Why cultural contexts matter so much

Why cultural contexts matter so much


At the end of January, there was a complete absence of any women appearing to collect awards from the UAE government for progressing gender equality. In the West we love a story like this. It neatly underlines all that we believe about how women are treated in Arab culture. This is excellent proof of how we see the world and our brains will be more than happy to lap this up and strengthen our inbuilt unconscious biases (see here for more details on our unconscious bias training). It’s called a confirmation bias and we all seek out evidence in this way, often through the media.

I travelled to the UAE over two decades ago when tourism was just taking off there. As a young woman I was shocked and appalled by the gender inequalities, which were clear as day. Coming from my perspective at the time, it made no sense to me and I made some very definite judgements about their culture.

But of course we can see in this short vignette that I lacked the cultural awareness to really understand the context of the UAE. And without understanding it, I certainly couldn’t relate to it.

It seems to me that it’s exactly the same with this Guardian article and the responses to it. Where is the effort to understand the cultural context? Yes, the award winners were all men. But look how far the country has come just in acknowledging the need for women in the workplace. I don’t doubt there’s a way to go, but surely we should judge progress by the positive changes that have been made? Recognising the contribution of these individuals to drive change looks like an amazing step forward to me.

Curiously, in the West, we know that when men champion the rights of women it has great impact. As it does when any majority group acknowledges the contribution of the people who are not in the same powerful and privileged position.

I think The Guardian could do better here. We could all do better in fact, just by taking a moment to at least try to understand the context of a different culture instead of rushing to mock and make judgements. It’s called cultural adaptability and when there’s a lack of it we tend to think that the other party has all of the work to do. Given all that we’ve seen in the West of late, are we really comfortable climbing onto a pedestal on gender equality?

At EW Group, we can work with you to implement best practice in diversity and inclusion through our bespoke unconscious bias training, inclusive leadership for senior teams and building an inclusive culture workshops.

Rachael Wilson has led EW Group for almost a decade. She has designed and delivered sessions for senior leaders at Merck Pharmaceutical (Germany), adidas (Italy), Computershare (USA) and British Land Plc (UK). Rachael’s interest lies in bringing narrative and storytelling to the fore both in the design of diversity strategy and in driving inclusive behaviours. In addition to working collaboratively with clients, Rachael is responsible for the growth and development of our 50-strong consulting team who are central to all EW Group activity.

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