The COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent economic strife, as well as the current racial crisis, define this moment—for our communities, nation and economy. These three events shine a blinding light on inequalities built into the fabric of society.
Foremost, people of color and women are the backbones of our economy and are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that women are suffering more job losses than their male peers, while Black and Latinx workers have been harder hit. Women have long shouldered the lion’s share of family and home responsibilities and now have additional responsibilities of home schooling and elder care. As the country begins to open up, we find ourselves in the midst of a movement against discrimination—towards justice and equality. We see, now more clearly than ever, the consequences of racial and gender disparities across society.
During this upheaval, workplace diversity and gender equality may not be the first thing on everyone’s minds. Many companies are struggling with financial instability, disruption of operations, reduced consumer spending, adjustment to remote work, and prolonged uncertainty about the future. Some are fighting for their very survival. Yet as we plan for recovery and transition to a “new normal,” companies that practice with honesty and integrity in the goal of diversity and inclusion will bounce back quicker than those that don’t, and fare better in the long term.
There are many reasons for this. To start, consumers see which companies are stepping up, whether by shifting production, raising minimum wages for frontline workers, enabling flexible schedules, or supporting smaller businesses. More than 75% of Americans said how a company treats employees and customers during this pandemic will determine whether they support that company post-COVID. Many people are also watching how companies react to racial violence and discrimination—critical of statements not backed up by action or diverse leadership—and will likely reward those that get it right with their loyalty and wallets.
To reimagine a better future, leaders can:
- Listen and lead with empathy. Make employees feel heard, be willing to learn without judgement and give them time to heal.
- Take a stand by reaffirming the company’s commitment to diversity, inclusion and equality and against racism and discrimination in any form. Create goals and publish them to your stakeholders.
- Take action to advance equity by removing barriers that create disparities in pay or promotion. Role model inclusive behaviors using flextime, taking caregiving leave (especially as a male leader), or mental health days.
- Create an inclusive workplace with diverse hiring and employment practices, including recruiting and retaining colleagues from minority groups, and creating equitable representation in leadership and management roles.
- Invest in communities where your business operates by purchasing from diverse vendors or donating to causes that matter in the Black community, while advocating for equal access to healthcare, housing, education and economic opportunities.
In addition, companies that embrace diversity, equity and inclusion can attract and retain the kind of smart, innovative employees who will propel their continued growth and success. Research from the Great Places to Work Institute showed that publicly traded companies with inclusive workplaces flourished before, during, and after the 2008 recession. When women and people of color actively contribute in their workplace, individual companies—and the economy—thrive. The link between diversity on executive teams and financial performance has been proven many times over. Given the many financial challenges the business world is currently experiencing, this sort of return on investment matters more than ever.
As the author Arundhati Roy prophetically wrote in the Financial Times, this pandemic is a portal—we can choose what lies on the other side. The current racial crisis is no different. These events provide an opportunity to reimagine a future that supports every worker, regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic status.
The case for investing in equitable workforces is stronger than ever, promising increased innovation, business performance, consumer loyalty, and most importantly, prioritization of racial and social justice. The silver lining of this crisis: we have the chance to create a better world, to reimagine how to run our businesses going forward. Let’s be sure we don’t squander such an opportunity.
Johanna Zeilstra is the CEO of Gender Fair, which is the first and largest consumer platform that rates companies on their gender and diversity practices, including Leadership, Employee Policies, Advertising and Communications, and Social Responsibility.