Unity in diversity


Country Director

Reflections on transforming theory into practice to create an inclusive workplace culture

January 27, 2022

The official national motto of Indonesia ‒ Bhinneka Tunggal Ika ‒ literally translates to ‘It is different, [yet] it is one’, which represents the principle of unity and integrity in Indonesia. After spending 15 years in this country, I often reflect on this concept and apply it to my daily life, particularly focusing on how to embrace it in a work setting for our NIRAS Indonesia team.

Developing an appreciation for inclusivity takes time and interaction with the right people as well as being exposed to new ideas within a supportive environment. Growing up in New Zealand and living in an inclusive society and family, I perhaps took for granted my introduction to human rights and good practices at an early age on how to treat others with empathy and compassion. Both my parents are persons with disabilities, which also helped shape my outlook on life. My mother has multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease, and has used a wheelchair for as long as I can remember. My late father struggled with Parkinson’s disease for two decades. Having loved ones with a disability frequently reminded me that you never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view. It was not until working in my late teens and early 20s in Asia and travelling the world that I realised and saw first-hand the significant inequalities that existed on how society, peers, families and organisations can respond differently to embracing diversity. This triggered my interest in human rights and appreciation of how inclusive policies and actions in society should be better enacted.

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David and some of his team meeting with NIRAS Governance Business Development Director, Maja Bosnic

Learning by doing

I took an unusual path to enter the development world, undertaking a career change from the private sector in my early adult years. I ended up in Aceh, Indonesia, soon after the Indian Ocean tsunami. I quickly became introduced to a melting pot of human rights ideas and managed diverse teams at a relatively young age during the largest aid response in modern history. This steep learning curve opened my eyes to different global perspectives and allowed me to form new friendships and find mentors to help guide me. Without any formal training on gender studies or human rights, and ‒ rather than learning the theory first and applying the concepts ‒ I followed my intrinsic tendencies from how I was raised and applied these views to learning human rights concepts and development work theory. 

My work over the next decade then allowed me to focus on projects promoting worker’s rights, persons with disabilities, discrimination of ethnic minorities, and gender equality across Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. This exposure led me to advocate for human rights, not at a political level but instead taking small steps to influence my direct networks and circles through projects, applying the principles to empower people and increase the ability of individuals and institutions to respect and protect everyone’s rights. In 2019, I joined NIRAS and established the country office in Jakarta, an ideal fit as NIRAS was a company with a well-known reputation for Nordic values, ethics, principles, and inclusiveness. During the past three years, I have continuously learned from highly experienced NIRAS colleagues and experts within the Gender and Human Rights Sector Team. They routinely share their knowledge and wisdom and have equipped me to take more of a leadership role in tackling issues around social perceptions, judgment, affect and behaviour on the part of the perceiver and the perceived.

In Indonesia, for example, there are misconceptions regarding the capabilities of individuals with disabilities and not knowing how to accommodate that disability. In response to this, we actively sought the recruitment of a new colleague with disabilities to join our team. They are joining in February. We are also providing an internship for a young man with Down’s syndrome to advocate and support persons with mental disabilities to enter the workforce.

The stigma associated with persons with disabilities is something I am motivated to tackle. But as the father of a 12-year-old girl, I am equally passionate about empowering women to take leadership roles. In 2021, the NIRAS Indonesia office signed the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs), and we initiated regular meetings to implement all-encompassing inclusive policies to lead by example as a company. We felt this was important to demonstrate and, where possible, make a real impact on people's lives through action and not only discussing the issues. We are now starting inclusiveness and disability awareness training for all the team on a regular basis, and NIRAS Indonesia is also becoming more visible, showing up at events, conferences, and other initiatives promoting gender inclusion and equality. On a personal level, I also actively encourage other men to follow, and as a team, we are creating awareness for other companies in Indonesia. We openly discuss empathy, diversify our teams’ networks, and self-reflect to become better citizens who can lead and create change. This constant reflection enables us as a team to realise we see the world, not as it is, but as how we are conditioned to see it. Hence, we are more mindful of learning to see things through a different lens, and hopefully this in turn, make us all become more empathetic and considerate of one another.

At NIRAS Indonesia, we openly discuss empathy, diversify our teams’ networks, and self-reflect to become better citizens who can lead and create change. This constant reflection enables us as a team to realise we see the world, not as it is, but as how we are conditioned to see it. 

David Shirley, NIRAS Indonesia Country Director
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David with his daughter and Defrey, an intern who starts with NIRAS Indonesia in February

Actions speak louder than words

Our team has also researched and discussed office policies and how we can make structural changes. One example is our newly introduced internal company policy in NIRAS Indonesia aligning with the widely unknown Indonesian Regulation - Article 81 of Law No. 13/2003 on labour, which allows women to take two days of paid leave during menstruation. The team agreed that period leave fosters inclusiveness by accepting biological differences in the workplace and, no longer making this subject taboo, we spoke openly about the need to normalise this regulation. So my female colleagues are now entitled to paid leave on the 1st and 2nd days of menstruation if they are ill and cannot perform their work. No explanation is required. We understand this is progressive policy, but the debate about the propriety of menstrual leave policies is about equality in the first instance.

We also check in with the men to see if they struggle with anything physically or mentally. When working inclusively, we make sure all the team has regular access to free counselling to support colleagues as required. Mental health is discussed openly, this is especially relevant now as we deal with the stresses and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, we have placed a lot of emphasis on improving work-life balance, family values, physical health and promoting exercise, including company-sponsored activities to encourage improved wellbeing through exercise, nature, and nutrition which have become monthly events.

Breaking taboos and tackling society's challenges to promote inclusiveness can only be done by speaking up and making an awkward topic a normal conversation. These initial policies introduced are the first of many. We're continuing to learn, reflect and improve on advancing inclusive actions and policies for all, ultimately extending to our project teams' recruitment and operations and encouraging other NIRAS offices to follow. While we don't have all the answers yet, and we are still adapting and learning as we go, it's exciting where we are going as a team. We will continue to put our front foot forward to foster an inclusive environment for all that genuinely reflects respected Nordic values and adapted to a local context and culture.

Unity in Diversity: Whether its Indonesia, Denmark or Sweden, the shared vision and values are the same.

Learn more about David in this profile piece.