How Diversity and Inclusion navigates the COVID-19 crisis

Have you performed the Herculean task of blending home-based work and child caring successfully? 

By the time you read this article, Luxembourg will be finishing the third week of progressive deconfinement. Say “p-r-o-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e” very slowly, as if pronouncing each letter takes a couple of seconds. What an appropriate acoustic representation of how long it will take to see the city’s dynamics that we are used to, back again! 

The nature of COVID-19 pandemic battles isn’t only that of health services, security forces, employment agencies or government administrations. Others, also intense, are fought between the walls of houses, and even in the silent, sometimes fearful twists and turns of our own heads. Many of us won’t forget what isolation means and feels. Never. 

The colloquially called “coronavirus” is more than a health crisis. It’s primarily an environmental crisis that has triggered questions about the suitability of our economic model, our ways of working and our values in both the social and the personal spheres. It has also made more obvious the infancy of gender equality in our homes, and how decades of biases in the job market, that have determined “what’s for him and what is for her”, are differently impacting women and men in the face of  unemployment. 

Confinement has been proof to many things, but our mental health has taken the top position on the list. “I’ve seen three people in the last seven weeks”, someone shared with us the other day, and then he added, “I’ve never talked to a screen so many hours per day before”. A mother we know replied, “I think I’m losing my mind” to the simple and well-intentioned question, “how are you?”. During the strict lockdown measures put in place in the city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, emergency services reported that, at some point, calls for help related to panic attacks and nervous problems were more frequent than those linked to COVID-19 symptoms. 

Anxiety assaults humans when the fear of uncertainty lurks. The United Nations has estimated that, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, around 195 million jobs can be lost worldwide. It could be us, it could be you or a family member, lengthening the unemployment list or fearing the ghost of an unexpected and forced career break. However, like many things in our society, the loss of work isn’t an egalitarian act that affects citizens equally. The world has learnt from previous crises that unemployment triggered by economic crises disproportionately affects those who can least afford it. 

At this point, many workers in Luxembourg have filled the request for parental leave for “family reasons”, a solution implemented by the government to help parents through the confinement period during which time schools, crèches and other care centers have remained closed (or semi-closed). For instance, in our company, there have been 367 employees who have requested at least one day of parental leave for family reasons due to Covid-19 so far. In some houses, another ghost has been looming over people’s heads, one that has managed to weaken the approaches to equality and inclusion that have been so difficult to conquer.

A crisis of noise

None of us were in Manhattan’s Times Square to prove that, if one whispered a saying, it could be heard almost clearly, as unbelieve as it seems. The same could happen, we guess, around the busy Colosseum, in Rome. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis of noise in several ways. Our (less disturbed) auditory nerve can account for this, but also the countless times we have had to reflect on the way we have been living because the cacophony of consumerism and daily rushes was gone.

We have learnt to live with the basics, to acknowledge what really matters, to long for the next hug and not for the next gadget. The COVID 19 has also played, somehow, the role of a unifying force.

[Reflections while writing this article]

The article’s goal is to give room for reflection on some of the less-discussed COVID-19 aftermaths, namely, the ones impacting diversity and inclusion in different orbs of our lives, at individual, familiar and social level. We have chosen to call them “the COVID-19 ghosts” because they are discreet and silent and instill apprehension. But let’s not be fearful; on the contrary, the best option to face them is to start acknowledging them. A true cuddle up to diversity and inclusion translates into considering the complexity of people’s lives and to giving the space for each individual to find the balance that supports its needs.  

“We need ghosts stories because we, in fact, are the ghosts” (Stephen King)

Inclusion, defined

There are two types of inclusion: cognitive inclusion and social inclusion.

“Cognitive inclusion is the act of valuing someone’s input, ideas, perspective, point of view, or contribution. It’s wanting to hear what someone has to say, and believing that it will add to the quality of the decision. Social inclusion is the act of physical representation or informing. It’s about making sure someone was on the right email, in the right meeting, or otherwise aware of the decision that is being made, or the action that is being taken”.

Source: Neuroleadership

COVID 19: The case for gender equality at home 

“Not even once in my 75 years did I imagine I would live like this crisis, that I will feel that my house is like being in jail”. That’s what the mother of one of our colleagues said by phone some weeks ago, when the lockdown started in her hometown, beyond the Atlantic. 

The lockdown has uncovered that a fair distribution of home responsibilities is far from being truly embedded in couples’ interaction. During the confinement triggered by the COVID-19 health crisis, women have taken the care burden in most cases, and conciliating home-based work, child caring, school support, meal preparation, housework and each person’s own mental battles is being a pretty difficult task. Both, the physical and mental charge have been increasing detrimentally on women.

