Thought leadership from our experts

Diversity and its discontents

This publication is about diversity in the sense of "women in business law". As I reflect about the subject, during the summer of 2016, allow me to advocate here for diversity in a much broader sense.

I am a fervent supporter of Europe. It is probably because of my background and personality. I was born in 1975, in a country suffocated after 40 years of dictatorship, Spain. My grandparents were farmers, and my parents did not study beyond elementary school, never travelled abroad on holidays and, as the saying goes, struggled to pay the bills at the end of the month.

Yet, I was able to go to university. And I saw the country, as a teenager, improve little by little. I was part of the first generations of young Europeans to benefit from an Erasmus scholarship to study abroad. And, although the allowance was more symbolic than anything – from memory, less than 300 Euro of today per month, enough to pay for the rent of a room and some food – the experience opened a whole new world of possibilities for me: new friends, learning a new language, different ways of doing things, the ticket to an internship in the USA… A few years after that, I got a fantastic job, in the Netherlands (as transfer pricing consultant with KPMG Meijburg). Then, a European family. My children were born in the Netherlands and my husband comes from a third European country. As I work full time, my children have been growing up with au pairs at home: lovely, caring, enthusiastic girls, mostly from Eastern Europe.

Thus, I was upset and sad when I woke up the morning of 24 June and found out about the results of the UK referendum on Brexit. As the morning passed, and there was more information about the breakdown of results, by region, by estimated age, and news reports about nasty notes in car windows and paintings in international schools saying: foreigners go home!, I was sad, really sad. And a bit worried. Not about myself, my own job or safety, but about the future of my children: what are we leaving for them? A fragmented world, with new borders and neighbors suspicious of each other? Is that where we are going?

I am still sad, but I think I understand the reaction.

Back in 2002, Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz published a book titled: "Globalization and its discontents". The book talks mostly about developing countries and their "discontent" with the austerity measures that the IMF and World Bank were imposing on them –the so called structural adjustments programs. But history repeats itself. In 2009, the financial crisis hit mostly Europe. Seven years after, people in Europe are tired of "the crisis". The blame flies easier to "the other": the government, the establishment, far away supranational organizations like the EU institutions…

The blame goes also to foreigners. Immigrants, whether from the EU or outside the EU. Foreigner means "alien to one's nature", people different than me. Foreigners means people from another country, from another race, from another religion.

This, a mix of long economic crisis, a return to nationalistic feelings as a reaction to globalization, a growing fear of terrorist attacks, the natural reaction to try to protect yourself and your love ones and forget about the rest, is a dangerous combination. Europe knows this very well.

Therefore, even as a fervent European, my first reaction after the Brexit vote was to hope that the EU institutions would understand not just the message but the reasons behind the message. I am still hoping for that. This is not a good time to overreact, plan for retaliation, request a speedy exit, push for further-faster EU integration. This is time to slow down, reflect, take account of all that has been achieved in the 60 years (yes, only 60 years!) since the European Economic Community was created and think of the long term objectives of the European project: peace, sustainable development and social justice. This is time to bring back all our optimism, push back fears, think of the characteristics that unite us instead of those that separate us, and celebrate the diversity of Europe.

For these reasons, I am advocating for diversity in a broad sense. Not only about the number of men and women in management positions. Diversity in points of view, experiences, ways of working, and yes, also gender, age, color of the skin and believes. Diversity can be scary because it brings about ambiguity and complexity. But life is ambiguous, and complex, and thus beautiful and full of possibilities. The alternative is going to dark places that young Europeans do not even know much about, other than vague stories heard from their grandparents or seen in romanticized films. Yes, "life is beautiful", and let's not forget that.