The US race riots and global Black Lives Matter movement have finally sparked the long-needed conversations about the role all businesses play in creating change. Executives eyes have been opened to the impact on customer loyalty, brand reputation and in some cases investor confidence that staying silent can have.
At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic has left companies reviewing their future investments and streamlining operations while they consider how they might operate in a post-lockdown world.
The two are not unconnected. This presents a unique opportunity for leaders to cement their commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I) and use lockdown learnings as a catalyst for sustainable change.
The two faces of lockdown
The lockdown has had many positives for the way we see and approach employee wellbeing.
As the crisis has unfolded, we’ve seen new behaviours and mindsets emerge, sparked by the uncertainty of the pandemic and the upheaval that most will have experienced. In many cases there has been greater recognition, understanding and appreciation of the different situations people are facing in their personal and professional lives, whether it’s working with a disability, balancing caring responsibilities, or coping with health conditions.
The hope is that this will help foster more inclusive working practices over the longer term.
Additionally, the swift shift to mass remote working and self-isolation has helped raise awareness about the importance of mental wellbeing. With many people experiencing separation from family members and friends, and feelings of anxiety from ongoing uncertainty, a sense of community around mental health and wellbeing has emerged in many businesses, with people coming together in new ways to support colleagues and their teams.
But the pandemic has also highlighted stark disparities across gender, race and socio-economic background that exist within our businesses and wider society.
From a gender perspective, research from the London School of Economics shows that COVID-19 risks widening the gender gap at home and in the workplace, especially with changing pressures on parenting to encompass home-schooling. Concerns of a shift in gender roles has triggered discussions around where responsibilities are falling in the home and what this means for women in work.
From a race and socio-economic perspective, research has highlighted the disproportionate impact on the lives and livelihoods of those from minority ethnic and lower socio-economic communities. According to a recent Government report, these groups have felt the deepest impact of COVID-19 on their health, education and also employment. Recent events in the US have further escalated race equality issues across the world, sparking new dialogues and actions.
Businesses need to acknowledge and address these issues if we are to maintain the momentum and progress being made on workplace gender equality in recent years.
How to create change
Turn words into action
As the world speaks up on greater equality for black communities, we’re seeing diverse experiences being discussed in critical and honest ways; these conversations need to transition into workplace culture and practices to collectively achieve the change we all want to see.
Using their position of power, privilege and influence, businesses have a clear role to play in driving the D&I agenda in both society and the workplace. Active allyship is just one of the ways leaders and professionals can make a difference, taking proactive steps to acquire the practical skills needed for them to stand up, support and advocate in a meaningful way.
Continue to report
Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, but regulation and reporting can also have an important part to play when it comes to driving progress. The mandatory publication of gender pay gap data and diversity policies, the Financial Reporting Council’s code of conduct, and reporting on non-financial value, have already created a positive shift in how many businesses are engaging with the D&I agenda.
Although gender pay reporting has been temporarily suspending during the pandemic, companies shouldn’t use it as an excuse to let it slip. In a world where consumers, employees and investors are more conscious of equality reporting and regulatory requirements, which will be just as important, if not more. Businesses will still be held accountable.
Focus on targets
The expectations and targets outlined in the Alexander-Hamilton review and the 2020 Parker Review, and the findings in the 2017 Race Disparity Audit, will continue to focus minds on the progress that still needs to be made. The ripples felt across the world from the events in the US are also expected to lead to a greater focus on ethnicity pay gap reporting and other important metrics regarding black representation.
COVID-19 has, in many ways, shone an even greater spotlight on the importance of fostering diverse, inclusive workplace cultures. If leaders do not take steps to leverage these lockdown lessons and the strong sentiment we’re seeing, they not only risk falling foul of D&I reporting and regulatory requirements but, crucially, risk losing the momentum that could ignite meaningful change across the UK for a long time.
Arun Batra is partner at EY and CEO of the National Equality Standard.
Image credit: EY