Issue 121 | Apr-Jun 2020

Rocking the Boat for Good

Shaking up the status quo is at times necessary in order to level the playing field for all people; it has also been a lifelong calling for Royal Dutch Shell’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Ms Lyn Lee (Arts and Social Sciences ’89).

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WHO IS SHE?

Ms Lyn Lee is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Officer at energy company Royal Dutch Shell — the first Asian female to ever hold this position. Working with teams in Shell offices across the globe, she strives to accelerate the progress of gender balance in senior leadership and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) roles and is committed to driving workplace inclusion for various under-represented groups. 
   
Growing up, Ms Lyn Lee noticed that her parents often made a conscious effort to care for those who were under-represented, including hiring workers with disabilities to run their business. “I remember we had two staff who were on the autism spectrum, although I’m sure nobody in my family knew the official terms back then,” says the 52 year-old. “Beyond just offering them respectable jobs with decent salaries, my mum also took care of their well-being, offering extra money when their family members were unwell.”

Ms Lee also recounts how her grandfather, a landowner in Punggol, would generously welcome other families to build houses on his land, without charging them. “My parents and grandparents were my role models in that sense; they raised me to look out for those who are often marginalised or not as privileged as my family,” she says. Those childhood observations certainly influenced how Ms Lee would navigate her own life, and eventually, her career. “That’s why I believe in leading by example — if you truly care and are committed, others will see the impact of your actions and will also want to be a part of it.”

These days, Ms Lee — a single mother to two daughters aged 23 and 19 — champions gender balance, promotes the destigmatising of mental illness and drives workplace inclusion of People with Disabilities (PwD) and different sexual orientation (LGBT+) as the Chief Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Officer at energy company Royal Dutch Shell. As the first person out of Europe to fill this global role, Ms Lee feels privileged. “For a European multinational to pick an Asian female for the position speaks volumes about what the company stands for,” she says. “I am honoured and happy to be able to give [the role] a new perspective.”

BRINGING ONE’S WHOLE SELF TO WORK

A diverse workforce, in Ms Lee’s view, is one where there are “different genders, ethnicities, generations — anything and everything that creates a diversity of viewpoints so we are not all thinking the same.” The irony when there is diversity, however, is that some groups get included and others excluded, she points out. “So my team’s job is to create a culture where it is safe for different people to have different points of view, and — in spite of those differences — are still able work in harmony,” says Ms Lee. “Psychological safety is crucial.”

One of Ms Lee’s priorities is to get more females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and C-suite roles. At present, 26.4 per cent of senior leadership roles in Shell are filled by women; the aim is to get to 30 per cent in the short term, she lets on. “And yes, the plan is to accelerate and get to 50 per cent eventually, but progress takes time and work, so gender balance will continue to remain our goal here,” says Ms Lee. She notes also that employees of this era gravitate towards companies with values that align with their own. As such, initiatives such as Being Yourself at Shell promote the ability to bring one’s whole self to work and encourage everyone to feel free to speak up. “No longer should we perpetuate the idea that employees should hide or leave their personal challenges at home; we acknowledge these challenges, in fact, we create structures so that in spite of those challenges, employees can still be productive and perform at their best,” Ms Lee explains, citing staff with physical disabilities or mental illnesses as examples.

Sometimes the law and policy simply needs updating. Speak up with the right intention and be part of the movement to change things for the better.

THE COURAGE TO SPUR CHANGE

Similarly, beyond the workplace, Ms Lee says that Singapore has what it takes to be a more gracious and inclusive society. “Many of us are aware and want to do the right thing, but what’s stopping us is the reliance on the Government to take the lead on certain laws or policies before we act,” she explains. “We are not willing to challenge the status quo for fear of rocking the boat.”

That being said, there has been more of a “groundswell” lately with younger people speaking up for under-represented and marginalised groups and starting social enterprises, she observes. “The time is ripe; changes happen when more people speak up,” says Ms Lee, citing the recent update in the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), which makes it unnecessary for employers to ask job applicants to declare personal information such as their mental health condition unless there is a job-related requirement. “That’s a huge step in the right direction, which took years and many people voicing up and strongly advocating for change,” says Ms Lee, who has persistently spoken up on the issue herself through the heartfelt sharing of her own struggles with bipolar disorder — a condition she has since managed. 

She was, in fact, one of the plenary speakers at the Together Against Stigma conference, organised by the  Institute of Mental Health and the National Council of Social Services, in October last year. In its ninth year, the conference brought together more than 500 delegates from 24 countries to discuss the issue of stigma against people with mental health conditions. “We must not be afraid to challenge the norm to benefit the whole society. Don’t be resigned and say there’s nothing to be done because the law says so. Sometimes the law and policy simply needs updating. Speak up with the right intention and be part of the movement to change things for the better.” In particular, more must be done for PwD, Ms Lee stresses. Hiring them should not be about having a token representation in the workplace, but more about recognising the value they bring — and acknowledging the fact that work can be done differently if accommodated, and that it is society that has put them at a disadvantage. “As a PwD in Singapore, they have to circumvent many barriers that you and I don’t, so if we just take those obstacles away, they can use that effort to be productive and contribute value to the economy.”

SOME WAY TO GO, SINGAPORE

lyn-2A 2019 poll by Kantar — a data, insights and consulting firm —  on workplace D&I practices surveyed 18,000 people in 14 countries

44% of Singapore workers said they are affected by “stress and anxiety” at work, above the global average of 39%.

Canada topped the overall inclusion index, with more than 40% of senior roles occupied by women. 

About 6 in 10 of US workers also believed their employers were actively trying to be more inclusive and diverse, although 17% of them said they were bullied.

From DREAMER to ROLE MODEL

Part of the pioneer batch of Psychology students at NUS when the department was first launched in 1986, Ms Lee quips that her peers then would not have imagined being on the path she is on today. “I was such a ‘blur sotong’ in my student years, always daydreaming and in a daze,” she says. “But stumbling into Psychology piqued my interest as to why people behave the way they do be it through social, cultural and other factors.”

After graduation, Ms Lee pursued her interest in the human psyche, and took a Masters in the same subject at the New York University, before interning and eventually working full-time in the United States. “It was then that I experienced micro-inequities, which as a Chinese Singaporean I would have not experienced back home,” she says. “Everything fell into place in my 30s — I found my passion and discovered my skills in organisational effectiveness and organisational development, and grew my career from there.”

Both of Ms Lee’s daughters are becoming “change agents” in their own right. Her elder child is a welfare officer and care champion in her college, trained to intervene should a peer experience distress or be going though a difficult time, Ms Lee says, beaming. And her younger daughter, who is studying broadcast media, initiates video projects highlighting social imbalance, income gaps and under-represented groups in Singapore. “I’m really proud of them,” says Ms Lee. “I have my role models, and they do as well; so having leaders who are inclusive and visible in their actions and passionate certainly makes an impact.” 
   
Text by Min Ee Mao 
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