How COVID-19 is undoing the diversity agenda

Nic Hammarling, Head of Diversity, Pearn Kandola

The beginning of April was meant to mark a big week for diversity. Specifically, gender diversity, because Saturday 4th April was the third annual deadline for organisations with over 250 employees to report their respective gender pay gaps.

As in previous years, I’m sure there would have been a frantic rush for a great many organisations to submit their reports in time. A fair few would even have been late. There would have been a torrent of national media coverage, politicians and business leaders would have renewed promises to balance the scales of gender inequality, and during the week, we would have picked apart the data to see what progress had really been made.

None of that has happened, though. In a joint statement in March, the Minister for Women & Equalities and EHRC Chair said that in light of the pressure that COVID-19 is putting on businesses, “it is only right to suspend enforcement of gender pay gap reporting this year.”

While, of course, it’s right that we are sympathetic to the vast number of organisations currently facing unprecedented challenges, I can’t help but worry about the message that this decision sends. Namely, that diversity is not business critical in the modern workplace. Rather, it’s a “nice to have”. I’m also sure that it won’t end here. Allowing organisations to take their foot off the gas in this way will be the first of many backward steps for diversity over the coming weeks and months, causing a loss in progress that will take years to recover.

Because it’s always been the way that, in times of crisis or pressure, diversity suffers. During the financial crash of 2008/09, for example, women and BAME workers were, by far, the worst affected. I have no doubt that COVID-19 will tell a similar story. Already, a new piece of analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported that women are about one-third more likely than men to work in a sector that has been shut down, largely as a result of overrepresentation in industries such as retail and hospitality.

We can even map this regression. If it’s anything like that which we’ve seen in previous crises, it will unfold in three distinct stages.

Those on part-time or zero-hours contracts will be the first to take a hit. Many of the industries in which these kinds of contracts are common, such as hospitality, tourism and services, are facing significant difficulty in the current climate. As times become tougher, those on part-time or zero-hours contracts will be the first to be cut loose. The inevitable impact that this will have on diversity hinges on the fact that people from BAME backgrounds are over-represented in the zero-hours workforce.

Second, regrettably, there will inevitably be redundancies. The government has unveiled a generous support package, but furloughing staff is not a long-term strategy. And that means leaders will have to make those critical decisions about who stays and who goes. They’ll say – and believe – that their decisions have been made in the interest of the wider organisation, but when these decisions are made hastily, bias seeps into the process. We know from many previous cases that in circumstances such as these, women and people from BAME backgrounds are disproportionately affected by redundancy processes.

Finally, when Coronavirus is behind us and organisations finally start to recover, research suggests that we’re likely to see an increase in minority leaders experiencing pressure to take on riskier, less stable opportunities. Many will have seen the impact of the first two stages on other minority workers and, feeling a pressure to prove themselves, may see these more tumultuous positions as their only opportunities to progress.

The critical question, of course, is whether we can stop any of this from happening. Is it possible to protect diversity, instead of letting it fall by the wayside like in previous moments of crisis?

The actions of senior leaders are key to this. We need them to consider what they are prioritising right now. The areas of focus during tumultuous times tell everyone – employees and external parties alike – what is really important to an organisation. If we don’t prioritise diversity and inclusion now, but try to tell everyone when things have settled down that it is important to our organisation, then people will see that line for exactly what it is – lip service.

We also need our leaders to recognise how feeling threatened impacts the decisions that we make. In times of survival, we look for reassurance and familiarity. As a result, many will place the most trust in those who they can visibly see – and therefore feel – are like them, rather than opting for what are perceived as “riskier” options.

This kind of bias means minorities are less likely to be seen as important or reliable team members. But it’s by embracing other opinions that we are often able to come up with the most innovative solutions to problems. This, in itself, is why diversity is of such value to businesses. What we really need from our leaders is to be mindful of this fact, and to not close themselves off.

In years to come, we will look back and remember how the organisations that we represent responded to Coronavirus. We will remember which of our colleagues and friends were treated fairly, and which drew the short straw. For those who are willing to recognise it as such, this moment is a real opportunity for leaders to make a sincere commitment to diversity. Now is not the time to put diversity on hold. Now is the time for them to embrace it, to champion it and to make some conscious decisions about the kinds of organisations that they want to represent.

Send us a message