COVID-19 is a virus that does not discriminate and does not respect international borders. The spread of the virus has shown us that we have a lot more in common than we usually appreciate. The effects of the virus are impacting everybody — from health to economics — without prejudice.
Responding to a Crisis
Whilst businesses across the United States are figuring out how to respond to the pandemic crisis, a lot of their energy and focus is on managing their finances, ensuring that products and services can still be delivered, and employees are safe. This is, of course, the right thing to do. But what I am also seeing is that several people principles we have invested in since the last global economic crisis, like equality, diversity, and inclusion, are unfortunately falling off the priority list.
There are organizations that have made their diversity and inclusion leaders redundant or moved them back into general HR roles, canceled or postponed inclusion interventions, and managers reverting back to old ways of leading teams by leaning back on their non-inclusive unconscious biases. Some of these organizations have explicitly stated values about diversity and inclusion, but their choices and behaviors are not congruent with these values.
Fortunately, there are many businesses continuing to prioritize diversity and inclusion because they know that it’s not only the right thing to do (the ethical business case), but it will help them bounce back from this crisis better (the financial and innovation benefits of diversity).
Inequalities in Society
COVID-19 is shining a light on some of the inequalities we see in society. Workplaces play a really important role in challenging these inequalities. Workplaces educate employees on creating a fairer society, which they take back to their families around the dinner table after work. They bring diverse people together under one organization to collaborate and work towards common goals, visions, missions, and create safe cultures where people feel like they belong. Very often, our workplaces are much more diverse than our personal circle of friends and family.
We are seeing a disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minority backgrounds by COVID-19. According to a recent Financial Times article, “Black Americans represent around 14% of the US population but 30% of those who have contracted the virus.” We have a similar situation here in the UK. In the US, this is attributed to people from an ethnic minority background having other underlying health conditions (therefore, being at greater risk of contracting the virus), African-Americans tending to be poorer and more likely to be in frontline jobs exposing themselves to greater risk.
When we first entered lockdown in the UK and homeschooling started, I was hopeful that one of the ‘silver linings’ (I am generally an optimistic person) would be to see more men taking an active role in caring responsibilities. I remembered the Equal Lives research from Business in the Community where they said that if men took a more active role in caring responsibilities at home, then this could help close the gender pay gap in the workplace.
In the report, they said: “The gender pay gap does not exist solely because women take on the majority of caring responsibilities, but does increase significantly when there are children in the family. It is an accepted truth for both men and women: if men were more involved in caring, women could progress further in their careers.”
However, the latest data in both the United Kingdom and United States tells us that the median gender pay gap is widening still. Women are more likely to be working in sectors where they are laid off, suspended, or working reduced hours (for example, teaching and cabin crew). And in the United States, women encompass 90% of the nursing profession, facing significant health risks on the frontline while being paid less compared to their male colleagues ($0.98 on the dollar).
Intersectionality and the Importance of Inclusion
COVID-19 really is affecting all of us as it does not discriminate. However, the above examples do show us that there is a disproportionate impact upon certain members of our society due to our own social constructs. It also highlights the need for businesses to recognize intersectionality and be wholly inclusive. Intersectionality recognizes that we do not just belong to one box, characteristic, or category. I, for example, am male, disabled, white, gay, and sarcastic. But so many organizations approach diversity and inclusion as pillars, or strands and in silos. They focus on women in leadership this year, ethnic minority graduates the following year, LGBTQ+ individuals after that, then it is mindfulness, and eventually, they might get around to disability.
Diversity is a given. Diversity includes everybody. We choose to be inclusive (or not). As business leaders, we can decide to focus our diversity strategy on one group in society (for example, women in leadership) and overlook others (for now at least). Or, we can harness inclusivity to improve society and some of the dilemmas outlined above and to also bounce back from this pandemic and economic crisis.
As business leaders, we can direct our businesses to improve the economic opportunities for young black men leaving high school, employment prospects of disabled graduates, or the safety and security of some LGBTQ+ people living at home with homophobic families.
As business leaders, we can embrace diversity within our ranks to create cultures of respect and inclusion so that everybody can thrive. By enabling individuals to thrive, our businesses will prosper and grow as we emerge from the pandemic. We can expect better decision-making during times of crisis, creative ideas, and innovations that will future proof our organization and create a culture where people love working for you and then tell the rest of the world what a fantastic employer you are.