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Why Organizations Must Continue to Drive D&I Initiatives Throughout the Covid-19 Pandemic

March 8, 2021, 8:01 AM

Kate Barton, EY Global Vice Chair – Tax

It is no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has been disruptive for businesses.

Supply chains have shifted, businesses’ practices have evolved, and digital and remote working have tested the adaptability of employee cultures. But while organizations face imminent financial challenges, this does not mean “good-to-have” diversity and inclusion initiatives (D&I) must be relegated as a secondary priority. In fact, they must sit firmly at the forefront of all organizational decision-making.

For the first time in history, the global economy has been forced to operate almost entirely digitally—and remotely. As a result, individuals and organizations have never been more dependent on the information communicated—and made visible—on not only a select few corporate information channels, but within the wider media ecosystem.

Particularly as individuals face increased isolation, and specific segments of the population and workforce bear the burden of the social and economic impact of the pandemic, organizations must continue to support these groups, invest in initiatives that empower them, and be visible in their commitment and leadership.

The imperative is clear. After all, the demography of the global workforce is diverse. Women, for starters, constitute 49.6% of the world’s population. Yet according to the World Economic Forum, in 2020, the Gender Gap—a measure of economic, education, health, and political parity—stands at 68.8%, well below parity. While 2020 saw improvement in the score of 101 of 153 countries measured, no country to-date has still achieved full gender parity (here, the Nordics lead the way). And this is a challenge only to be exacerbated by the pandemic as financial challenges constrict organizational capacity.

The impact of Covid-19 on women

Women, along with underrepresented populations, have undoubtedly been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Women are not only disproportionately represented in high-contact roles such as teaching and healthcare—which puts them at increased risk of exposure to Covid-19—but they are more heavily represented in contract roles or in positions affected by global lockdowns. Globally, women make up 70% of health and social care workforce, and according to the International Labor Organization, 740 million women work in the informal economy. In the first month of the pandemic, their income is estimated to have fallen by 60%.

Meanwhile, with the domestication of the global workforce, reports of violence against women have increased around the world, whereas unpaid, domestic duties have increasingly fallen on women to shoulder. According to UN Women and the UNDP, by 2021, around 435 million women and girls will be living on less than $1.90 a day, with an estimated 47 million pushed into poverty as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much progress has been made in recent years to advance gender equity, but organizations must continue to invest, support, and empower their workforces, even if these initiatives are digital, if they are to avoid a backward slide in progress due to the pandemic.

The business imperative

The business imperative for organizations is clear. Organizations with diverse leadership teams report 19% higher innovation revenues, are 70% more likely to capture a new market, and 45% more likely to improve market share. All the while, inclusive environments see teams that are 50% more productive and 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their full innovative potential.

As the pandemic accelerates the digital transformation of the global economy, the importance of culture—and digital culture in particular—cannot be understated for businesses. It is estimated that up to 90% of a company’s market capitalization alone can derive from culture.

The actions organizations can take

If organizations are to support women—and indeed all underrepresented populations, whether in terms of sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, or even age—they must ensure their digital communication and operating platforms not only reflect the world around them, but that they continue to support, enable and encourage diversity in thought and participation. Organizations must ask themselves:

  • Is your businesses ensuring leaders representing diverse backgrounds are represented on meetings?
  • How can we/leaders actively seek different views from individuals with different backgrounds and capabilities?
  • Is your organization continuing to invest in programs and initiatives that recognize and support diversity and inclusiveness?
  • Has your organization instituted policies that support flexible work practices, particularly to women who must often balance multiple duties as caregivers and breadwinners?

When I joined EY as an intern 35 years ago, the world looked very different when it came to both the boardroom and the workforce at-large. Today, at EY, I am incredibly proud of running a tax service line that has strong representation across geographies and roles, including women in the highest leadership positions: Susan Pitter as EY Deputy Global Vice Chair – Tax, Marna Ricker as EY Americas Vice Chair – Tax, Bridget Walsh as EY EMEIA Tax Managing Partner, and Eng Ping Yeo as EY Asia-Pacific Tax Leader. Diversity and inclusiveness are core to who we are and how we work (you can see the signed Global Executive Diversity & Inclusion Statement). In the latest figures, 48% of the EY workforce across the globe was women, with 33% of the global executive also women.

