Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be seen as a ‘nice to have’ in the face of a crisis – it remains an essential requirement. How we respond to this pandemic will shape our society for generations to come.
As we face a pandemic and ready ourselves for the inevitable social and economic fall-out, it would be all too easy to tell ourselves that diversity and inclusion is a luxury add-on that we can pay attention once the crisis is over. However, D&I is as important now – if not more so – than ever before and it is imperative that we don’t let it slip off business agendas.
Good business strategies aren’t based on reactionary approaches. We must be careful that in our haste to manage the immediate challenges, we don’t store problems up for later. If we do this, the price will be high and the damage much more difficult to reverse. We may not know what the ‘new normal’ will look like, but we can be proactive in ensuring we are in the strongest possible position to face it.
The impact of this crisis isn’t the same for everyone
History has taught us that the impact of a downturn – be it loss of income, falling property prices or government induced austerity – are felt differently by different groups and for different lengths of time. The 2008 recession for example, was more immediately felt by men in terms of job losses, yet the prolonged cuts to public spending meant lower wages for the female dominated public sector and a reduction in policies and financial support for working mothers in areas such as childcare.
Past pandemics, such as Ebola and Zika also show different impact for different demographics, with the hardest hit often being women and lower income households. Women are often the ones who care for the ill, at a greater cost to themselves. Living conditions, access to health and medical care favour those with greater financial resources.
One month into Britain’s Covid-19 lockdown and already we can recognise a more immediate impact for particular groups in terms of job losses, childcare requirements, ability to work remotely and accessibility of medical and protective provisions.
Information released recently about health worker deaths and patients in critical care has spurred questions as to whether Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting black, Asian and minority ethnic people. While it is important to state that there is not currently enough data to substantiate this, speculation behind the apparent difference in severity for BAME patients and doctors includes theories of a biological, circumstantial and behavioural nature. The latter, quite disturbingly, including that BAME professionals are less likely to complain about a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment, due to workplace inequality and bullying. According to the head of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul “they are twice as likely not to raise concerns because of fears of recrimination”.
So, although ‘we’re all in this together’ evidence shows that not everyone will be experiencing the crisis in the same way. Recognising this is the first step in developing our cultural intelligence as leaders and creating inclusive workplace cultures that are mindful of the impact on different employee groups.
The two effects of trauma
Trevor Philips recently wrote in the Times, “different groups in society experience social dislocation in different ways. Trauma of the kind that most countries are now experiencing has two effects. The first is to accelerate change that is already on the way. The second is to exacerbate the existing divisions in society”.
The latter is well documented historically and can be seen now in the form of finger pointing and blanket blaming – from sensationalist tabloid headlines, accusations of a Chinese cover up, and 5G conspiracy theories.
The former – accelerating change – is where business leaders and HR professionals can have the greatest impact and really change the way history records our response to Covid-19 and the economic destruction left in its wake.
A quarter of the global population is in lockdown and organisations have had no choice but to rapidly adapt their business model, investing in technology to support remote working, connectivity with their customers and employees.
Only 11% of jobs are currently advertised as being open to flexibility, and these are most often roles in the lower pay brackets. By this lack of flexibility, the UK is missing out on employee productivity and attracting top talent by shutting out large pools of talent, particularly women who are much more likely to work part-time than men because they still shoulder most of the domestic and caring duties in the family.
Similarly, people with disabilities and those suffering from or recovering from physical and mental illness represent a largely untapped talent pool that could greatly benefit from flexible and remote working opportunities.
With support from leaders and broad acknowledgement that jobs can be performed just as efficiently outside a nine to five timetable, we have an opportunity to transform the UK’s working culture, utilising the flexible and remote working structures many of us now have in place. Not only can we accelerate progress in diversity and inclusion, we can also obtain a better work/life balance and increase employee productivity at a time when our economy needs it most.