The pandemic has been bad news for companies in many ways. Just as no one could have foreseen its impact, few could have envisioned the extended duration of many complications that we’re all dealing with.
Remote work, for instance, quickly emerged as a solution to the potential loss of many jobs. But months after the outbreak, remote teams had begun to raise concerns about lowered productivity and mental health. And companies are busy working with lawyers who are experienced in business litigation to hammer out the complications of working with independent freelance contractors.
Overall, individuals and organizations alike are busily engaged in continuous scramble for solutions to new and ongoing problems. Though such measures are necessary, a distorted focus threatens to obscure the importance of a broader workplace concern: diversity and inclusion. Years of hard work to gradually improve in this aspect may be wiped out if we don’t make the effort.
Why diversity matters
Diversity is seen by skeptics as a buzzword; something that is being touted so often across industries, without sufficient evidence, that its meaning is diminished. Yet research over the years has proven otherwise. A study by McKinsey between 2014 and 2019 demonstrated that top-quartile companies outperformed those in the bottom by 25% in terms of gender diversity. Likewise, the performance margin for ethnic diversity was at 36%.
The clamor for greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace isn’t new. Neither can it be dismissed as just an empty demand for minorities to gain an easy way into tough, competitive work environments. Yet despite the increased awareness, companies may be continuing to operate blindly when it comes to being more inclusive.
Even if institutions claim to be giving equal opportunities to current employees and aspiring candidates, the principle of competitive advantage is at play. Non-white, non-male employees enjoy fewer opportunities to learn skills starting as early as their school years. They may have the less financial capability to pursue further education.
When employers evaluate resumes solely on their merits, they are ignoring those factors. They don’t account for the degree of difficulty or the barriers that you have to overcome when you’re a minority.
At risk in the pandemic
The same study, drawing upon data prior to the pandemic, showed an encouraging response overall among the companies surveyed. Many organizations were at least implementing some measures to be more inclusive and ensure a greater breadth of representation, even at the executive level.
But all those hard-won gains are being threatened as one of the side effects of the pandemic. As employers are changing their policies and measures to ensure the safety of their workers, inequalities become magnified. Not all jobs are compatible with remote work. Cost-cutting measures such as automation also tend to affect some occupations and industries more than others.
The chain of effects cascades to affect minorities more profoundly. Women, for instance, see greater employment in the hospitality, retail, and education sectors, where jobs can’t always be done remotely. Occupations that do allow remote work tend to favor highly-educated workers, a segment that’s more heavily represented by whites compared to blacks or Hispanics.
As the economy contracts, the more firmly established foothold of straight, white, male workers remains assured in most workplaces. Meanwhile, minorities risk losing whatever measures of equality they had secured in recent years.
The outlook may be bleak, but it doesn’t have to be. The good news is that little has changed as far as how organizations can become more inclusive. The best practices that have come to light in this regard in the past few years remain the same. But people have to remain vigilant and be mindful as our reality continues to shift.
Leaders need to stay focused on creating a diverse workplace amid the many pandemic-enforced changes. In a remote working scenario, interactions among colleagues on video conferences or other online channels are harder to mediate. This can embolden some people to dominate or interrupt discussions or even to appropriate ideas introduced by minority colleagues.
Individual workers also have to demand greater transparency from their employers when it comes to policy changes that could unintentionally affect them on the basis of gender or ethnicity. If a company is going to pivot to a certain direction that requires a specific skill set, equal opportunities must be provided for workers to receive training. Otherwise, such moves tend to shake things up in favor of those who already possess advantages based on cumulative privileges.
It will take a more conscious effort to ensure an inclusive and diverse workplace in the new reality. But just as in previous years, this remains an opportunity for any organization to greatly outperform its competitors. Collectively, we have to ensure that those priorities don’t regress.