Driving Inclusiveness, A Journey or Destination? Reflecting on our Story in MSD Indonesia

Ideally, the only diversity question to be answered would be about the best strategies to achieve an inclusive workplace – one where talent thrives, regardless of background.  The value of diversity itself would not be questioned.  And there would be no need to explain that diversity embraces not just gender, but religion, race, sexual orientation, age, culture and other human characteristics.

But in reality, we are not past these initial questions.

As with many things in life, seeing is believing – and the best way to evolve and accelerate diversity is to showcase success and the pathways to achieve it.

Over the last few years in MSD Indonesia, I have had the privilege of working with outstanding leaders.  We have worked together to enhance diversity and inclusion, asked ourselves hard questions and have gradually made an impact. In this article, I would like to summarize some of the most impactful strategies that I believe helped drive that change and achieve this diversity objective namely:

  • Targeted hires and career move to drive diversity
  • Building a healthy working environment where diversity and inclusion is the norm

1. Why target specific diversity objectives? Shouldn’t we just hire the best?

I have always believed that hiring and shaping career moves are the most important decisions a leader makes. My drivers have always been building a high performing team that is able to move fast, fail quickly and learn over time.

Well, that leads to the simple conclusion that all that needs to be done is hire the best profile for the role.

The profile that comes to mind as being the ‘best’ for any role is often based on examples of people we have already seen performing similar roles. For example, the preponderance of male political leaders in many countries can make it harder to picture female candidates succeeding, impacting voter choices.  Even though many of us are aware of such biases, they can still impact our views and selection of new team members. 

These biases can sometimes be reflected in casual discussions. Today it is quite easy to make sure that job descriptions and formal communications comply with gender neutrality requirements. What needs far more attention is our day -to- day communication and casual conversations.

In fact, language can be tricky. Most of us use English in business communication. Fortunately, masculine and feminine nouns have fallen out of use in the English language – except for some pronouns like he or she. Yet one quarter of world languages today uses grammatical gender, where most nouns, verbs, and adjectives change depending on gender.

As a leader, it is important to be alert to this.  Casual gender-biased language may imply a deeper unconscious bias on gender for specific roles. Take a look at these examples:

Once we find a new assistant, she will need to move quickly…

The IT lead role is so critical. He will need to be able to empower our digital transformation.

When we notice potential underlying biases like in these, we need to carefully discuss them and clarify what impact they have. The goal should never be to embarrass or suppress speech, rather to learn together and create a safe environment for everyone, including those who might not notice a slight underlying bias in everyday speech.

Deeper beneath this obvious form of bias, there are other forms that are much harder to detect and even harder to address. Those biases make it very challenging to bring a neutral perspective to selecting the “best”. This is why, even the best leaders can benefit from diversity targets. 

However, this is not an easy path. Here are just a few of the key challenges that I believe make those choices much more complex than just finding the best.


We want to hire high performers, achievers and people who have huge drive. This goal should not disqualify women who have taken time away from work to care for a child.  Though for some people, bias could make them think the first is more compatible with a male candidate, that does not depend on gender or a family situation. 

We need to look differently at those periods that women take away from the workplace, recognize the value in that time, and understand that those important experiences should not limit women’s employment opportunities.


Practical experiences are probably one of the most impactful learning platforms. A lot has been said about trying to provide equal opportunities, but until we achieve gender equality there would always be an opportunity gap.

The challenge lies in the fact that experience only follows an opportunity that someone would get. However, if there are already fewer opportunities for a sub-segment of your team – for example, leadership roles for women – how will you find female candidates with the experience required?

In the last few years I took the effort to train myself and my team to look not only for experience but also potential. Two people might have the same opportunity but make very different use of them. I try to not only ask when did you do this and what you learned but find patterns of thinking that distinguish high performers and people who are hungry to learn. I often found that people who are hungriest to learn are people who had least access to opportunities.

I am not advising that we should entirely dismiss experience. I am advising that we also weigh drive and willingness to learn, considering take risks on people who don’t know how to fully do it today, but are very willing and capable to do all they can to learn.


