May was European Diversity Month 2021.

The definition of diversity might not be so clear for all, as the concept is becoming broader with time, seeing that globalization and freedom are increasing throughout the world. In particular, diversity in the workplace has become an important matter as we advance into a more inclusive and fairer society, and given that there is still a lot left to do around this topic, it is always relevant to remember the importance of creating a friendly working environment for everyone.

I myself am what everyone would call a “diverse employee”. Even when I was not living in a foreign country, my status as a minority in the workplace started when I was working in corporate finance back home. I come from Chile, one of the most conservative and traditional countries in Latin America: where women have one of the lowest rates of employment in the region, they are paid blatantly less than male counterparts for doing the same job and where the persistence of the conjugal society has affected the overall financial and working inclusion of women (World Bank). Finding a woman working in corporate finance in Chile is difficult, and even more when looking at executive positions.

One of the most interesting phenomena I have observed as a diverse employee, is how I passed from being “positively diverse” to being “negatively diverse”. In Chile, I was among the few young women working in corporate finance positions, this made it easy for me to navigate between jobs. However, this was turned around when I settled in Belgium in 2020. When looking for jobs in my field, I started to face the fact that I was “too diverse”: I am an educated woman with experience in international financial institutions and trilingual; yet I am not a part of the Belgian world, I come from a widely underrated region, and my kind of trilingual is not exactly the one employers in Belgium find useful.

Unknown is Unappreciated

The world is becoming superdiverse and this is a reality. Looking at Belgium, two out of three children in Brussels & Antwerp have a migratory background. Furthermore, Belgium is a country that receives a permanent immigrant influx, from both inside and outside the EU. This will pose challenges for both employment seekers and employers, as the situation will only increase with time. A study by Vlerick University carried out in Flanders, shows that companies in Belgium could more advantageously tap into the pool of multicultural talent. In 2017, first-generation immigrants accounted for almost 17% of the total population in Belgium, making it one of the most multicultural in the OECD area. However, it is also one of the worst OECD countries in terms of immigrant employment, with a 57% employment rate among foreign born individuals. Only Greece, Mexico and Turkey had lower figures (OECD, 2018).

The gap in employability between natives and migrants is larger for medium to highly skilled people. This is the result of several barriers of entry, one of most important ones being that what is unknown is unappreciated: companies/recruiters usually do not value international universities and work experience, leading to an under evaluation of the background of newcomers. To this, we have to add the usual problem that every migrant faces: newcomers usually do not have a local business network and have a lack of knowledge of the local work market. On top of that, many Belgian recruiters require candidates to speak Dutch and/or French. As international newcomers usually arrive only with a proficient level in English, the time to reach a professional level in FR/NL adds yet another layer of complexity when scouting for new opportunities.

This introduces the Belgian labor market paradox: Belgian organizations are looking for highly skilled talents and have difficulties finding them in the labor market, while highly educated newcomers face important frictions when trying to enter. Moreover, the HR-barometer[1], shows that selection and recruitment are within the top three priorities of Belgian HR departments, while diversity not quite. In fact, in a survey carried out by the recruiting firm StepStone, 31% of the respondents said that diversity is not present at all in their current company and 69% stated that workers with an ethnic minority background are at a disadvantage, irrelevant of skills or experience.

What about gender discrimination? Belgium seems to be doing quite well: the gender pay gap in 2020 was 5,8%, situating Belgium 4th among its EU peers with the lowest gap. Also, the country ranks 10th in PwC’s “Women in Work Index” 2019 ranking on women’s economic empowerment in the OECD. However, one of the key areas holding back Belgian progress in these matters is female labor participation, where Belgium ranks 27th out of the 33 OECD countries. In the financial sector, the lack of female representation is more evident: Febelfin states that women currently account for c.50% of the general staff in the industry, but at middle and senior management levels the number drops to 44% and 37% respectively.

Once you have landed a job in Belgium as a minority: is your problem solved? Not entirely. According to the same survey by StepStone, 71% of the surveyed respondents confirmed they have been discriminated at work, either for age (34%), gender (20%), ethnicity (17%) or nationality (15%). It is important not to only be open to recruit diverse talent, but also to create a prone working environment in which everyone feels included, respected and represented. The call is not only for diversity, but also for equity in the workplace.

My Experience at Ernest Partners

My experience with Ernest Partners from the start was very pleasant: during the recruitment process, the partners emphasized the importance of building a diverse team, considering both my gender and my origins. They highlighted my experience and language skills and did not put so much importance to my language lacks, as long as I was eager and willing to learn.

It has been a very positive journey to see how our team is growing within an enriching learning environment, both from our different cultures and financial experience. I have been able to share some information about my country and our culture, as well as some traditional dishes. Even if we are only eight people in our team, we have four different nationalities and speak four languages and even though we do not share the knowledge of all of them, the increasing exposure to a multicultural environment has opened our perspectives, allowing us to learn daily. As we grow, we want to keep emphasizing the importance of diversity, and try our best in finding the best talent that will bring the most value to our company.

We are in a key moment of change: the prominence of ESG is here to stay, and events such as the George Floyd incident and other discrimination-based headline stories will push the social factor of diversity, inclusion, and non-discrimination further. Companies that do not embrace this will suffer the risk of becoming obsolete. It is time to let go the fear of the unknown and open ourselves to see the value on what is different. It is then when we will really get to enjoy the advantages of diversity.

[1] A yearly survey carried out by Vlerick Business School and Hudson on the key HR trends and challenges in the top 200 largest Belgian organizations

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