That makes us think that still, deep in some hidden corners of our minds, and as hard and even simplistic as it may seem, women are housekeepers and men are providers. We haven’t worked enough in the fight against our stereotypes so far. However, many men and women had the opportunity to reallocate tasks to sustain the family collective endeavour during the COVID-19 crisis. No one is to blame. To change, slowly, over time living different experiences mindfully in the way.

In the context of confinement other issues may arise, with adverse effects. Because of long hours sharing spaces, the intimacy of a house can also be the perfect space for an abuser to thrive. Domestic abuse has mounted during confinement as reported by social services in different parts of the world. Italy, one of the first European countries that apply the lockdown measures, was one of the first to set off the alarm.

Then is whenrecalling what the concerned mother saida home becomes a jail, a horror house where the ghost isn’t faceless but is everywhere.

According to this European Parliament article, cases of domestic violence rose by a third, both globally and in Europe during the first week after the lockdown. In the same line, the World Health Organisation (WHO) described a spike in the use of domestic violence hotlines by 60% in April 2020. 

Don’t think only of injuries. Physical violence isn’t always present in abusive relationships. Because confinement already gives a hand for the abuser to isolate the victim from friends, family and even the work environment, other subtle methods such as constant surveillance, strict rules for behavior and restrictions to access food or sanitary facilities gain ground.

Normally seen as unidirectional, i.e. from men to women, domestic violence also happens vice versa and against children. In the US, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. In one day, domestic violence hotlines receive more than 20,000 phone calls nationwide, according to this article

The spectre of unemployment in times of COVID-19

The unemployment ghost is faceless but chameleonic, adopting as many colours as people’s skins. 

Even if the COVID-19 crisis is acting as a unifying force that has pushed us to value more human relationships, the importance of public services or the need for thinking more seriously about protecting nature, it isn’t different than other crises when it comes to the disproportionate economic impact it generates on marginalised or disadvantaged groups. Think of informal sector workers, front-line workers, older and younger workers, less educated workers, migrants and other minorities.

Stating that unemployment will hit women stronger than men or vice versa might be over-simplistic because the sector of activity, age structure and time – looking at the short and medium terms – are important variables in the equation. One fact, nevertheless, is undeniable: income inequalities will worsen all over the world. For instance, well-educated women will have more chances to reenter the job market than less educated women.

Let’s dig into the women case. In Europe, female workers make up 75% of the healthcare industry according to the World Health Organisation. With a demanding workload and a high emotional toll, these are currently highly demanded occupations, although an average gender pay gap of around 28% persists. Yes, coronavirus puts women in the frontline but the retribution doesn’t change, at least not until now. 

The Europe’s public sector is also a women’s fief, accounting for over 60% of the workforce, rising to roughly 70% in Nordic countries.

In turn, women are also a majority in service-related jobs, for instance cleaning, traveling, retail (62% to 75%), accommodation (60%), food and beverage (53%), or other activities where physical interaction with customers is necessary. All these sectors have been greatly impacted by the lockdown measures. Because women are more likely to take parental or family leave or simply take a career break to raise families take care of children or family members, businesses must remain attentive when the crisis has passed or, at least once it has greatly subsided, to not penalise women upon return to work.

Men are predominant in other sectors (security, transportation, construction), heavily impacted by the crisis as well. As a reference, only about 22% of transport workers are female, according to the European Transport Workers’ Federation.

Women, however, have more higher education and on average better grades than men, hence, a better likelihood to rejoin the job market. But there is also another aspect to mention that will likely impact men. During lean times, businesses and other organisations become more cost sensitive  and may challenge positions with a high level of responsibilities and income that are traditionally male dominated.

Undeniably, men and women will share the impact of the coming economic adjustments, even if they don’t lose their jobs. Working conditions will inevitably shift or, in some cases, even deteriorate. nding on the sector where one or another of the working population predominates, men will be more impacted than women or vice versa.

The attractiveness of flexible working hours, a secure workplace and a clear career path is now proving an even better combination for women. We can expect even more women moving into state jobs as the economic crisis is unfolding.

Is the management of the COVID-19 crisis fireproof for female leadership?

Much has been said about the successful management of the crisis in New Zealand, Taiwan, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland and Finland. There is a common characteristic all these countries share: they are led by a woman.

Being a woman doesn’t make one a leader, what a biased affirmation! It’s as sexist as saying “men are more suitable for business because they are less emotional. However, due to stereotypes and prejudices and to the way we have built our social systems, women have to demonstrate their worth and capabilities more than men which, in turn, prepares them to become better leaders.

