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Case study: How Agoda is shifting the dial on DEI by creating safe spaces for diverse employee demographics

Case study: How Agoda is shifting the dial on DEI by creating safe spaces for diverse employee demographics

Hailing from a small town in India, Aanchal Gupta has always been a strong advocate of DEI. As the global DEI leader for Agoda, she takes pride in building a more inclusive culture across its global markets.

Meet Aanchal Gupta (pictured above), Agoda's Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Leader. Based in Bangkok, Thailand, Aanchal took on the role about a year ago in 2023 and since then, has been focused on driving deeper DEI initiatives across the organisation.

Over the past year, the leader has been part of big decisions and impactful projects around the matter, such as:

  • supporting employee resource groups for Pride, Women, the Thai community, and more; and
  • conducting Agoda's Women in the Workplace Asia survey.

She tells us all about the experience in this interview with Priya Sunil.

Q How does the perception of gender inclusivity vary across different markets, age groups, and genders in Asia?

There are three key takeaways from Agoda’s Women in the Workplace Asia survey for Asia across 10 markets and 12,000+ external respondents – firstly, having balanced representation of gender in an organisation’s leadership is paramount; two, work has been done but a glass ceiling for women is still a widely held perception and three, there is a generation divide as to what is acceptable for gender inclusivity.

In order to empower a more gender inclusive workplace the three most pressing actions for companies are transparent visibility of opportunities, workplace flexibility, and access to opportunities.

Beyond these commonalities, the survey also unveiled a generational shift in attitudes towards workplace inclusivity. In contrast to respondents aged 55 and above, those aged between 18 and 24 indicated a stronger belief in the importance of a gender-diverse leadership team, while also being more likely to perceive barriers for women in the workplace.

Understanding these generational differences is key to building a truly inclusive workplace that fosters collaboration and encourages diverse perspectives to cultivate innovation.

Perhaps expectedly, given the diversity of countries within Asia, there were clear differences in employees’ perception of the status of workplace gender equality. In the Philippines, their position as one of the highest in Asia on the global gender equality index was reflected in the workplace, with respondents the least likely to see the glass ceiling as a continued barrier to their progress.

In contrast, in markets such as Vietnam and Thailand, over half of the surveyed individuals cited the presence of a glass ceiling, with Vietnam specifically reporting the highest instances of resignations attributed to gender discrimination. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia conveyed a more optimistic perspective, indicating the most significant positive transformations in the workplace environment for women in the last five years.

Japanese respondents demonstrated the most neutrality on the topic. Nearly a quarter of respondents from Japan were undecided on the importance of a gender-balanced leadership team, while nearly a third of them were undecided on the persisting restrictions of the glass ceiling. Reporting the lowest incidence of resignation due to gender-based discrimination at work, over half of Japanese respondents also found the workplace environment for women to have remained stagnant over the past five years.

18 to 24 were found to be less tolerant of gender discrimination. How can organisations adapt to the expectations of younger generations and create a more inclusive environment that aligns with their values?

18-24-year-olds stood out as strong advocates for balanced representation and fairness in opportunity in any workplace. The survey results showed that this demographic expects to see women in leadership and expressed the need for clear career paths for women into leadership roles, with visible and transparent opportunities and training ranking as the most important aspects of ensuring a gender inclusive workplace.

While companies that exhibit a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are appealing to this younger generation, they are also more likely to leave a company that they perceive to be discriminatory.

Creating an inclusive environment is not a one-time initiative but a continuous process of learning and improvement. More can be done to uncover any unconscious bias and cultivate better practices, and we are on this journey of improvement every day.

At Agoda for example, where we have a very geographically diverse employee base, we do it through our training programmes and learning initiatives. Through e-learning or classroom sessions, we help employees identify any unconscious biases and reinforce anti-harassment behaviour. Walking the talk, with top-down communication is also important – leadership communication and representation at various platforms such as internal townhalls, further contributes to fostering an environment where all Agodans feel safe and valued.

Organisations should also actively establish safe spaces, such as employee resource groups (ERGs) and other forums, to cultivate a sense of understanding, acceptance and belonging.

At Agoda, ERGs supporting groups including Women and the LGBTQ+ community play a pivotal role in providing employees with shared identities a secure and supportive environment. These groups serve as a platform for connection, community building, and advocacy.

At the group level with Booking Holdings, we also partner with external organisations, such as Catalyst, Workplace Pride, Everywoman, and Headspace to further advance diversity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives and provide training and resources. Our executive-level DEI Steering Committee, which includes diversity and inclusion experts, and business and functional leaders, oversees efforts by brands and their management teams to cultivate a diverse & inclusive environment.

Q In your observation, how have attitudes towards workplace inclusivity evolved across generations in Asia, and what factors do you believe contribute to this shift?

In my 14 years of corporate experience, I have observed a positive shift in workplace inclusivity. DEI has gained notable traction in the last few years. In Asia, in particular, we are seeing more initiatives aimed at supporting women returning to the workforce from career breaks, but I’ve been pleased to see a broader global movement towards creating empowering and inclusive workplaces.

Candidates today actively seek organisational alignment with their values, and do not hesitate to ask difficult questions before accepting an offer. At the same time, employees have been empowered to raise questions, vocalise their expectations and contribute to making the changes they want to see.

