Systemic inequities need radical responses

13 July 2020  By Alison Maitland

The economic crisis caused by the global pandemic risks reinforcing inequalities around the world. What needs to be done to prevent this and to stop the pockets of progress of recent decades from being reversed? It is an urgent question that needs radical responses.

Current trends demonstrate the interconnectedness of systemic challenges, showing overlapping disadvantages linked to gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. The big picture, as presented by the International Labour Organisation, shows that:

  • Globally, more women than men work in the sectors worst hit by the pandemic, such as food and accommodation
  • Women dominate domestic and health & social care work, are at greater risk of infection and of losing income, and are less likely to have social protection
  • The closure of schools and care services in the pandemic has exacerbated the unequal distribution of unpaid care work, which falls heavily on women and single parents. Other reports show the threat to the survival of childcare providers, further undermining parents’ ability to continue to combine work and family
  • The economic crisis is hitting young people under 25, particularly young women, disproportionately hard. Nearly 77% of the world’s young workers are in informal jobs, compared with 60% of adult workers. With education and training disrupted, there’s a risk of a ‘lockdown generation’ scarred throughout their working lives

Furthermore, US reports suggest that African Americans will suffer greater economic hardship than white Americans as the economic crisis unfolds. In the UK, people from minority ethnic groups are already worse hit, with over twice as many reporting they have recently lost government support compared with white people, according to a survey by the Fawcett Society.

What does this mean for businesses?

These disturbing trends require massive intervention by governments and international bodies to stimulate an economic recovery that is equitable, inclusive and sustainable. Intentionally seeking input from a broad and diverse mix of workers and employers will help policy-makers to devise innovative solutions. These must address systemic injustices and enable jobs and income support for everyone, including those who fall between safety nets.

Businesses can apply a similar approach, calling on ideas from the full mix of employees and stakeholders to design a better future for all, and addressing inclusion systemically.

If that sounds like a pipedream in current circumstances, I can understand. With many businesses in survival mode, there’s a serious risk that programmes and initiatives focused on marginalized or ‘diverse’ groups will be sidelined as non-critical. There are understandable fears that the efforts of recent years, such as pay equity for under-represented groups, will be undone.

But the crisis is actually an opportunity for companies to go much deeper and wider with inclusion, rather than shutting it down. How can this be achieved? By meeting business leaders where they are and showing how inclusion and diversity can help organisations to emerge from the crisis stronger.

Exactly how those conversations happen will depend on the support that individual leaders need, and what they have learned from the crisis. For some, seeing their teams in online meetings working from home, often struggling with competing demands and emotions, will have heightened their empathy and sense of connection. Holding onto these deep bonds of trust, and recognising each person’s whole identity – talents, motivations and needs – are powerful ways to reinforce the importance of inclusive actions and behaviour.

For other leaders, it will be business arguments that hit home. In our book INdivisible, Rebekah Steele and I set out the evidence that inclusion drives better performance, prepares businesses for big challenges, and gives them a purpose beyond profit. Based on this evidence, here are questions to explore with leaders across the company about why it matters to cultivate an inclusive work environment with a thriving mix of people:

  • How will these business benefits specifically enable us to survive and innovate our way out of the crisis?
  • How will they lead to sustainable success?
  • What risks will we run if we fail to focus on inclusion and diversity?
  • Who is missing from our decision-making, and how could this backfire?
  • What do we need to do to maintain our focus on this business driver?

Treat inclusion like safety 

Despite the evidence, many companies still fail to see inclusion as a strategic issue and to assign it the resources and attention that areas such as finance, marketing and strategic workforce planning receive.

Currently, workers’ safety is uppermost in many employers’ minds as they prepare or start to open up workplaces again. There is an important analogy here with inclusion. Getting safety right is critical. Reputable companies carry out thorough audits to keep the workplace safe for everyone. While they expect individuals to follow the guidelines, they don’t rely on that, and they put systems in place to reinforce behaviour and ensure that accidents don’t happen. They invest in safety, set goals and do thorough assessments, and they have recovery plans in place in case things go wrong.

Simply replacing the word ‘safety’ with ‘inclusion’ can help business leaders see not only how important it is but also what is needed to build and sustain it.

Highlight the risks of exclusion 

We show how inclusion cannot live in a silo, or apply only to HR issues, but must be indivisible from the way a whole organisation operates.

Risk currently looms large in the boardroom and on executive agendas. Leaders tempted to jettison inclusion and diversity in a kneejerk reaction to the crisis must consider the risks of doing so.

Risk officers have to understand the full gamut of risks. The role is no longer just about mathematical modelling, but about issues such as how equitable the work environment is, whether people behave fairly, what systems are in place to prevent discrimination internally and externally, and whether the company is able to keep business going in a crisis by enabling ‘remote’ working.

The input of a wide range of different perspectives and ideas is crucial to understanding the whole risk picture. One potential risk is investor pressure on companies to demonstrate inclusion and diversity, as recent concerns about the persistence of all-male boards illustrate. Why not introduce discussions about your inclusion strategy and progress into your dialogues with investors?

In summary

Inclusion can be strengthened, not diminished, through the crisis. But this will only happen if businesses can see tangible and sustainable results. When it’s clear why inclusion is essential, it’s possible to dive deep to discover:

  • What action must we take to ensure all voices are heard?
  • What additional support can we provide to individuals in order for us to continue benefiting from a diverse range of perspectives and skills?
  • What processes will support us in addressing inbuilt biases and default behaviour that detract from having the full mix of people we need?

Find out more about INdivisible

This article was first published by IWE on 12 July 2020

© Alison Maitland 2020, all rights reserved

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.