Wednesday, October 3, 2012

IKEAs flatpack approach to diversity

After our recent discussion of IKEA's role as a public institution  it was interesting to see this week that the company has been in hot water over the last few days after revelations that it removed images of women in its Saudi Arabia catalogue. The evidence, on the face of it, is pretty damning. As you can see in the pictures here, it really is a case of disappearing women. No doubt about it.

There is a feel of something ethically troubling here, with critics arguing that   IKEA should be upholding its values of equality. The Swedish trade ministerhas kicked in by criticising the company while IKEA itself has offered an apology, saying that the practice is "in conflict with company values".

The question we have to ask though is whether IKEA really is doing anything much wrong here? After all, isn't it up to them what pictures they want to put in their own catalogues? And don't they have a responsibility to meet local cultural norms as long as no ones fundamental rights are being infringed? Its not like any women were directly disadvantaged by their actions, we're they?

As far as we can see, though, IKEA hasn't been very smart or subtle in appearing to airbrush its women from Saudi. As far as cultural sensitivity goes, its a pretty basic effort to fit in with cultural norms in the country. But first, let's remember that IKEAs catalogues are increasingly just computer generated anyway, so maybe the women were never actually "there" in the first place. And second, let's not pretend that IKEA catalogues are a glowing example of diversity to begin with. Show us the rich ethnic mix in the catalogue. Or for that matter, the representations of women in hijab that constitute a large part of the female population in many parts of the world where the firm operates.

A global company it may be, but a globally diverse catalogue it is not. IKEA markets a homogenous global product for a global audience with less tailoring to local tastes even than other global giants such as McDonald's or Wall-Mart attempt.  So what are we complaining about here? That IKEA hasn't been 100% homogenous after all and we don't like it? Is homogeneity really the best solution to equality and diversity problems?

That's not to say it doesn't matter what pictures companies use in their marketing campaigns, because in our view, it certainly does. This is especially so for big companies like IKEA because they have such a major impact on the visual world around us. But demanding that they present a unified image across the globe just seems to be missing the point.  Shouldn't we be demanding that they present a genuinely diverse representation of their customers, maybe even one tailored to the societies in which they operate? Disappearing white women from your catalogues in Saudi Arabia certainly doesn't look good, but it's hardly the biggest problem here.

Regular readers of our academic research will know that we have a long standing interest in the role of companies in shaping people's citizenship opportunitiesand experience. IKEA here is clearly failing to promote the cause of women's equality in Saudi, insofar as equality is measured in terms of representation. This is one part of the picture (in the same way that failing to represent ethnic minorities or those with different sexual orientations in advertising presents and reinforces a skewed image of society). But it's not the only important one.

A critical role is also played by the company in its hiring and promotion policies, and in its other efforts to promote (or not) equality in Saudi. If the company isn't doing a good job on these fronts (and this is a question that demands further investigation) then presenting a pretty diversity picture in its catalogues would be little more than window dressing anyway. Let's hope the latest scandal presages some deeper consideration of how to deal with diversity at the company given its increasing global spread. Saudi women, if not the curiously disappearing catalogue models, deserve no less. 

Photo: IKEA
Thanks to Jeremy Sandler for alerting us to the story

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