Diversity, equity, and inclusion (commonly abbreviated as “DEI”) have surged to the top of most CEOs’ lists of necessities for building and growing companies. And there are solid reasons why. 

As shown by an accumulating body of studies, a workforce diverse in terms of age, abilities, racial and ethnic heritage, gender identity and sexual orientation, experiences, and perspectives is a more productive and successful workforce. The best companies thrive on new ideas, new insights, and new ways of problem-solving.

Furthermore, a diverse team helps forge international connections, opens new possibilities for reaching domestic and foreign markets, and enhances a company’s reputation as a forward-thinking and ethical leader among its peers. 

A strong commitment to DEI in a company’s hiring and employee development program gives that company a competitive edge, simply because it has a broader range of talent to draw on.

Lack of diversity – a pre-existing condition

But even before the full economic impacts of our current pandemic were known, female employees, employees of color, and others not part of the traditional majority remained underrepresented—particularly in positions of top responsibility—in proportion to their numbers in the general population. 

While it is sometimes challenging to get accurate DEI data from private companies, research clearly shows inequities. According to studies widely publicized in mid-2020, about 64 percent of employees taking entry-level positions were white, while 85 percent of C-suite jobs—including those at Fortune 500 companies—were held by white males. 

We’re in it together, but some of us are falling farther

Now, we must reckon with the continuing fallout from the pandemic. Almost every employee in the world, of every background, has felt the impact of office closures, relocations, shifts to remote or hybrid work, or the threat—or reality—of layoffs or reduced hours. Almost all have felt some degree of anxiety about juggling responsibilities and roles in this new world of work. 

Yet it’s become clear, from both studies and a wealth of self-reported evidence, that employees from non-traditional backgrounds are experiencing the worst of the struggle. These employees are asking their companies for additional support and a healthier way to balance work and family responsibilities. Frustratingly, these pleas are often only partially fulfilled at best. 

The need for access to high-quality mental health resources has emerged as an increasingly acute work-related issue, as numerous employees from diverse backgrounds report feeling marginalized, overworked, or that they are at greater risk of firing or career derailment when their employers’ finances are on shaky ground. In fact, a 2020 study showed that only about 1 in 6 employees who come from diverse backgrounds reported feeling adequately supported by their employers.

It’s not only women, employees of color, and LGBTQ+ employees who are having an especially hard time. Working parents of all backgrounds are feeling the economic, emotional, and time-crunch impact of our COVID-19 world.

The pandemic’s widening gender gap

Women have been affected in a way that ties directly to their gender. The pandemic has disproportionately affected women who are mothers, women of color, and women in upper management positions. Women, more so than men, have had to make hard choices about whether to continue working or care for children or elders during the pandemic. Limited or no access to daycare due to closures added an enormous problem to many women’s already precarious situations. 

One pandemic-era survey asked 1,000 female-identified employees in the US how they felt about their career trajectories. More than half responded that pandemic conditions have set them back. A study from late 2020 showed that 25 percent of full-time female employees, often burnt-out from their jobs and a disproportionate share of household responsibilities, were considering quitting. Other data showed that more than half of female managers considered leaving their jobs after March 2020. 

For women of color and single mothers, who often fill lower-wage jobs that are the sole support of themselves and their families, this crisis has long passed the point at which it could be described as “acute.”  

The burden on people of color just intensified

Black Americans, Latinos, and Native American employees of all genders are over-represented in lower-wage, “essential” service jobs, even as these groups tend to have higher rates of pre-existing conditions that can exacerbate the lethality of COVID-19. 

Additionally, employees of color (notably including Asian Americans), whether they have personally been targeted or not, are living under the stress of an upsurge in violent, racially motivated attacks. The fear that people in these situations live under daily may be scarcely imaginable to white CEOs. Pre-COVID research demonstrates that both direct and vicarious exposure to law enforcement violence of any kind measurably diminishes the ability of employees of color to fully engage at work. 

Small steps forward, future progress in doubt

If there’s any good news in all this, it’s that 40 percent of the international cohort of companies responding to a recent survey reported that they are increasing their investment into DEI programs, even in cases when they are being forced to trim other parts of their budgets amid the pandemic. Close to all the companies surveyed reported putting some type of COVID-19-related programs in place to support all their employees. 

Even so, 90 percent of the CEOs in the survey noted that they were experiencing roadblocks to the full implementation of their DEI development strategies. 

So how can employers help? 

According to a consensus of experts, there are a few ways:

  • Maintain and step up company efforts toward not only diversity but inclusion. Three out of five employees from diverse backgrounds have reported not feeling they could be their real selves at work.
  • Make the work environment more human-centered with meaningful opportunities for team-building and personal interaction, whether remote or in-person. While building these connections, don’t forget that employees experience different impacts from the pandemic, and some may need more or a different type of support than others. 
  • Avoid “color-blind” public statements that minimize the distinct challenges faced by women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other especially vulnerable populations among your employees. Stand up for your employees by challenging racist, sexist, and other biased behavior.
  • Empower employees to take care of themselves. Experts estimate that emotional trauma sustained during a disaster outpaces physical harm by a rate of 40 to 1. Ease red tape and lessen any culture of stigma to make it easier for employees to take time off if they need it. Prioritize the most essential tasks in case anyone needs unexpected time away. 

Ask employees what they need, rather than making assumptions. Ask them how they’re doing in a way that invites real conversation. One of the most productive questions can be “What do you need from me right now?”

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