Traditionally, there are some behaviors that are culturally accepted by men but not women and vice versa. Women are sometimes labeled arrogant or too aggressive when they demonstrate some of the same behaviors that for men reflect a determined and self-confident personality.

The first female leader that I worked/ lived with was my mother, who never needed permission to do what she believed was right, and who was always a proof to me that women as men, can lead very effectively when provided the opportunity and the right setting. She studied for her bachelor’s degree while working in a junior money counter role. She then patiently worked hard for 42 years. By the time she retired she was a senior leader in Egypt’s central bank. It’s hard to draw a connection between her career beginning and where she ended, but it was only possible because of her leadership and because she was given the opportunity to develop.

I was lucky I lived my mother’s example! What she was to me, is what I believe we need to have more of in our organizations. Examples of strong women leadership in every organization to develop that familiarity and confidence.

 At MSD, our Asia Pacific region is led by a woman, who is also a great leader. After her every interaction with different teams you can see how she inspires young female leaders and gives them confidence. This isn’t something typically appreciated by men dealing with male leaders because they have never doubted that men can be good leaders. This by itself tells us how important it is to see more examples of women leadership.

This pattern of diversity is reflected in MSD’s global leadership.  MSD CEO, Ken Frazier, is one of only four black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, and a vocal public advocate for diversity. He has ensured diversity is a business imperative for MSD, committing to metrics to measure progress on diversity talent goals.

2. Drive enjoyable and safe setting where difficult topics can be discussed:

I think while targeted moves, hires and acceleration are important to trigger change, targeted discussions are critical to sustain it. I don’t think biases are addressed well in speeches and letters to employees. They are great starting points but not a solution by any means.

In the last two years I have come to realize the power of this dialogue and of creating a safe setting for discussions around diversity through involvement in the MSD Women’s Network (MWN). Don’t let the title deceive you. MWN isn’t only a network for women, it is a network for all employees, and it is there to achieve three objectives:

  1. Promote women’s empowerment, diversity & inclusion
  2. Create an environment conducive for self-development for Everyone
  3. Promote work-life balance and a healthy lifestyle

The three objectives may look unrelated, but improving our culture is an integrated process, and it requires everyone involvements.

I know all of this is may be easier said than done but what we have learned is instead of asking people to change and telling them what to do, we present them with the objectives and create the setting – then empower them to do the rest. In the Indonesian language there’s a term called ‘Gotong Royong’, which means mutual cooperation-in English. What I have seen with the team working on MWN is impressive Gotong Royong to achieve those objectives and create those settings. From sport days to competitions and cultural events we have had a lot of fun, at the same time creating opportunities to discuss difficult inclusion topics, present inspirational examples, promote healthy and balanced lifestyles and above all, learn together.

Today almost 45% of our workforce and management roles within MSD Indonesia are held by women. This might look like we are close to achieving workplace equality, but there is more that can be done. The objective should not be solely a ratio or numbers. True empowerment also needs to be considered.  We need to harness our momentum so we can further learn to empower and create a truly inclusive culture for everyone regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or any other affinity.

About the author

George Zaki

George Zaki

Associate Vice President of Oncology for Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa Region

At the time of writing this article he was Managing Director of MSD in Indonesia.

During his time as the Managing Director of MSD in Indonesia, he had the responsibility to continue MSD mission in Indonesia by driving broader patient access through strong partnerships with customers and external stakeholders, fostering digital innovation on the way of working and engaging employees while developing talent.

George joined MSD 14 years ago in Egypt and has since held numerous Commercial, Sales & Brand Management roles in Primary Care, Vaccines and Women’s Health. George then moved to Singapore to be the regional commercial lead for Diabetes in Asia Pacific where he worked with SEA, Taiwan, HK, India and ANZ countries. His career at MSD enables him to build a broad range of experiences including in-market and regional assignments that shaped his career today.  

George is passionate about engaging people, developing talents and understanding cultural dynamics. George holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Cairo University and an International MBA from ESLSCA University.

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