These changes are happening due to a number of reasons including generational mindset shifts and access to education, information, and social media. Some of the reasons for the change from an organisation perspective are:

  • Corporate initiatives, policies & role models: Companies are increasingly recognising the importance of fostering inclusive workplaces. Many have implemented diversity and inclusion programs, training sessions, and policies that appeal to younger generations and create more inclusive environments. Additionally, when leaders demonstrate visible commitment to DEI and champion inclusive behaviours, it acts as a catalyst for change, positively influencing attitudes and actions across different generations within the workplace.
  • Focus on wellbeing and mental health: There's a growing recognition of the importance of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, especially among younger generations. Employers are increasingly expected to create inclusive environments that support mental health initiatives and overall wellbeing.

Q How can employers leverage the changing attitudes of different generations to create more inclusive and attractive workplaces?

A few years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to hear from Lindsey Pollak, renowned expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, and some of the things she said have stayed with me to date:

"Leveraging the competitive advantage of a diverse generational mix is vital because it aligns your workforce with the varied markets you serve. In the case of marketers for example, effective communication is essential, and having an employee base reflecting your target population enhances this connection. Despite the proven benefits of diverse perspectives in driving innovation and business results, managing a multigenerational workforce poses challenges.

"To navigate these challenges, it's crucial to empathise with each generation's unique experiences and values, embrace flexibility without a zero-sum mentality, and assume best intentions, recognising our shared similarities amidst differences."

I highly recommend you read her guide to find out more: The multigenerational workplace: Your definitive guide by Lindsey Pollak.

At Agoda, we have a relatively young workforce with many of our employees falling in the age group between 26 – 40 years, but regardless of age or generation, we work hard to create a common baseline of values, mindsets, and behaviors to encourage us to come to the table ready to engage with one another in an inclusive manner. This ensures all employees have a common understanding of the Agoda culture and that each of us is an actor in contributing to strengthening it.

Further, we want to ensure that we have initiatives and policies that are tailored to the needs of all Agodans, as such, we conduct our Employee Experience Survey quarterly. This enables us to conduct regular pulse checks and the findings feed into our strategies and people plans. We understand that different groups of employees have unique needs and to accommodate these within reason, we have a flexible & hybrid work environment. Additionally, our ERGs aim to provide all employees with a safe space where they can come together to discuss challenges and find collaborative solutions for their distinct needs.

Q In your role leading DEI, what are some strategies and initiatives you've put in place to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the impact they have had on the company culture?

To make sure that we shift the dial, Agoda’s investment in DEI has been intentionally channelled into initiatives that enable, encourage, and empower diverse leadership teams through visible pathways and opportunities for women and non-binary employees to progress.

This is a new role within Agoda – it builds on the great work that came before me, including around Women in Leadership dedicated training programmes and mentorships. In my role leading DEI at Agoda, I take pleasure in advancing our initiatives for a more inclusive culture, overseeing impactful projects such as supporting ERGs and conducting the Women in the Workplace Asia survey. This survey aims to provide insights for both our strategic planning and other organisations seeking diverse leadership.

In promoting inclusivity, we've implemented practical measures like enabling pronouns on platforms such as Workday, Slack, and Teams. Our commitment extends to inclusive policies and benefits, including de-gendered parental leave, the Agoda choice benefit, and flexible work arrangements. We address specific employee needs through leadership and equity programmes, including spoken English courses for non-native speakers.

In 2023, we made significant progress with the launch of three new ERGs for Pride, Women, and the Thai community at Agoda. These provide safe spaces for employees to discuss challenges and build community.

Our senior leaders demonstrated commitment by attending the Pride march in Bangkok in June 2023.

While acknowledging the work ahead, these initiatives reflect our ongoing journey to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to contribute their unique perspectives.

Q From a strategic perspective, what are the business implications of fostering a more gender-inclusive workplace, especially in the competitive landscape of attracting and retaining top talent in the Asian region?

Promoting a gender-inclusive workplace in the competitive Asian landscape carries significant strategic implications for attracting and retaining top talent, such as:

  • Access to a diverse talent pool
  • Improved employee engagement and productivity
  • Diverse thinking and perspectives, providing more innovative solutions
  • Enhanced leadership development and succession planning with the implementation of programs to meet the diverse needs of Underrepresented Communities (URCs)
  • Improved retention by cultivating a sense of belonging and investment in development of employees.

Q On the personal front, how are you advocating DEI in your daily life?

My path to becoming a DEI practitioner has been deeply personal, rooted in my upbringing in a conservative business family in a small town in India. I have been a strong advocate for DEI from a young age, even before I was familiar with the terminology. As such, advocating for DEI is not only natural for me but has also become an integral part of my life in many ways:

  • Listen to and amplify marginalised voices – I do this by supporting and encouraging folks from URCs to speak up, stand up for themselves and fight the good fight.
  • Continuous learning and education – DEI is a field that is continuously evolving and it is important to read and stay updated on current topics. I follow platforms and creators that showcase diverse voices and I have found some to be highly informative and eye-opening.
  • Challenge my own biases – Self-reflection is a powerful tool and I reflect on my own biases and privilege, learning and unlearning biases that may exist within me as well.
  • Engaging in conversations – DEI has become a dinner table topic of discussion these days. It is interesting to have these conversations with friends and family to understand perspectives beyond the workplace and to be able to bring folks further along in their DEI journey. It also helps that at home, there is a generational mix, and the conversations revolve around the younger generation’s behaviours and values not going down well with the older generations. This makes for an interesting opportunity to champion for DEI at home.

ALSO READ: Q&A: How Agoda fosters a culture that balances entrepreneurship and experimentation

 Photo: Provided

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