From a different approach to testing and communication to a purposeful use of technology, these female leaders are navigating successfully the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

Let’s talk about LGBTQ+ 

A smaller, sometimesto sometroubled community, is also struggling with the COVID-19 aftermath. Commonly working for SMEs in the food and beverage, personal care and entertainment and event industries, members of the LGBTQ+ community are more at risk to lose their jobs. The sectors are among the most impacted due to confinement and social distancing measures, and strict rules still apply in most cases. For instance, Luxembourg’s exit plan won’t give green light to organising events before July 31.

For young unemployed LGBTQ+ workers, returning home to alleviate costs could be a hard-to-make decision. To many, support from their families was already nonexistent before they left and the likeability of a situation change is scarce.

Also, many members of the community receive mental health support or access to hormonal treatment which have nearly stopped or largely reduced during the crisis.

There is also domestic violence in same-sex couples but, also in that context, the social patterns associated to each gender remain. In fact, in a 2013’s study on Intimate Partner Violence in the LGBTQ+ community, only 26% of men called the police for assistance after experiencing near-lethal violence.

Brought by COVID-19:  Can there is such a thing as (digital) over-inclusion?

Following continuity plans and the need to continue serving clients and users, businesses have embraced digital ways of working massively. 

This has led many of the businesses to increase the intensity and frequency of their communication efforts based on the premise that, in the absence of physical contact, the exchanges have to become more evident and all-encompassing. Okay, let’s give the benefit of the novitiate to this way of acting.

But, even nectar is poison if taken to excess, the proverb goes. An exaggerated, all-encompassing, over-participative communication can lead to over inclusion, which can be as detrimental as under inclusion. 

According to the definition of inclusion we shared in the beginning of the article, it emcompasses two axes: cognitive inclusion—the sharing of ideas and perspectives, and social inclusion—or the fact that being physically present. A seizable amount of digital communications  haven’t thoroughly thought of how to promote cognitive inclusion. The lack of physical presence, linked to social inclusion, has led to over inclusion. For instance, to “appear inclusive” many of us have been sending unnecessary emails, or adding people in copy. 

The consequence is an overall “I’m overwhelmed” feeling. Both, the desire to be involved in a lot of things or to involve others because of the fear to “miss the news” or “lose relevance and visibility” can be self-defeating. When we take on more than we can really deal with, we execute less.

Communication powered by digital means should be driven by a balancing act between time investment, relevance of the invitees and the impact their participation could bring to the project or activity. It shouldn’t get individuals stuck in endless video or audio conferences impacting negatively execution time.  Interactivity and clarity about reasons for participating or not  are success factors too.

Final thoughts and a call to action

It’s time to wrap up this attempt to unmask some of the ghosts shadowing diversity and inclusion in times of COVID-19.

Like in that famous movie, there are many things that are “gone with COVID-19”, at least temporarily. A fearless and spontaneous hug, a conversation at the terrace of a coffee shop, a jazz concert, a soirée in the cinema, a football match, a business conference, a late afternoon in the park with friends, a blind date, a simple kiss. The list can get even longer because those little things, those moments are the ones that make us human. To happen, none of them require tons of money, have you noticed that? 

Human memory is fragile. We wonder if all lessons learnt during the COVID-19 crisis, all the reflections around the unsustainability of our system and the flaws of the current establishment, all the calls to accelerate the implementation of measures to value our health and, hence, protect our planet, invest more responsibly and consume less but learn more, all the times we have promised to say to the ones that matter “you matter to me”, will stick with us or will vanish.

Then, the title of the movie will have to change to “Brought and Gone with COVID-19”. We all write the script of the future with the way we behave today. Let’s do one where we all feel more included, one we’re proud of, to inspire future generations.

What we think
Vinciane Istace
Vinciane Istace, Diversity Leader at PwC Luxembourg

Crises are exacerbating our key societal challenges and existing inequalities. We may take a step backward when it comes to gender equality and a better allocation of managerial and professional opportunities (and associated financial recognition) for women and men.

All epidemics have gendered effects,” says Clare Wenham, an associate professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “The problem that is no one had talked about it, and policymakers weren’t aware.

However Covid-19 can also be a very confronting teacher… we were all in it together. Men and women across the planet were plunged in a different experience: gaining greater awareness about each other’s roles, starving for social and family interactions, valuing non-monetary items, listening better to nature and ultimately to ourselves. So we may also decide to take positive steps and treasure our interdependence.

Covid-19 brought us two primary learning for more gender equality :

– Workplace flexibility and commutable jobs. It may shift norms and facilitates the combination of career and families so crucial for women faced with “time poverty”;
– Reverse gender roles. Many men conquered a new space and role within the household dynamics during the lockdown. Learning by doing is a robust and long lasting progress.

Crises are a call for action in itself: what will you do differently as from today? When it comes to inclusiveness and gender equity, silence, indifference and inertia are no longer an option.

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