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Delving Deeper into Principle 1

The first principle in my upcoming book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations, is Make it Local.

  • How do organizations localize a global change strategy?

  • How do we understand and respect local contexts with their specific cultural values, and simultaneously push for change?

  • To what extent do we adapt to each context?

My trip to Bahrain to conduct a workshop for the Sodexo team in Saudi Arabia was a very moving and compelling experience. I spent the day in a room full of mostly men including one Saudi man in his flowing white thobe and several South Asian men. At one end of the room along with me, were the three Saudi women in their tastefully embroidered pastel abayas. After an initial hesitancy, the women participated fully and shared their views energetically.

Engaging with the Saudi women was a disruptive experience for me. I had heard about the high education level amongst Saudi women but I also knew that Saudi Arabia is ranked 146 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report [1]. I was familiar with the fact that for years, Saudi women were considered legal minors and subject to a far-reaching male guardianship system that required permission to travel, work, and more [2]. Listening to the life- stories that the women shared and awed by the drive and ambition with which they approached their work and their curiosity about the world, left me inspired and humbled! I learned that the Saudi Sodexo leadership team noticed things opening up and pushed to hire more Saudi women. According to Sharia law, women had to work in a separate room with the door closed. They were not to be seen by male colleagues, and they had to communicate via an intercom. Men could not enter the space where they were working without announcing themselves, and if women were to stray from that area—say for a work meeting—they needed a male Muslim chaperone. I asked myself whether it would have been productive to view this situation through a Western feminist lens. The answer was that if the leadership had taken this approach, these working conditions would be absolutely unacceptable and women would not have been able to work for Sodexo at all. I would never have had the opportunity to meet these amazing, inspiring women! Now that they had increased the number of women on staff, the leadership opted for slowly stretching and disrupting the status quo from within. Some of the leaders were from outside Saudi Arabia so they walked a fine line between not imposing their views while using their “outsider” status to raise issues that are difficult to broach from the inside. The leaders told me that soon it became clear that the women would occasionally need to meet with male colleagues. But conservative men on staff pushed back; they felt it was not acceptable for women to have work meetings with men without a Saudi or Muslim man to accompany them. So, the Sodexo leadership put the dilemma back to these men. Eventually these conservative men proposed that women could meet with men, as long as they were sitting on different sides of the desk and the door to the office was open. The Sodexo Saudi Arabia leaders’ approach disrupted the status quo—using their outsider status they had the freedom to push for increased hiring of women—and then they invited the insiders, those with local knowledge, even those most resistant, to propose fundamental changes to women’s career opportunities. These leaders understood the local context in Saudi Arabia and with that understanding worked towards gender equity. Alain Morize, Senior Vice President, Energy and Resources, Sodexo US was one of the leaders instrumental in this journey. I am excited that he will be joining me on July 21st as part of the Learn from Leaders interview series to share more about his experience in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, and how he adapts to the local context while pushing for change. Learn more below! In next month's blog post I will cover the second principle, Leaders Change to Lead Change. In the meantime, my book is now available to pre-order.


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