Global Chief Diversity Officer
Dr. Rohini Anand, Sodexo’s Global Chief Diversity Officer, has spent her career promoting diversity and inclusion. She’s been leading the charge at Sodexo for the past thirteen years. In honor of the United Nation’s World Day for Cultural Diversity, we spoke with Dr. Anand about the challenges of promoting diversity at a company that works in 80 countries around the world.
Q: How did your career path lead you to working on diversity?
A: I grew up in Mumbai, India, where I was surrounded by people that looked a lot like me, but they were diverse in terms of income, religion, socio-economic class and education. When I came to North America to begin a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan, it was the first time I was seen as Asian-American, and I learned how to identify myself as such. I had the experience of shaping my identity based on how others perceive me. That led me to do my Ph.D. research on identity formation. And that’s what brought me to the work that I do.
Q: You’ve been working in diversity at Sodexo for more than 13 years. In that time, how has the conversation around diversity in the corporate world changed?
A: I think, years ago, the conversation was very much focused on awareness and on issues of race. Unfortunately issues of race have not gone away, but I think the conversations have become broader to include people from different sexual orientations, religions and generations. Now the conversation centers on inclusion and making everyone feel they are part of the narrative.
The discussion of diversity has also become far more global. More corporations are operating around the world. Sodexo is a good example. We’ve committed to making a difference in over 80 countries with 435,000 employees. Each country has different diversity issues. Outside of the U.S., the diversity conversation isn’t about race, it’s about gender.
Q: Since diversity means different things in different parts of the world, how does a global company like Sodexo address it?
A: The only issue that we address globally is gender. A lot of what we do around the world is around advancing women in the organization. We had a global target to have women make up 25 percent of the mid-level executives, and this year we are at 31 percent. We recalibrated our target to 40 percent by 2025.
The rest is customized to the different countries and regions. Some countries you have disability targets you have to meet, in others you can’t capture disability data. In the U.S., race is a key diversity issue, but in most countries in Europe, it’s illegal to capture data on race and ethnicity. In the U.S. we might talk about inclusion for LGBT employees, but in some countries you can be put to death for being gay or lesbian. So you have to take it region by region.
Q: Are there any best practices that can address different issues in different countries?
A: We do share best practices, but we have to be very careful about exporting them. It comes down to being able to listen without judgment on different situations. If we go in with our own biases, we can miss things.
For example, I grew up in India, so when I went back to India for work, I had my solution in mind. I thought the women there needed leadership development and mentoring — which they did — but then I asked the middle management women what we could do to support them. They said many married Indian women live with their in-laws. Even working women are expected to take care of the in-laws and do the cooking and housework. The solution we came up with was a recognition day. Families were invited to the office to see the women recognized for the work they were doing. It was a big hit because it changed the dynamic. The women said that after that day, they didn’t have to explain to their in-laws why they got home late. Even better, sometimes they would come back to food already cooked.
Q: On May 21 the United Nations celebrates World Day for Cultural Diversity. Do diversity programs benefit from these recognitions?
A: It’s a means to engage people in a different way. It’s great to take one of these diversity awareness days, like International Women’s Day or Celebrate Diversity Month in April, and turn it into an engagement opportunity for employees, clients and customers. For example, I recently heard that Coca-Cola did a series of interviews with customers around diversity. They used the interviews to create collateral for their managers sharing how customers want to partner with Coca-Cola. Something like that, engaging clients or customers, is fantastic.
Q: Have we made progress on diversity since you started working in the field?
A: I don’t think we’ve made enough progress. We are trying to do so many things at one time. We’re trying to get buy in, convince people, and raise awareness. But at the same time we are also trying to go narrow and deep in terms of unpacking the barriers that prevent, for instance, women progressing in the organization. I think we need to get a lot more focused in how we address the issue. At Sodexo we’ve done a good job in changing the culture and engaging people. I’ve seen good results here, but we’re not going to get complacent.
Rohini Anand, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President Corporate Responsibility and Global Chief Diversity Officer for Sodexo. She is responsible for the strategic direction, implementation and alignment of Sodexo’s integrated global diversity and inclusion initiatives, as well as Sodexo’s sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and wellness strategies. Dr. Anand is considered a pioneer and subject matter expert on organizational change and diversity and inclusion, she has authored several articles and has been published in numerous trade journals.