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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Turning belonging from a privilege into a right  

Published 3 May 2024 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 8 min read

The inclusivity crisis is a problem for all of us. This is why we need to develop solutions so belonging is not just seen as a scarce privilege accessible to only a select few but as a right accessible to all.

The challenges around belonging and what can be done about it were at the heart of the discussion yesterday when I shared a platform at the St. Gallen Symposium with Sofia Appelgren, founder of Mitt Livs Val Foundation, and the social enterprise Mitt Liv AB and Clara Richter, founder of Women With Impact, an organization providing a voice for women by showcasing the positive impact they have on society.

The theme of this year’s St. Gallen Symposium is Confronting Scarcity. With this in mind, our panel session was The Perceived Scarcity of Belonging: Implications for Individuals, Organizations, and Society. In this article, I explore the main discussion points and potential solutions to the challenges that were shared during the panel session, starting with a high-level review of the issue and the science and psychology of exclusion and belonging.

Society at all levels is suffering from an inclusivity crisis. Individuals are feeling disconnected, which is highlighted by the high rates of teenage mental illness and skyrocketing rates of reported loneliness – a condition at least as damaging to longevity as smoking or drinking heavily. Organizations are struggling to include all voices at the decision-making table, with generally low rates of women and people of color at the top echelons of organizations. Society is also trying to cope with disenfranchised members of the community, dissatisfaction reported by migrant and poorer members of society and, in some countries, divisive politics that pit one section of society against another.

This inclusivity crisis is exacerbated by the perception that belonging is a zero-sum game – where people perceive that, as one group or individual is given a seat at the table, another group or individual loses theirs. This scarcity mindset, rather than an abundance-driven view of belonging, propagates a feeling of systemic exclusion and fuels some people’s rejection of a more inclusive society.

A recent study revealed that 75% of workers have felt excluded at work and almost 60% feel like they can’t share a core part of their identity while at work, said Professor Jennifer Jordan

Maslow v Bowlby and the monkey business of belonging

In psychology, there are two opposing hypotheses about belonging. According to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, the need to belong, while important, only comes after other more fundamental needs like nourishment and shelter are met. The other, according to Bowlby, is that the need for belonging comes before physical needs like nourishment and shelter.

These theories were tested by Harry Harlow in a series of controversial “wire mother” experiments, in which Harlow and his associates took monkeys away from their mothers shortly after birth and provided them with two surrogate mothers. The “wire mother” was just that – a few pieces of wire. The other was what was known as the “cloth mother.” A soft piece of cloth with a warm, monkey-like face. The other difference between these two “mothers” was that, whereas the wire mother provided milk to the baby, the cloth mother did not.

If Maslow’s theory was correct, the baby monkeys would spend more time with the wire mother than the cloth mother. But if Bowlby’s hypothesis was correct, the opposite would be true – the baby would spend more time with the ersatz mother who would give comfort and warmth but not food. Bowlby’s theory was proved in this case, as the baby monkeys did spend more time with the cloth than the wire mother, and his hypothesis was supported by later work on the importance of touch and being held during the first six months of life on cognitive development and attachment disorders, as well as physiological thriving.

The inclusivity crisis is a problem for all of us. This is why we need to develop solutions so belonging is not just seen as a scarce privilege accessible to only a select few but as a right accessible to all.

Workers and leaders are experiencing a crisis of belonging

As we entered the pandemic, I predicted that, given their comfort with technology and connecting remotely, the younger generation – specifically 18-24-year-old Gen Z employees – would weather the effects of remote working and lockdown much better than older generations. I was wrong. During this time, they experienced a lack of human belonging – one of the most fundamental needs we have as humans. The ‘remote experience’ was very isolating for many young adults and their incidence of mental illness during that period increased by more than a quarter. Suicide rates also increased.

As I work at IMD, a school for leadership development, I see a different side of the belonging crisis. Most notably, our participants are mostly above 24 years old; together, we focus on topics of belonging at work. These leaders tell me that they wonder where they belong: should they be working from home and spending more time with the family? Or should they be at work, where their teams and bosses are located? Their bosses and organizations are struggling with the questions of how to create a sense of belonging and company cultural identity when their teams want to have the flexibility of working from all corners of the world. According to a recent study by Ernst & Young, 75% of workers have felt excluded at work and almost 60% feel like they can’t share a core part of their identity while at work.

