Inclusivity: Leaders have the power to change things - here's how

Leaders from across the public and private sectors have the power to affect genuine change in their organizations and beyond — but its takes work.

Leaders from across the public and private sectors have the power to affect genuine change in their organizations and beyond — but its takes work. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rosebell Kagumire
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Leadership?
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Society and Equity

This article is part of: Young Global Leaders Annual Summit
  • Inclusivity remains a buzzword, but all too often representation stops at tokenism.
  • To go deeper, a more foundational restructuring of power systems is required.
  • Leaders have the power to affect great positive change within and beyond their organizations.

In today's landscape, the demand for inclusivity spans various sectors, from the private industry to humanitarian and development fields. There are growing calls to involve people left historically and systemically on the periphery of decision-making processes from business, policy and development interventions.

However, the response has sometimes resulted in tokenism, a superficial gesture that fails to address deeper systemic issues. Tokenism perpetuates stereotypes, disempowers marginalized groups and ultimately falls short of bringing about meaningful, lasting change.

Shifting power and moving beyond representation is essential. Leaders, particularly Young Global Leaders (YGLs), can go beyond mere checkbox diversity and instead commit to creating an environment where all voices are genuinely valued and heard.

You have probably been at that meeting or workshop where influential decision-makers in a particular field or industry meet to devise new ways of doing things. Often, the most marginalized, impacted by and contributing significantly to these sectors, are invited to the arena to educate the powerful.

It could be about gender equality, racial injustice, climate change, trade or countering a pandemic; predictably, a young woman or an elder from an indigenous community is called to the stage to share their community challenges and what they need. When the speech ends, the room cheers and complements their bravery.

Have you read?

The need to build inclusive societies

Building inclusive societies for all is a challenge of our time. Many regional and international development frameworks emphasize its urgency, but add that there’s more talk taking place than the bold actions required to make it a reality. Instead, a marginalized group member is called to a stage to discuss their pain.

Post-COVID-19 pandemic, all around the world, has been an upheaval of inequality. Communities are stretched by rising food prices and energy crises, by flooding and droughts induced by the climate crisis and armed conflict. Income and wealth inequalities continue to exacerbate existing socio-economic disparities. The 2022 World Inequality Report showed that wealth inequalities have become even more pronounced than income inequalities. Today, the poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2% of the total. The richest 10% of the global population own 76% of all wealth.

In most low-income countries, unemployment continues to skyrocket. The 2023 global jobs gap, referring to those who want to work but do not have a job, is projected to rise to 453 million people, with women 1.5 times more affected than men.

Many African countries are distressed by debt, spending more on repaying loans than budgets for health, education and social protection. The Oxfam and NAWI Collective 2022 report warned of the consequences of having 85% of the world’s population living under austerity measures. The World Economic Forum 2023 Global Gender Gap Index reports that no country has been able to achieve gender parity fully.

We have witnessed unequal global health systems fraught with long-held beliefs and historic marginalization in the fight to get vaccines to the rest of the world. Wealthy nations were hell-bent on hoarding vaccines and locking their borders, committed to the prevailing geopolitics of health security and patent rights over saving lives. The renewed efforts to end racial inequalities and calls for reparations; women and queer rights advocates pushing back against a growing well-coordinated and well-resourced anti-gender equality transnational movement; indigenous communities resisting land dispossession and environmental injustice all rudely show that the work towards inclusive society remains immense.

The world is at its most technologically advanced, but innovative technologies are still owned by a few multinational tech giants and companies with large capital who determine the parameters of use and often leave out the majority of the world from the design of technological infrastructure, yet they are most exposed to harm. We are at the axis of so much information, yet it is so easy to be misinformed. New leadership steeped in equity is long overdue.

Beyond tokenism

Young leaders must look beyond tokenism and the facade of meritocracy to respond to today’s crises, while anchoring interventions in existing community approaches for a truly equitable future. Prevailing performative tokenism in most industries today has made many who live at the periphery look at inclusion with doubt.

Moves towards inclusion often assume the marginalized are left there by sheer bad luck or accident. We know this is not true. Exclusion happens because systems are built to exclude, existing long enough for those on the inside to think and function like they have a right to be there and can fix this by bringing the margins in.

As young leaders, understanding power and who defines merit is critical. Merit often serves those at the centre, for the parameters used are those of people at the centre. The excluded have their systems but, in many instances, have been usurped and rendered meaningless in prevailing ecosystems. Including them is not enough; we must acknowledge systemic power, interests and privilege, then work to move beyond them.

Whose knowledge matters?

What we know and how we come to know what is owed to constructed visible and invisible power that enables one to advance while someone else doesn’t. Knowledge systems that sustain the majority of the world continue to be sidelined and under-resourced, and imported solutions are favoured. That’s why many public policies that have failed communities and trapped them in poverty, policies that promise financial inclusion but are a debt trap, continue to get attention and resources to ‘scale up’ while community approaches are debased. A clear example is climate change and the debasement of indigenous knowledge and lives in favour of the capitalization of carbon markets.

To be a leader of tomorrow in today’s conditions is to fight knowledge injustice and seek those whose knowledge is intentionally left out.

Be in community with those you lead

Women’s rights advocate and scholar Srilatha Batiwala describes social power as the capacity of different individuals or groups to determine who gets what, who does what, who decides what and who sets the agenda. When in leadership, expand your understanding of the world beyond that which enabled you to rise. Reform or dismantle the culture, practices and norms that inhibit the interaction on equal footing with those who lead. No matter how small your venture is, it relies on people’s labour and resources to function.

Communities aren’t just waiting to be served; they are part of the production systems and deserve fair pay and hearing. Establish and maintain a social contract that enables honest feedback to make lasting change.

Rethink leadership models

Individuality, a well-crafted image of individual success, one man or other power-dominant groups at the top is standard. Social transformation has never been a one man’s job despite history books lionizing most. Hierarchies allow dominance to prevail and must be tackled. We see power-shared co-leadership styles being advanced. We live in societies where power abuse is common because power checks are intentionally too weak or co-opted to serve one person. Often, marginalized groups are brought into spaces with fixed hierarchies in the name of diversity. This changes the outer look, but fixed systems make meaningful change difficult to realise for those ‘included’.

Shared and horizontal leadership allow an institution to introduce new practices, values and consciousness from various backgrounds. Working with marginalized people to lead and learning from them without appropriation and erasure is important to creating an equal world. To simply bring minoritised people to the lowest of the power ladder is virtual signalling. To envision an alternative way of doing is to know that there are already several existing approaches on the margins among people dispossessed of their agency by the mainstream.


What is a YGL?

Disrupt and redistribute power and resources

In 2021, funding for Black women, girls and trans people constituted roughly 5% of human rights funding. This trend of limited resources for those battling multiple crises can be found in various industries, from entrepreneurship to climate financing.

Social determinants of who gets to be seen as a leader or whose movements can be resourced are fundamental. Social markers like gender, age or migration status must be interrogated to avoid homogenization approaches to diversity that don't respond to intersecting barriers.

Leadership and visibility without power is dangerous for those historically marginalised. It maintains a facade of fixed issues while systems stay the same, with no changes in the material conditions of the people. Pan-African freedom fighter and intellectual Amilcar Cabral reminded us: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

We face a world of multiple crises that are the consequences of decades of unsustainable systems and leadership, so expanding access to resources, opportunities and rights must remain the goal. We must strive to identify what can no longer serve and support the survival and growth of the majority of the world, let go of oppressive structures and share power in decision-making and action.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Innovation Prize: Meet the next generation of changemakers

Natalie Pierce and Maria Sol Adaime Gabris

July 11, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum