How Diversity & Inclusion Will be Affected by COVID-19

By now, any HR leader, not living under a rock will have read reports and statistics that validate that Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) is good for business.

A quick Google search will return study findings from McKinsey – companies with greater racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry average, and Boston Consulting Group – companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. Aside from the moral case, the evidence supporting the commercial case for greater D&I, at all seniority levels, is overwhelming.

Prior to coronavirus becoming the recurring topic of conversation, organisations were not asking why, but how we attract, retain and benefit from diversity in our customer base and workforce. It was therefore surprising to see the Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) suspend gender pay gap reporting regulations for this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the introduction of gender pay gap reporting in 2017, organisations have been held accountable to explain their progress, or lack of, toward achieving gender equality. We are in the early days of this practice and the full implications of public exposure remain to be seen. However, while still far from equal, multiple studies, including our own, have shown that that gender balance on boards across the private, public and third sectors is beginning to improve.

As we face a global-scale public health crisis and ready ourselves for the inevitable social and economic fall-out, it is as important now, if not more so, that we don’t let diversity and inclusion slip off of our boardroom agendas. It would be all too easy to tell ourselves that during these unprecedented times, diversity & inclusion is a luxury add-on to which we can pay attention once the crisis is past. Not so.

No good business strategy is based on a purely reactionary approach. If in our haste to manage the immediate challenges, we store problems up for later, 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.

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.

We are all in this together

Part of our preparation must be to learn the lessons of the past. History has taught us that the impact of a down-turn – 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 & financial support for working mothers, such as childcare. Only two months into Britain’s COVID-19 lockdown and already we can recognise a more immediate impact for particular groups in terms of job losses, child-care requirements, ability to work remotely and accessibility of medical and protective provisions.

Different dimensions of impact for different demographics can also be observed from past pandemics, such as Ebola and Zika. Women and lower-income households are often the hardest hit, with women providing the majority of care to the ill, at greater cost to themselves, and living conditions and access to healthcare and medical provisions favouring those with greater financial resources.

In the last week, information released 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 (BAME) 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. “They are twice as likely not to raise concerns because of fears of recrimination,” says the head of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul.

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 & financial support for working mothers, such as childcare.

So, whilst “we are all in this together” the evidence is that we won’t all 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.

Trauma has two effects

As my colleague and Chair of Green Park, Trevor Philips, 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 is rearing its head in the present in the form of finger-pointing and blanket blaming; sensationalist tabloid headlines call out millennials flouting social distancing rules; the Trump administration accusing China of deliberate sabotage and cover-up and, a little more left-field, conspiracists pining the entire pandemic on 5G networks. All of this rhetoric, unsubstantiated or not, reverberates through social media.

However, in a climate that all feels a little ‘doom and gloom’, I’d much rather focus on the former, which is where I believe, as business leaders and HR professionals we 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.

Accelerating change

With a quarter of the global population on lockdown, organisations have had no choice but to rapidly adapt their business model, investing in technology to support remote working and connectivity with their customers and employees. My hope is that when social distancing measures are lifted, not only will more organisations have the infrastructure to support greater flexible working, but that management attitudes towards remote working will have evolved too.

Despite 89% of employees citing remote working as a key motivator to their productivity levels within the workplace, only 11% of jobs are currently advertised as open to flexibility and these are most often roles in the lower pay brackets. Not only is the UK missing a trick to boost employee productivity and attract top talent, but flexible working offered at all levels of seniority will open up talent pools of diverse candidates that have previously been shut out by rigid working structures.

Women are much more likely to work part-time than men because they still shoulder most of the domestic and caring duties in the family. Part-time workers also tend to be paid less per hour than full-time workers and therefore, women are disproportionately represented in lower-paid, part-time work, with many overqualified. So, when the gender pay gap is calculated for all employees, including part-time and full-time employees, it increases substantially; overall, the median pay for women was 17.9% less than for men.

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. Currently, the disability pay gap stands at 15.5%, with disabled workers earning on average £1.65 per hour less than non-disabled workers. At 22.8%, mental ill-health is the largest cause of disability in the UK and is estimated to cost the UK economy £105.2 billion each year.

With leadership buy-in and wider recognition that roles can be performed as efficiently outside of the standard nine to five office structure, we have a unique opportunity to transform the UK’s working culture, utilising the flexible and remote working structures many of us have already put in place. Not only can we accelerate progress in diversity and inclusion and strike a better work-life balance, but we can also harness our home-grown talent and increase employee productivity at a time when our economy will need it most.


Raj Tulsiani is the leader of Green Park  an award-winning consultancy that offers Executive Search, Interim Management, Board Advisory, Diversity & Inclusion and Managed Service People Solutions across the private, public and third sectors and author of Diversity and Inclusion for Leaders: Making a Difference with the Diversity Headhunter.

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