How Covid-19 is undoing the diversity agenda


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 crises? (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images).
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 crises? (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images).

By Nic Hammarling
Head of Diversity
Pearn Kandola

THE beginning of April was meant to mark a big week for diversity. Specifically, gender di­versity, because Mon­day (4) was the third annual deadline for or­ganisations with more than 250 employees to report their respective gender pay gaps.

As in previous years, there would have been a frantic rush for many 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 the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) 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 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 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.

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.

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. 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 critical decisions about who stays and who goes, but when these decisions are made hastily, bias seeps into the process. We know from many previ­ous cases that women and people from BAME backgrounds are disproportionately affected by redundancy processes.

Finally, when coronavirus is behind us, re­search suggests that we are likely to see an increase in minority leaders experiencing pressure to take on riskier, less stable opportunities. Many will have seen the impact on other minor­ity workers and 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 crises?

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, then people will see it for exactly what it is – lip service.

In times of survival, we look for reassurance and familiarity. As a re­sult, many will place the most trust in those who they can see – and therefore feel – are visi­bly 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.

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 it on hold, now is the time for them to embrace it, to champion it and to make conscious deci­sions about the kinds of organisations that they want to represent.