People will remember the global COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed moment for many reasons, both positive and negative. One way to measure its impact is workplace diversity. The pandemic revealed or worsened opportunity gaps for women, minorities, marginalized communities and people of color.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Diverse Employees
A global McKinsey & Co. survey studied how opportunity and advancement gaps manifested during the pandemic. It found that women and diverse employees experienced heightened levels of the following, compared to their counterparts in the majority:
- Increases in workload
- Unsafe or unhealthy workplace conditions
- Mental health risks and challenges
- Unfair or inequitable work-life balance
- A sense of isolation
The same research says women feel these effects more than men — and it has caused them to leave the workforce in greater numbers. The impact on workplace diversity could long overstay the pandemic.
Women in the Workplace Amid the Pandemic
Work-from-home (WFH) culture took the professional world by storm in 2020. Shutdowns and social distancing necessitated a new way to remain productive. Women, and millennial women specifically, see remote work as an appealing opportunity. Unfortunately, they also fear that taking advantage of such positions will cut them off from workplace advancement.
Unfortunately, the pandemic seems to have worsened the opportunity gap between the sexes rather than alleviated it. In addition to working from home for a living, women still feel pressured to handle the bulk of household duties, like raising children, cleaning and preparing meals.
Often, all it takes for individuals to reach their professional potential is simply to have the doors of opportunity opened for them. Working from home connects all people with the potential to make a living from anywhere. However, its culture needs to change so taking advantage of WFH technology isn’t a perceived or actual threat to one’s professional advancement.
Diverse Communities Are Recovering Slowly
Women aren’t the only group experiencing frustration during the pandemic, nor the only one feeling pressured to leave the workplace or seek more fulfilling or stable employment elsewhere. The groups recovering most slowly from the pandemic, economically speaking, are Black women, Hispanic men and women, and white women.
Part of the problem is that the industries recovering slowly are disproportionately staffed by women in the first place, including leisure and hospitality and other service-based roles. In contrast, male-dominated sectors and companies are bouncing back from the pandemic quickly.
Without organized community outreach and diversity-focused recruitment efforts, these white male-dominated industries are likely to remain so.
The Gender Pay Gap Is Widening
All these factors are conspiring to keep key industries bifurcated by gender. The pandemic is also exacerbating the long-standing pay gap between men and women.
Understanding this will only cause women to further eschew industries known for undervaluing their contributions, such as financial and administrative services, emergency medical technicians and sales representatives.
Research from Harvard Business Review anticipates the pandemic will cause a lasting deleterious effect on the gender pay gap even as companies pivot to remote and hybrid work. Women are more likely to stay home in such a situation and men are more likely to report to the office in person.
The pandemic is reinforcing gender roles and familiar patterns, even as technology creates wider talent pools. Anybody can report to work from home, but the majority of these employees are women. As mentioned earlier, women fear WFH culture will cause them lost opportunities for career advancement. Research conducted recently on manager bias confirms that supervisors give preferential treatment to those they work with in person, at the expense of remote workers.
A Setback for Diversity Is a Threat to All
All these factors point to a clear conclusion: The pandemic has reinforced several long-standing patterns:
- Industries dominated by white males are likely to stay that way without significant efforts to diversify during recruitment.
- Even when men and women can telecommute or engage in hybrid work, women still do more household work on average.
- Women’s fears about WFH culture costing them opportunities have so far been supported by the available evidence.
- The sectors disproportionately staffed by women have taken the longest to bounce back, and unemployment among females took a sharper dip than for men.
- Women are leaving the workforce at a faster rate than men.
- The employment-to-population ratio for Black communities fell much more sharply and quickly than for white populations during the pandemic.
It’s also a fact that Black workers are more likely to occupy frontline positions than white workers, which puts them at a greater risk of experiencing unsafe conditions and health care inequality — two further contributors to shifting demographics in the workplace. Simply put, employees don’t want to work where they don’t feel safe or valued anymore.
Boosting Diversity Amid the Pandemic
The pandemic has shown where we have the most work to do to create a more equitable economy. COVID-19 worsened pay and opportunity gaps along gender and racial lines or caused progress to stall. It revealed that workplace conditions and the social contract hadn’t advanced very much, or at least not evenly, since the first industrial revolution. For example, technology frees us from tedium and repetition, but automation poses a greater risk to diverse communities than white ones.
Employers have answers in front of them. Creating harmonious, diverse and productive workplaces means expanding workers’ rights with health care and paid sick leave for all. This is effective at retaining workers. Given the recent mass resignations and unfilled job openings, positively improving employee expectations could go a long way toward creating engaged and loyal talent pools from all walks of life.
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