The DEI divide: How inclusion and equity lag behind diversity in APAC

Well Smittinet, Chris Beer / March 2021

Globally, we still have a long way to go to becoming a more diverse, equal, and inclusive society. In Asia Pacific (APAC), we’re starting to show positive signs of how people and businesses can encourage and drive change across the region, but there’s still some work to be done.

While some strides have been made to draw attention to gender equality, several factors such as language, cultural norms, mobility, and racial homogeneity mean the focus on mental health, LGBTQ+, race and financial inclusion has taken a backseat.

To become an effective driver of change, marketers need to understand the state of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in APAC, consider local nuances and cultural differences, and look for ways to truly help foster diversity and inclusion.

In our latest series, we examine the state of DEI in APAC in numbers, explore why progress has been slower in the region and offer solutions on how marketers can help be the drivers of change.

APAC is home to a rich range of people, ethnicities, and cultures, not to mention 60% of the world’s population. However, some areas in the region have shown the least amount of progress in DEI compared with other parts of the world.

In a recent GWI survey, APAC respondents scored the lowest on questions related to DEI topics.

APAC respondents scored 10-15% below the global average on questions ranging from the importance of equal rights to an interest in other cultures.

With such a diverse mix of people, it would be unfair to lump every APAC country into one bucket. APAC is a complex region; a deep dive into the data reveals the level of progress in different countries, and each shows a willingness to be part of the solution.

For instance, New Zealand scored the second highest globally on the percentage of the population who agree that people should have equal rights, while the Philippines saw the highest percentage of the population who agree that contributing to their community is important.

India scored well above the global average in the belief that immigration is beneficial for the country, even though the APAC region scored the lowest in this area compared with North America, Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

APAC might be lagging, but we’re still curious

Across these markets, the progress made toward understanding different DEI topics reflects their beliefs about equality, which in turn shapes their attitudes, curiosity, and worldviews.

As we learn from our “Year in Search” report, people’s search behavior provides a window into their intentions. We’ve noticed an increase in DEI search interest for terms such as “gender equality,” “cultural diversity,” and “inclusive education,” which rose by 45% over the past year, showing regional curiosity and a desire to learn more.

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This interest extends beyond an individual’s country: people in APAC also show an increasing interest in global diversity topics, even if those topics are not directly relevant to their own country. In 2020, search interest for “Black Lives Matter” grew by 40X in India and 90X in Japan as people looked to educate themselves on the events unfolding in the United States and other countries outside their region.1

We’re on the right track, but we can do more

Although searches show us that DEI topics are starting to gain attention in APAC, most efforts are directed to issues that are easier to discuss, such as gender. Over 60% of search interest in the top 100 equality-related search terms focused on topics such as “women’s empowerment,” “feminism,” and “gender discrimination.” 2 Although this is an important start, other topics such as mental health, LGBTQ+, race, and financial inclusion still take a back seat and must be more actively addressed.

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For example, the concept of mental health has traditionally been overlooked in many APAC countries, but across India, Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, respondents consistently listed mental health as one of the topics most important to them.3 Despite the stigma around mental health, consumers in Southeast Asia (SEA) have turned to Search to address their concerns privately. And in 2020, search interest for mental health-related topics doubled.4

Financial inclusion is also a necessary consideration in APAC, especially in more economically developed countries with a higher standard of living. Our survey showed that financial inclusion is the second most important issue for people living in Hong Kong and Singapore,5 the region’s economic hubs, where high rent and income disparity are ever present.

Companies in the region have made efforts to address this issue. The “SEA e-Conomy Report 2019“ reported that half of the adult population living in SEA countries do not have a bank account. But in 2020, we saw financial institutions and tech players begin to provide e-wallet and digital payment solutions to help fix this, with contributions from e-wallets growing at the expense of cash.

The biggest drivers of change, of course, will be governmental entities. But businesses can also catalyze change by understanding what DEI looks like in APAC and by engaging in more deliberate efforts to provide equitable products and services.

Marketers should consider their role in helping to challenge the status quo by offering a platform for underrepresented voices and replacing stereotypes to empower people to become a more active part of the solution.


GWI (formerly GlobalWebIndex) is the leading supplier of audience insight to the global marketing industry.

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