The diversity dilemma of COVID-19: This Is Us Conference

While COVID-19 does not discriminate, this year's This is Us Conference will show society still has a way to go

DiversityQ spoke with Meena Chander, founder of This Is Us Conference, an annual conference around LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace. Coronavirus and 2020 have been a challenging year for all, but what has been the impact on D&I and the LGBT+ community?

How challenging has it been to keep D&I alive in 2020?

One of the biggest challenges of 2020 has obviously been COVID-19, which has affected every single one of us in some way. Lockdown meant people were unable to access the support that they normally can, and certain groups of people have found lockdown difficult in terms of mental health because they have limited space to work from home. This is an issue especially for LGBT people who may be living in an environment where they are not “out”, and don’t have the escape they’re normally afforded, like clubs or meetups where they can be themselves.

Not only that, BAME people working in hospitals have been marginalised, and many parents have seen their work/life balances impacted due to working remotely whilst trying to home school their children, and in turn, had to either catch up in the evening or reduce their working hours due to schools and nurseries being closed.

With so many companies just trying to survive, D&I is forgotten about and deemed not important when, in fact, it is even more important and crucial this year – the coronavirus pandemic has truly brought the problem to the surface.

What’s changed since the launch of the Equality Act 2010, if anything?

People, in general, are becoming stronger and are demanding a voice to speak up about the issues that matter to them, such as diversity and inclusion. As a society, we have also seen more people emerge who have a protected characteristic or come from an underrepresented group.

Nowadays, the younger generation is more integrated with society and find discrimination unacceptable. They are more confident, more educated, and more aware of different groups of people. Also, the rise of social media has made it easier for people to learn about others, whereas before the news wasn’t as instantaneous as in today’s digital world.

Mental health is also spoken about more openly today, and there is more help and support available for people with disabilities. However, there is still a long way to go, especially around intersectionality. In the events and creative industry, specifically, there is a severe lack of representation for BAME and LGBT people or those with any disabilities.

Events is a highly stressful job with long hours, and this does affect one’s mental health. However, as the younger generation are emerging, they are expecting things to be more on a level playing field and to be given equal opportunities. They are looking for diverse role models in organisations and on boards, whether BAME, disabled, LGBT or women. They also expect to have more of a work/life balance, so mental health is less impacted.

Should diversity and inclusion be forced?

I don’t think it should be ‘forced’, but it should most definitely be strongly encouraged. Having a diverse team generates new ideas and helps resolve small issues that one wouldn’t necessarily think about if all employees in a team were the same. It should be deemed as business basic and not just a tick in the box.

We need to have more D&I events like the This Is Us Conference to show the importance diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the benefits they bring, as well as to share ideas and best practices, not only amongst one’s own industry but across other sectors too.

Businesses should also be supporting smaller events like This Is Us Conference which happens on their doorstep and is designed to help them along on their D&I journey, rather than flying the Pride flag once a year and then forgetting about it. Businesses should be encouraged to spend money on local and smaller events to help support D&I rather than sponsoring a large event just to get that tick in the box marketing exposure.

Do we need more legislation?

I don’t think we necessarily need more legislation. We need to ensure the Government and its supporting MPs are fully in line when it comes to existing legislation. For example, lately, there has been talk of reforming the Gender Recognition Act [GRA], and many people are concerned about the impact reforms may have on their lives.

Needless to say, if the Government doesn’t support the people of its country, this also has a significant effect on the workplace environment. For example, there has been talk of trans women not being able to use women’s toilets. Things like this create negativity in the workplace, not mentioning the added stress and worry for trans women.

If individuals experiencing discrimination at work need time off, as a result, it also comes at a cost to the company, as do possible discrimination disputes and court cases. This will make companies feel it is too much hassle to employ trans people which, of course, then means we are going backwards and not forwards as a society.

How can business support their LGBT+ employees during these challenging times?

Having front line support is crucial, so a helpline, text or email service to put employees in touch with a dedicated team or buddy at work keeps the line of communication open and can also be done discreetly if they are not comfortable or able to speak out at home.

Does D&I matter if 49% of employees are we still working remotely?

Yes, it matters even more, since COVID-19 has affected all people in so many different ways.

What should businesses be doing to improve workplace diversity and inclusion?

Businesses need to look at the language they’re using in job advertisements first and foremost and make the language-neutral, so it is attractive to a wider pool of applicants. They need to ensure that the CEO and management are 100% on board, as attitudes towards diversity and inclusion filter through from the top down.

Businesses must also ensure they don’t tokenise employees but still give them an equal opportunity and should have open and meaningful conversations with marginalised groups of employees so their voices and opinions can be heard.

They can also consider enrolling staff on a specific mentoring programme for underrepresented groups to help them grow and develop, as well as attending events like This Is Us Conference to share ideas and best practices with people and businesses from other industries.

Lunch and learns and awareness training are also great ways of educating employees on different aspects of diversity. I have also set up Diversity in Conferences and Events [DiCE], a group which has diverse representatives, right from students and events professionals to academics. This is what a diverse workforce should look like – a variety of people from all walks of life.

Meena Chander, founder of This Is Us Conference, an annual conference around LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Meena works with businesses throughout the UK, encouraging better LGBTQ+ and diversity and inclusion policies and working towards making employees feel more supported and understood in their workplace.

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