words, my gestures, and my body language are not perceived in a way I expect, despite my best intentions), simple interactions that I normally navigate fluently at home become inexplicably difficult abroad. Although my first instinct might be to wonder what is wrong with those people who can’t understand what I mean, I have learned that it is imperative to first interrogate my own cultural standpoint in the interaction. Overcoming unconscious biases requires the same process. Like our cultural lenses, we may not be aware of those biases that create the glass ceiling.

Global D&I policies created by multi-national organizations must tackle the issue of inclusion as a culturally embedded phenomenon itself, where the success of D&I policy depends on the locality of its implementation. In the spring of 2013, LCW surveyed multi-national organizations about their global employee resource groups, a staple of D&I, and found that ERG membership is growing all over the world (with women’s groups being the most prolific). Surveyed organizations reported that ERGs outside the US are largely governed and funded locally or regionally, and most often form their own local or regional priorities, agendas, missions, context, programming, etc. These grassroots ERGs are an ideal forum for unpacking inclusion within the context of local cultural institutions in order to engage a diverse workforce and market in a particular locality. As in the example of the Moroccan lycée, a policy that benefits women in one cultural context may not be as effective in another.

Cultural lenses and the glass ceiling are both translucent in that they fundamentally affect our interaction with the world around us even though we may not be aware of them. Discrimination, like culture, is often very abstract…until it isn’t. To truly engage different cultural groups, it is necessary to understand the historical and cultural situation of a particular locality—a process that starts with knowing how our own cultural institutions inform that understanding.


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