Finally, from a societal perspective, Appelgren mentioned that Sweden has over the recent past taken in many refugees. She said the way this was perceived was that ‘the door to the country was open to migrants, but the door to the labor market was closed.’ This, she confirmed, was causing feelings of exclusion and a consequent lack of integration of refugees, sometimes resulting in criminality and community tensions.

“Society at all levels is suffering from an inclusivity crisis.”

Belonging as a right and a key to inclusion

In response to this challenge, she mentioned the meaningful work she and her colleagues are doing by matching young school-age migrants with mentors in universities to show them the possibilities and value of continuing their education, with more than nine out of 10 of youngsters in this program going on to apply to take further studies. The aim is that promoting this sense of belonging at an early age will in future surely pay dividends for Swedish society.

During the discussion and with input from an engaged audience, we highlighted some other potential solutions that position belonging not as a scarce privilege – accessible to only a few – but rather as a right accessible to all. These included promoting belonging through creating visibility of those who otherwise might feel marginalized and valuing people for their uniqueness, rather than requiring them to conform to rigid ways of working. We also discussed the importance of being curious about others and welcoming their narratives.

In this context of belonging, Richter has worked with exceptional women around the world, including Kerry Kennedy, Susan Rockefeller, HE Rosalía Arteaga Serrano, who have shared their stories and journeys on the subject. She suggested:

  1. Know your ‘why’ – be clear about how your efforts serve a higher purpose and drive your passion.
  2. Take calculated risks.
  3. See challenges as opportunities for growth.
  4. Following your vision with determination.
  5. Believe in yourself.

Richter also highlighted the power of narratives and role models in creating inclusive environments and true spaces of belonging. 

From an organizational perspective, Appelgren highlighted the importance of training all leaders in inclusive leadership to broaden perspectives, challenge norms, and be aware of unconscious bias. It’s also important that leaders create a welcoming culture where people are valued as individuals through an ‘invite to a big table’ where they are treated with respect, different perspectives are appreciated, and a ‘speak up culture’ is supported. She also pointed to the importance, from a company perspective, of common values and a clear vision that people feel connected to and part of. 

We closed the panel by discussing the thin line between belonging (where the individual turns up as their real self and is celebrated) and assimilation (where the individual wholly conforms to the prevailing organizational culture and subsumes their identity), and how to nurture the former while avoiding the latter. 


Sofia Appelgren

Sofia Appelgren

Founder, Mitt Livs Val Foundation

Sofia Appelgren is the Founder of Mitt Livs Val Foundation and the social enterprise Mitt Liv AB, advocating for equal job opportunities and conditions in the labour market. As CEO for nine years, she transformed Mitt Liv into Sweden's largest mentoring program for academics with a foreign background and a renowned Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultancy, training over 14,000 individuals annually. Appelgren was featured as one of Time Magazine's Next Generation Leaders, received Sweden's Best Social Entrepreneur award by Ben & Jerry's, and was named one of the 125 most influential women in the Swedish business community.


Clara Richter

Clara Richter

Founder, Women With Impact

Clara Richter is the Founder of Women With Impact, a platform providing women a voice by showcasing the positive impact they have on society. She interviews remarkable women including former heads of state, global leaders, and entrepreneurs including Kerry Kennedy, Susan Rockefeller, H.E. Rosalía Arteaga Serrano, and Jane Wurwand. Additionally, Richter is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shaper Community, where she leads projects focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of St.Gallen and a Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship from the University College London.


Jennifer Jordan

Jennifer Jordan

Social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Jennifer’s teaching, research, and consulting focus on the areas of digital leadership, ethics, influence, and power. She has received specialized training and certifications in lie and truthfulness detection, as well as in conflict resolution within organizations. She is Program Director of the Women on Boards and the Leadership Essentials Course.


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