Challenges Of Championing Change

“Impossible is a just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it”. Words from Muhammed Ali quoted by transparency activist Gina Miller, in one of the wide-ranging talks in The Economist’s third global Pride and Prejudice event, titled ‘The Path to Advocacy’. Having covered the importance of LGBT inclusion and what outcomes would like to be achieved in previous years, this session sought to explore how we become advocates of change and particularly what the role of businesses are in this.

Miller’s contribution was seen by audiences in both Hong Kong and London and covered the key point of what an advocate is. “If you are an advocate, you are a change maker” she explained. She also underlined that it is tough being an advocate in the current political environment, where tools like difference and division are used and institutions and experts are devalued. She explains that, “when you say institutions don’t matter, education doesn’t matter, the rule of law doesn’t matter… what you’ve done is create an environment where people can’t speak up.”

Charles Goddard, editorial director, Asia-Pacific of the Economist Intelligence Unit kick started the day of conversations in Asia also making note of the unpredictable times in which we live. He explained that it may be that LGBT rights are being lost in the chaos of all the issues that have risen to grab headlines around the globe, from refugees to gender issues to conflicts around race and ethnicity. Results from an Economist survey of a wide cross section of C-suite executives and below globally, revealed six percent said LGBT rights are being negatively affected by the current global political situation. It also revealed that five percent didn’t expect LGBT rights to be part of a clear public agenda in the coming years.

Goddard also made note of the rise of nationalism and populism that could threaten progress made in LGBT rights. He cited the example of Costa Rican Presidential candidate Fabrizio Munoz, who ran on a campaign of anti-same sex marriage and despite losing, had garnered a strong following. 57 percent of those surveyed, Goddard continued, said that if left unchallenged, the current political climate could undo progress made in LGBT inclusion so far.

Conversations throughout the day revealed the benefits of inclusivity and that while there is still a long way to go, there are actions that can be taken to further the case for LGBT advocacy. Goddard highlighted that companies that engage in LGBT advocacy perform better than their competitors, making them more innovative and better able to retain talent. That is a sentiment echoed by speaker Harry O’Neil, Partner at Heidrick and Struggles who said that because of existing studies, “we are able to get across the point easily [to firms] that if their inclusivity policies are not attractive then they fail to become the employer of choice.” This is particularly true for the younger millennial generation, who just won’t accept working environments that aren’t safe and inclusive.

Kate Gilmore, the deputy high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, more broadly made the point that discriminating against the LGBTI community is anti-business and said that businesses need to hold themselves more accountable for basic human rights, “If you have people [working for you] you have obligations.”

Simon Baptist, managing director of The Economist Intelligence Unit in Asia took away from the day that staying neutral is not enough when it comes to this issue any longer and that brands need to speak up. Speaker Nisha Ayub, the founder of the Seed Foundation Malaysia underlined the difficulty facing businesses in speaking out by using the example of Mac makeup who she said are so ‘out there’, even Drag Queen, Rupaul was an ambassador for them, but in Malaysia this is not so. “They have to comply with the local laws and the local conscience and so on.” She continued to point out that the most outspoken foreign institutions on behalf of LGBT rights are embassies. O’Neill also pointed out that in Asia major international businesses lead the charge when it comes to embracing advocacy and inclusivity, while local Asian firms are still slow in doing so. When asked whether there was a danger of foreign firms overstepping their bounds while advocating, O’Neill disagreed explaining that companies can avoid overstepping as long as they make their values explicit from the get-go and further give the cause strength by teaming up with like-minded businesses to advocate in “packs”.

Maureen DeRooij, chief executive of ABN AMRO Asia Pacific reminded the audience not to underestimate the influence local institutions can have, highlighting the successes of the Pink Dot movement in Singapore. DeRooij went on to explain that advocating for LGBT inclusivity should be done with any tool available to employees. She said that being a part of a well-regarded brand gives you credibility and using that she encouraged everyone to sign petitions, use their positions and speak out both publically and privately.

As the day came to a close, Gina Miller in London emphasized the need to not forget to measure the progress made and then focus on clear, concrete goals, a topline strategy and committing to a direction when it comes to advocacy. With any change, there will be pushback she explained, but “we must remain vigilant”.

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