The diversity dilemma of COVID-19: why diversity and inclusion is more important than ever

Diversity and inclusion haven’t disappeared during the pandemic, so businesses shouldn’t be excused for thinking it.

In this guest article, Toby Mildon, diversity and inclusion (D&I) architect and founder of consultancy Mildon. Asks businesses not to drop the ball on D&I amid the COVID-19 crisis.

COVID–19 is a virus that doesn’t 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 admit to. The effects of the virus are impacting everybody – from health to economics – without prejudice.

Responding to a crisis

While businesses globally 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 a number of people principles we’ve invested in since the last global economic crisis, like diversity and inclusion, are unfortunately falling off the priority list.

Some organisations have made their diversity and inclusion leaders redundant or moved them back into general HR roles, cancelled or postponed inclusion interventions and managers reverting to old ways of leading teams by leaning back on their non-inclusive unconscious biases. Some of these organisations have explicitly stated values about diversity and inclusion, but their choices and behaviours are not congruent with these values.

Fortunately, many businesses are continuing to prioritise 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 – due to 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 organisation 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 circle of friends and family.

Both in the USA and the UK, we are seeing a disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minority backgrounds by COVID–19. A recent BBC article highlighted that black African deaths are three times higher than white Britons from the coronavirus.

An Institute of Fiscal Studies research shows us that several factors interplay to explain this predicament. For example, we see more black people in key worker roles on the frontline, therefore, at greater risk of virus exposure.

Furthermore, 14% of doctors come from an Indian background (compare that to 3% of the working population being  Indian in the UK) again being more exposed to the virus. Bangladeshi men are four times as likely as white British men to be working in ‘shutdown industries’, and black African households have lower than average household savings. Therefore, there is a disproportionate financial impact on these communities and households.

When we first entered lockdown in the UK, 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 was hopeful because I remembered the Equal Lives research that Business in the Community conducted 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 tells us that the average gender pay gap in the UK rose from 11.9% to 12.9% in the year to April. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education found that mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or quit – and 14% more likely to have been furloughed – since the start of the crisis.

As somebody who was born with a rare neuromuscular disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy), I have been very fortunate to have worked for employers embracing flexible working and working from home. In fact, working from home is much more accessible for me than sitting in an open-plan office. I have connected my home up to the Amazon Alexa so that I can control the comfort of my’ workplace’ with my voice (like turning the lights on and off or turning the thermostat up when I get cold). However, some disabled people are struggling with working from home during the pandemic.

In the UK, there are concerns about the government’s Access to Work scheme continuing to provide the right levels of support that enables disabled people to be in employment. Also, seeing disabled women exposed to a greater risk of domestic abuse (as they increase their dependence on others) and mental wellbeing affected by social isolation. Therefore, employers must recognise that they may have employees that need personalised support rather than a blanket approach to remote working or employee wellbeing.

Intersectionality and the importance of inclusion

COVID–19 really is affecting all of us as it doesn’t discriminate. However, the above examples do show us that there is a disproportionate impact on certain members of our society due to our social constructs. It also highlights the need for businesses to recognise intersectionality and be wholly inclusive. Intersectionality recognises that we don’t just belong to one box, characteristic or category. I, for example, am male, disabled, white, gay and sarcastic (four of which are protected by UK equality legislation). But so many organisations 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’s 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 school, employment prospects of disabled graduates (who are generally underemployed) 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 has the opportunity to 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 organisation and create a culture where people love working for you and then tell the rest of the world what a fantastic employer you are.
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