Rising to the Occasion: Why the Covid-19 Pandemic Is An Opportunity To Drive Progress in Diversity

These are unprecedented times for decision making at senior leadership and Board level. Important decisions impacting organisations and their employees’ lives are being made during a crisis very few leaders foresaw, let alone planned for. In response to a crisis of this magnitude it would be easy for organisations to fall back on an ‘easy way of doing things’, and delay diversity and inclusion initiatives in senior leadership. But what if this ‘easy’ option is just a reinforcement of unconscious bias? Worse still, could this lead to worse decision making?

Jessica Clempner, a principal at Oliver Wyman, seems to think so, arguing that ‘the real risk in the short term is that diversity and inclusion initiatives are seen as ‘nice to have’ and fall off everyone’s radar’. This would be a huge set back in the efforts to increase more equal representation at leadership level. It would also make little sense for ensuring better outcomes. A report by Credit Suisse in 2016 found that Global companies with more than 1 woman on the board have better financial performance than those with zero women.

Greater gender diversity at Board level goes beyond the business case in terms of the bottom line, it can go further by impacting the organisation’s culture and decision-making process. Corinne Post, professor of organisation management at Lehigh University, found that women at Board level are more effective at influencing corporate social responsibility. Covid-19 is a complex problem affecting more than profit. The organisations that realise this and adapt their mission in the wake of the crisis to become part of a better ‘new normal’ could see enhanced returns. 

There are also silver linings from the current crisis which could enhance gender equality over the long term. Firstly, with so many working from home, senior leadership and Boards have had to adapt their working practices to become more flexible and fully utilise the technology available. This is promising because, as Goldin (2010) highlights, lack of flexible work is one of the biggest remaining sources of the gender pay gap . If the executive level is able to modify its working practices and incorporate more flexible working practices, such as working from home, then women with caring responsibilities will have greater access to a seat at the table. Of course, caring responsibilities go both ways and there is hope that the current crisis has brought men closer to caring responsibilities which could produce a cultural shift to more shared responsibility, especially as women are more likely to be key workers (58% of total).  

The current crisis will test senior leadership and theBoard in numerous ways, one factor that should not be missed is their responsibility to press ahead with diversity and inclusion initiatives. The extraordinary situation we are in could also lay the foundations for a ‘new normal’ where technology is used to promote flexible working at executive level and a culture shift where senior leaders invest more time with their own care work. As JFK said, ‘In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity’.