Health and Healthcare Systems

4 opportunities to open up on diversity after the coronavirus 

Nigerian teacher Emmanuel Ntaji speaks to his students during an e-learning class via Zoom.

The new protocol … Nigerian teacher Emmanuel Ntaji speaks to his students during an e-learning class via Zoom. Image: Reuters/Temilade Adelaja

Laura Liswood
Secretary-General, Council of Women World Leaders
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SDG 05: Gender Equality

• A range of cognitive diversity will help businesses navigate unprecedented crisis.

• The new, technology-assisted workplace can be quick to expose unconscious bias.

• Rethinking work practices post-coronavirus is a chance to stop excluding women.

Some may argue that a global pandemic is not the time to discuss workplace diversity and inclusion as an imperative for organizations; that there are more pressing issues facing our world. But I would contend that this moment is precisely the right time to recognize the importance of diversity.

The coronavirus plaguing us is described as novel for a reason.

It is new to scientists and to our bodies, and innovation is required not only to defeat COVID-19 but to heal our wounded workforce. That’s where diversity comes in. Diversity is fundamental to innovation and creativity. Cognitive diversity – the numerous ways people think and carry their varied experiences – offers a spectrum of perspectives that can help organizations navigate this unprecedented economic and health collapse.

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At the same time, how we adapt to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders has implications for diversity and inclusion efforts. Consider videoconferences, which have gone mainstream as people telework to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Do unconscious biases come into stark relief during Zoom calls? Are video-conference protocols helpful to ensuring that all employees are heard? Do we learn more from quiet staff members, or do we see them become even quieter when faced with the awkwardness of speaking on screen as though they’re broadcasting a live report for TV? Does everyone have the technical capacity or living situation to do Zoom calls?

It is not premature to wonder what businesses can learn from this global disaster, what insights will help us not just return to normal, but improve the norm.

Here are some ways to promote diversity in a post-coronavirus era:

1. Inclusion

The need for rigorous inclusion protocols becomes patently obvious on long video-conferencing calls. It is no longer acceptable for a few people to dominate, interrupt or appropriate ideas. Managers running calls have a duty to ensure a level playing field when they mediate conversations. What’s more, recorded conferences could become a gold mine of anonymized data in the future when researchers analyze the rhythms of inclusion or exclusion.

2. Performance

Feedback, performance and pay evaluations – processes often driven by bias – should become more analytical and metric-based. When the person who casually stops into the boss’ office to brag about his or her accomplishments can no longer swing by, managers have the opportunity to be less partial in their handling of important career decisions. They should take it.

3. Leadership

Leaders of today must also exhibit more nuanced skills. The old-fashioned, hard-power style of command and control still plays an important role in crisis. But other abilities – showing empathy and appreciation, listening and supporting – take on equal importance, as this seminal Judy Rosener article pointed out as far back as 1990. Such relational skills have typically been seen as soft and less valued traits practiced by women as members of the non-dominant group. Today’s most effective leaders will have to embrace both hard and soft powers to address the needs of their employees, customers, communities and investors, as KPMG’s 2019 women’s leadership report makes clear.

4. Women's participation

Women’s potential remains vastly untapped. The pandemic brings into stark relief the damage that can be done when countries put barriers between women and the workforce. In Japan, just 20% of doctors (13,400 of 67,000) are women. This low rate may be a legacy of culture, economics, education or political leanings. But with an ageing population and not enough young to care for them, imagine how many more people could be treated if women joined the profession.

The obstacles for women are greater in other countries, where they are exclued from becoming police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, and grocery clerks – essential jobs during the pandemic. Ironically, in many countries, it is precisely the underpaid, mainly women, who are the caregivers, nurses, grocery clerks. The 2020 World Economic Forum Gender Gap report makes clear that economic and political parity are distant goals. As thousands of people die from the coronavirus, the global health crisis shines a harsh light on the consequence of either excluding women from full participation in the workforce or being disproportionately represented in essential but underpaid work.

The coronavirus outbreak also unearths some important questions around inclusion.

Flexible work and telework have long been seen as either necessary or desired by women who often shoulder the disproportionate burden of family care. But telework, once a luxury for some, is now a necessity. Historically, the women (and men) who did flexible work or telework were often perceived as less committed to their careers. Will this gender-biased assumption now be put to rest when everyone, from the CEO to the administrative assistant, is teleworking?

What will responsibility look like at home as some people are laid off and others telework long past the eight-hour workday? Most people don’t have a home office elegantly framing themselves for a video call, with books and fine art as a halo around them. But we can glimpse into their lives and see that men have generally always played a smaller role in childcare and family obligations. Do stay-at-home dads or male partners learn what their significant other juggles daily? Can there be a long-lasting shift that delegates obligations in a more equitable way?

At some point, be it in a month or in a year, we as society will try to glean lessons in the wake of the pandemic. We are sure to learn the value of science, crisis preparedness and leaders who tell us truths. But if those are the only major areas of reflection, we will be missing out on a fundamental lesson: that diversity is imperative to our survival.

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