7 min


Africa Forum: Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity, inclusion – and now fairness and belonging – represent major challenges for businesses. Not just because microaggressions are unacceptable and indeed illegal, not just because this is what talented people expect, and not even just because companies have an important role which they are obliged to play in society. It is also because addressing these issues is a prerequisite for innovation and performance. So, how can employers ensure that they are diverse and inclusive? Is it easier for those that have a worldwide presence? Not necessarily.


“Diversity is an important issue, and one to which I am personally committed. In addition to the much-needed talent which it offers access too, diversity opens up a multitude of perspectives, without which we would simply not be able to successfully navigate the complex world around us.” For Benoit Bazin, Chief Executive Officer of Saint-Gobain, diversity is much more than just an HR issue or a question of corporate commitment, it is a key factor for business success. We explain why.

Don’t turn your back on the best

Society is diverse. Whether that is good news or – in the eyes of some malcontents, bad – it is nonetheless a fact. As such, companies which prefer not to recruit certain people on account of their gender, age, social, ethnic or religious background, sexual orientation, disability, fashion style or any other criterion that might make them not different but unique risk passing over a large number of potentially talented individuals. Let’s opt for a deliberately not very politically incorrect example and consider tattoos. While tattoos have long been – and continue to be – an obstacle to hiring and promotion in many companies, we should note that in Italy, Sweden and the United States, nearly 50% of the population has a tattoo. That would certainly reduce the recruitment pool by a significant amount, no?

Look like your customers

If society is diverse, then so are customers. At Saint-Gobain, we design, manufacture and supply materials and services in the fields of construction, transport, infrastructure and industry all over the world. That means lots of markets, ways of thinking and cultures which are all... unique. To properly understand them and meet their needs, we have to start by looking like them and incorporating their conventions.

If we are able to understand our customers better and recruit the top talent, then we create a virtuous circle: we perform better. For those who may not be convinced, there is no shortage of studies demonstrating the link between diversity and performance. According to a survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group in 2021, companies whose management teams are more diverse than average are 19% more innovative than others, and post EBIT margins – an indicator of the company’s profitability – that are nine points higher than those with less diverse teams. Another figure in favor of diversity: according to the International Labour Organization, 75% of organizations which promote gender diversity in senior posts experience an increase in profits of 5% to 20%. 

Finally, in a society where employees are searching for meaning in their work, organizations must set an example by enabling everyone to work in an environment where discrimination has no place.

A Group vision, national diagnoses, local priorities for action

All that remains is to figure out how to get there. Paradoxically, the response is often more complex for multinational companies, who must deal with customs, cultures and legislation which can be very different.

Although one of the major challenges faced by Saint-Gobain at the Group level relates to gender diversity, locally the battles to be fought and the approaches available to tackle them vary considerably, depending on culture, history, regulations and customs.  We know, for example, that statistics on ethnicity are highly regulated and difficult to access in France and Germany, while in the United States they form the basis for diversity policies. Numerous other examples illustrate that it is not possible to adopt a single definition of diversity.

Look at Malaysia, where there is an explicit policy in place to favor Malays when it comes to employment, admission to university or purchasing new housing. Its neighbor Singapore, on the other hand, seeks – at least in theory – to offer equal opportunities to everyone.

On other continents and a different subject: in Jordan, the ability to strike a balance between work and family life is considered to be a luxury, while in Scandinavian countries simply noting that there is a potential difference in aspiration and treatment can be misunderstood. These perceptions stem from our biases.

In addition to such cultural or historical differences, some rules specific to business have been established. In South Africa, companies that wish to participate in calls for tender and win new contracts must be made up of teams which represent and highlight the country’s diversity: Black, White, Asian, Mixed-Race, male, female or other and people with and without disabilities.


In this context, as noted by Eric Portut, the Deputy Director for Learning and Development at Saint-Gobain, who was responsible for leading a workshop of 200 HR directors from across the Group, “it is not easy to define a diversity and inclusion policy at the international level. On the other hand, we have our guiding principles: a vision, and shared values and priorities. These will form the foundation for our future global diversity and inclusion policy...” At Saint-Gobain, this vision is illustrated by a number of values grouped together in a code of ethics which sets out nine principles of conduct and action, including professional commitment, respect for others, integrity, respect for the law, employee rights and so on. These principles have been translated into 31 languages and are a condition of belonging to Saint-Gobain. The implementation of these principles is carefully reviewed on a regular basis, as they are referred to in our indicators: diversity on executive committees, number of reported instances of discrimination, etc.

Finally, one of the six priorities for action in the Group’s strategic plan clearly sets out our position on this issue – “build the best teams in a diverse and inclusive workplace” – and is given equal weight alongside “position ourselves on high growth markets.”

Inclusion and Diversity

In terms of implementation, some actions are or tend to be shared. These include the upcoming roll-out of the Diversity Fresco, a workshop to raise awareness and take a step back from unconscious mechanisms of discrimination. Launched in France, with nearly 30 frescoes completed and 404 staff trained to date, the program is now being expanded to Germany, the United States and England, potentially incorporating adaptations in line with each country’s culture.

Other actions are by definition extremely local and/or specific to the work of the subsidiary. In India, for example, there is a female-only production line. In Africa, a mentoring program specifically for women was launched to motivate, advise, support and inspire, with the aim of creating the next generation of African leaders.

In France, a reverse mentoring concept allows junior staff who consider themselves representative of diversity to engage with managers. The idea is to open up discussion, promote dialogue and improve collaboration.

Saint-Gobain North America has introduced a second-chance hiring program aimed at Americans with a criminal record: people who have been convicted and have served their sentences but must now find a job to move forward. The program thus benefits them but also benefits society and, of course, the company, as these applicants often demonstrate a particularly high degree of commitment. They simply need to be properly integrated. And this, ultimately, is the difference between diversity and inclusion: if diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.