Achieving Gender Equity Begins by Looking Beyond Gender

Imagine growing up and constantly hearing that you should be a teacher. While you recognize that it’s an honourable profession, you are told it’s because teaching is a respectable job for a woman, and more importantly, ensures you’ll have enough time to fulfil your responsibilities – as a daughter, a wife, a mother.

While this was a commonly-held belief within the traditional Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in which I was raised, my family believed in allowing me to pursue my educational goals to the fullest, and they didn’t resist when I chose to study law.

I acknowledge that I am fortunate in this respect.

Nevertheless, traditional mindsets on gender roles isn’t unique to Asia – it exists in many cultures, all around the world. Consider this simple thought experiment: Without identifyinggender in advance, how often is our first instinct to assume that a doctor is a ‘he’ while a nurse is a ‘she’? While it’s true that a reaction like this doesn’t necessarily come from bad intent or to look down on women, unconscious bias, specifically those about gender, often runs deep as it can come from cultural elements embedded into our upbringing.

Still, it’s important to recognize that traditional values can dominate day-to-day experiences and interactions in Asia. In some cultures in this region, the responsibility of being a primary caregiver, not just to children but to aging parents, tends to fall mainly on women – who are alsooften raised to expect this of themselves. Underlining the traditional viewpoint that men are more appropriate for leadership, some Asian cultures may express a preference for sons over daughters, particularly for carrying on the family name or taking on the role of ‘head of the family’. These mindsets can be shaped from a young age; for example, gender stereotypes around aptitude and intellect have found their way into school textbooks in certain Asian countries1 – with women featured performing domestic activities while men are presented in professional roles.

What does this mean for organizations striving for gender equity?
Any organization is capable of creating a safe environment for women, one that empowers them to succeed. It’s not about being better than men, but about focusing on how both genders can enable each other to be the best they can be – and together, work towards overcoming the deep-seated societal mindsets that exist at an individual level.

Which is why, at MSD, our pursuit of gender equity actually begins by looking beyond gender.Here are MSD’s three focus areas towards building gender equity in our workforce and our work environment.

1. Embrace our differences
As a biopharmaceutical company, we have a responsibility to fully understand the unique needs of our diverse patient communities and the optimal way to achieve this is through the intuitive insights and first-hand experiences of our diverse employee population. In this region alone, our workforce comprises 55 nationalities over 4 generations, and almost half are women – making our differences, truly, our strength. This is why we focus on creating a culture that accepts and embraces each individual for their unique background, perspective, and life experience, whiledriving and rewarding behaviors that promote learning, experimentation, networking, sharing, and empowerment.

2. Focus on allyship
An ally is someone who acts in support of others to uphold a culture of inclusion, even when they don’t belong to the group directly affected by non-inclusive behavior.

In addition to an active effort to build a pipeline of female Asian talent for future leadership roles, the concept of allyship is a key focus area in MSD’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Men who are active and vocal allies can be critical to building a gender-equitable workforce. In September, all employees globally had the opportunity to participate in a presentation and dialogue on allyship conducted by a prominent anti-discrimination expert. In addition, all people managers have access to materials enabling them to facilitate an ‘Activating Allyship’ program for their teams, which is designed to help employees to better understand what it means and what it takes to be an ally to their colleagues in under-represented groups, starting with those in their very own teams.

3. Enable an inclusive culture, not just for some but for all
Of course, gender is only a part of the story. We each define ourselves by not just one facet of who we are, but by the many facets that make us whole. In Asia Pacific, MSD has five Employee Business Resource Groups (EBRGs) where employees are encouraged to participate, share their insights, and learn about different groups of which they are a part or to which they are allied. Currently in the region, MSD has EBRGs that focus on gender, age, cultural background, sexual orientation, religion, and physical ability.

Participation in EBRGs is based on the principle that ‘you don’t have to be one to join one,’ offering all employees the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of and their networks withinthe diverse employee population at MSD. For example, men are welcome as part of the MSD Women’s Network; straight and cisgender employees make up a significant membership of the MSD Rainbow Alliance; and Gen X employees are active in the Next Generation Network.

Together, EBRGs also support the company’s business objectives when it comes to developing diverse talent through mentoring programs, articulating the needs of patient groups across the region, contributing to business insights, fulfilling our corporate responsibility objectives, andultimately, strengthening our company reputation.

Begin from within
Eight of the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries have signed the United Nations-supported Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Grant Thornton’s International Business Report earlier this year noted that the percentage of women in senior management in ASEAN has increased, from 28 percent to 35 percent2. These are positive developments and should be celebrated; but as a whole, Asia Pacific has a long way to go towards achieving gender equity in the workplace. However, as more organizations in the region embrace the importance of diversity and inclusion, we are already taking steps in the right direction. For MSD, success means being able to establish a psychologically safe environment for our employees, so they are empowered to bring their authentic selves to work every day and be the best that they can be – regardless of the limitations that others may seek to set on them. Regardless of gender. And regardless of age, cultural background, sexual orientation, religion, and physical ability.  

After all, culture doesn’t make people; it’s people who make culture.

About the author

Noora Alsagoff

Noora Alsagoff

MSD, Head, Human Resources, Asia Pacific

As Head of HR for MSD in Asia Pacific, Noora leads talent strategy, engagement, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and culture transformation across 14 markets in Asia Pacific. With more than 25 years of experience across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the US, she has a solid reputation as a commercially-astute HR leader with expertise in building organizational capabilities to achieve its strategy and vision. Noora also brings with her a deep understanding of the cultural nuances across the APAC region, and is well-versed in partnering, coaching, and developing international business leaders.

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