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A recent PM forum online event looked both at Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues post-Covid 19. It featured Nicky Acuna Ocana, Managing Director of Ambition UK; Dionne Amoo, Business Development Manager at Moore Kingston Smith, worker at Counter-Col Network and author of the blog Words from a Black Woman; and David Pearson, interim Head of Diversity & Inclusion for Gowling WLG and a trustee of Freedom to Donate. It was chaired by Gowling WLG’s Head of Clients and Markets, Charlotte Green.

 

The objective was to lift the lid on how the pandemic has impacted on the debate and action around EDI for under-represented communities in professional services. There are some interesting figures giving context to this. In the year to September 2020, so covering only the first six months of the pandemic, the employment rate for people from minority ethnic groups slumped 5.3%. This is compared to a 0.2% decrease for white employees.

 

During the pandemic young people have been almost three times more likely to be unemployed than older workers, and an Institute of Fiscal Studies survey showed that mothers have been 23% more likely than fathers to become unemployed.

 

A City of London survey reveals that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds take on average 25% longer to achieve promotion than people from higher backgrounds. This gap increases to 32% when the respondents to the survey identify as black.

 

The interesting thing here is that many of these disadvantaged people feel that the pandemic has in some ways levelled the playing field. Mothers in major urban centers have struggled significantly to juggle working and caring responsibilities, and this has become somewhat better with home working. The general consensus has been that women’s long-term career trajectories have been improved by the pandemic.

 

There were serious challenges in the early stages of Covid, as all workers scrambled to adapt to home working but particularly those with caring responsibilities. Some found this easier than others. Older workers were somewhat advantaged here in that the younger employees tended to be the ones living in accommodation shared with multiple other people, be they friends, siblings or children.

 

Dionne Amoo pointed out the new working models have had other positive effects too, not least being the explosion of committees focused on tackling racism. For many people from minority racial backgrounds there has been a sense of fresh air blowing through the workplace as opportunities have been seized to begin to tackle these issues as part of redefining how businesses work. There has been progress but a lot remains to be done to turn the talk into lasting change, so perhaps the way to look at much of what has happened is that it has provided a starting point. There is no doubting that EDI requires investment of time and resources on a considerable scale.

 

David Pearson spoke of some of the challenges that have been thrown up by some really practical issues in the pandemic. Mask wearing, for example, has caused distress for workers who are less confident personalities and who rely a great deal on seeing facial expressions when it comes to relating to others; and of course those who have hearing difficulties and rely on lip reading have been severely impacted. All of this can take its toll on mental health, as has lockdown itself and the alternation we have experienced between society opening up and then shutting down again.

 

But there has been a considerable increase in the willingness to connect and share experiences between firms and organisations, rather than just doing this internally, and that has been genuinely positive.

 

In the professional services sector there is a long-standing problem experienced by people from minority socio-economic backgrounds as they move from their own familiar culture into a corporate world. They end up feeling rather lost. They modify their behaviour and speech in order to fit in and make others feel more comfortable. Home working has shifted the ground noticeably here. People have not been leaving their home cultural environments in the same way, and people who have felt formerly that they were unable to be themselves are finding that they no longer feel so suppressed. Working at home has involved, effectively, inviting work colleagues into your home. Yes you can use a filter background on a Zoom call if you wish, but the reality has been that people have not done that much and have felt, as a result, that a more authentic version of themselves is being seen in the workplace.

 

David Pearson spoke about an interesting effect that home working has had on the LGBTQ community. He noted that for gay people who are not ‘out’ at work, the ‘awkward water-cooler conversation on a Monday morning’ had become less of an issue. He was talking about conversations in passing with other staff members who the employee knows only very slightly, about such topics as what they had been doing at the weekend, and the problems of trying to talk about your personal life without identifying the sex of your partner. Interacting with colleagues via Zoom has tended to concentrate things down to team level much more, making life easier in that respect and allowing people to feel able to be more authentic.

 

The problem that may follow on from much of this is that where awkward conversations needed to be had about these issues before, they probably still need to be had now. The danger is that people become complacent and think that magically the problems have been solved, whereas the reality is that we have simply been made aware that there is a solution possible if you work for it.

 

The key is to establish an environment founded on trust, that makes people feel able to talk about the issues in the workplace that bother them personally. Top down, precedents need to be set now that make clear that the new sense of authenticity needs to stay, and the conversations that make that permanence possible will be had. But it isn’t all about top down change. Power structures are shifting slightly, and some of this can be driven from the bottom up.

 

Inclusivity policies need to be backed up with action far more nowadays, because we are seeing people being much more willing to leave jobs if they do not feel that the structures are properly in place.

 

There is a growing demand societally for companies to be more socially and environmentally conscious. Companies have an obligation to drive change, and many of the most momentous societal shifts of the last decade have been in the direction of holding the corporate world to account. It is an emerging agenda too, so no company can afford simply to try to act on what is already an established expectation. Strategizing for the future now includes looking at corporate social responsibility in a predictive way just as much as a reactive one.

 

The entire discussion was a fascinating listen, and is available on YouTube for anyone wanting to hear it and to listen to the Q and A session at the end. The overriding message that came from it, however, is that the Covid pandemic has forced businesses to adapt to new ways of working that have had a mixture of positive and negative impacts. However, the positives seem at the moment considerably to outweigh the negatives, so as we now start to return to the workplace that challenge confronting businesses is how to ensure that all of the good work that has been done in a sense by accident, now become a central part of corporate policy.