This International Women’s Day, our all-women-led tax leadership, as well as many women leaders (and male allies!) at EY, share how organizations—and people—can continue to drive D&I throughout the pandemic.

Marna Ricker, EY Americas Vice Chair – Tax

This past year has given all of us a deeper appreciation for the power of empathy and inclusion. The challenges of this past year have driven a recommitment on inclusiveness and belonging for all—for EY people, clients, and the communities we serve—with ongoing programs focused on women’s advancement and leadership around the world. In the most recent round of U.S. partner/principal promotions, 40% were women, an increase of 7% from the prior year, which represents the largest female class ever. Across all career levels, EY women are empowered through a unique culture of mentorship, sponsorship, and coaching which form the backbone of career growth and leadership opportunities. One program in particular, “Women. Fast forward,” engages EY people, clients, and communities by enabling women and girls to reach their potential through education, mentorship, innovation, and entrepreneurial opportunities. EY is helping to accelerate women’s equity and driving change—both in the organization and in the community. This commitment is unwavering and woven into the fabric of the organization.

Bridget Walsh, EY EMEIA Tax Managing Partner

Diverse and inclusive workforces are imperative to successful businesses. Many studies have shown that they create a smarter, more creative and productive workforce, enabling companies to innovate, attract talent, and compete more successfully. At EY, championing and celebrating diversity in all its forms—whether that is diversity of thought, gender, race, faith, ethnicity, or geography – is embedded into the culture. As EY Managing Partner for tax across Europe, the Middle East, India, and Africa, all 25,000 employees have a unique contribution to make and perspective to give. This is what makes the business such a special place to lead. We have many long-standing support programs and initiatives in place at EY, such as Accelerate, a leadership development program designed to connect and fast track the careers of high-performing women. Programs such as these play a pivotal role in connecting talent, providing mentorship, and facilitating sponsorship pathways, which is fundamental to building and maintaining diverse and inclusive teams and cultures.

Eng Ping Yeo, EY Asia-Pacific Tax Leader

Studies have repeatedly shown that gender equality means better business performance. EY research in collaboration with the Peterson Institute for International Economics recently found that companies with at least 30% female leaders can add up to 6% to net margins. But the road ahead could prove challenging. According to the World Economic Forum, it could be another 202 years before economic parity is achieved in the workforce. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disproportionately impact the economic livelihood of women, even this target could be pushed out further. Organizations, whether large or small, must set the right tone from the top. At EY in Asia-Pacific, the Asia-Pacific Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, which I have the privilege to Co-Chair with Patrick Winter, EY Asia Pacific Managing Partner, plays an integral role in driving change. By acting as both a “think and action” tank, the Committee achieves progress through advocacy for change, and accelerates towards a more inclusive culture by setting consistent standards of behavior and tackling systemic barriers that may exist in organizational policies, processes, and workspaces.

Maya Smallwood, EY Global People Advisory Services Employee Experience Leader

The global pandemic has upended the working world. We are reimagining how we work and connect, while seeing lines between home and work life blur. Remote-work—or “work from anywhere”—may provide added flexibility for some. Others, particularly women doing essential work and managing caregiving duties face elevated demand that increases workloads. The next imperative is to address the unintended effects of flexibility and optionality: the ubiquitous workday. We are spending more time plugged in, and much more time online. For many, there may now be an expectation to be available in an ever-expanding range of working hours. Digital technologies provide an invaluable medium for many to sustain connectivity and performance throughout the pandemic, but if organizations fail to put humans at the center of their decision-making, performing at speed and scale will not be sustainable. Organizations must listen to their people and implement the experiences and enablers that build and maintain high performing, empowering and inclusive cultures in the digital age.

Paula Hogéus, EY Global Labor and Employment Law Leader

Employee health and safety is a critical issue for organizations managing their workforces throughout the pandemic. While many employees have worked—and continue to work—remotely, as vaccine distribution timelines accelerate and economies look to encourage people back to physical workspaces, risk assessments conducted by organizations will need to address the implications of any return to physical workspaces on different demographics. Whether they are considering the needs of expecting mothers, or individuals with underlying health issues, organizations will need to ensure they are addressing the complexities of diverse workforces. Then, once employees are back at the office, the employer will also need to manage employee wellbeing in compliance with new laws and regulations. For organizations that continue to see some personnel work remotely—if at all—they will need to ensure that the work environment is safe and compliant and be conscious of the implications and eligibility of accessing certain legal and health benefits when working in a foreign jurisdiction.

Trent Henry, EY Global Vice Chair – Talent

We are living in unprecedented times and women have stepped up beyond all expectation, demonstrating resilience and incredible strength. As EY Global Vice Chair of Talent, it’s my job to ensure we not only hold ourselves accountable but help set the standard for others. Companies need to acknowledge and address how their teams have been impacted by the pandemic, taking into account gender-specific impacts. They’ll need to look carefully at organizational culture and behavior that is limiting women’s careers, including ensuring equal pay for equal work and creating better flexibility—like safe and affordable childcare, and parental and other paid leave to help us shift the traditional gender narrative at home. Most importantly, they’ll need to ensure women are represented and included in all decision making for the organization. And lastly, they must acknowledge that the pursuit of gender equity must extend far beyond the organization, to community involvement and forging strong stakeholder partnerships. The pandemic has been an accelerator for change in so many areas. Let it also be a lesson in reframing our future; a future without gaps, where we are all equal, where women are part of every conversation, equation, solution, and answer.

Karyn Twaronite, EY Global Vice Chair – Diversity & Inclusiveness

As we continue navigating through the global health crisis and face unprecedented challenges, it’s important that we don’t lose ground on gender equity. It can be a foundation to building stronger teams, organizations, and communities. The stakes are high, and we now have an opportunity to double our efforts to build a more equitable world—that means equitable across genders. By offering equitable opportunities to all people, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and segment of the population, leaders can build more inclusive workplaces. This not only creates stronger, resilient pipelines of talent, but drives better decision-making, innovation, and organizational agility. Leaders can be intentional in implementing strategies to manage day-to-day activities like encouraging flexibility at work and giving permission to set boundaries, increasing sponsorship, and ensuring meaningful career experiences and conversations. The pursuit of gender equity has no quick fix. It requires our collective action to consistently offer and improve fair and equitable environments, whether physical or virtual, so that all may thrive in both their professional and personal lives.

Ruchi Bhowmik, EY Global Vice Chair – Public Policy

The pandemic has undoubtedly transformed existing organizational practices and it will continue to do so as economies look to return to physical workspaces. As organizations reimagine work as both a place and practice, and as employees come to expect increased flexibility in operations, organizations will need to ensure that the post-pandemic workspace provides added support for women, particularly as many have had to shoulder caregiving responsibilities and balance these with breadwinning duties, often all under the same roof.

Firstly, organizations should expand access to affordable, high-quality childcare, and create a workspace that acknowledges the demands of caregiving. In the Nordic countries, where governments have subsidized the costs of childcare, nearly three-quarters of women are active in the labor force. In comparison, less than half (46.9%) of all women globally participated in the labor force during 2019, according to the World Bank. Second, we must create easy pathways for women who have been out of the workforce for extended periods, whether as caregivers, or otherwise. Women, who make up a significant percentage of the health and social sector, as well as the informal economy, have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic economically. Facilitating re-entry and re-education pathways play a pivotal role in supporting women and ensuring society does not slide backwards in its fight to achieve gender parity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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