“How can I keep pushing our managers to have more gender-balanced teams when their teams aren’t even working because of the lockdown?” a colleague asked me this week. I didn’t know what to tell her, so I didn’t say anything. Since this conversation, though, I haven’t stopped thinking about this, and I realized that we may have to add Diversity & Inclusion and Corporate Social Responsibility to the long list of victims of this terrible virus. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The covid-19 pandemic is affecting everybody everywhere, but it’s not affecting everybody the same way. It may have infected Prince Charles, Boris Johnson and Tom Hanks, but it is disproportionately affecting minorities and frontline employees working on low-qualified and low-salary jobs.
So far, its biggest impact has been in rich countries like the US or those from Western Europe, but the entry of the virus in Africa, Latin America and countries in South Asia is in a later stage, and testing capacity in many of these countries is limited, so we don’t know the real extent of the virus yet in those countries.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are not only a “nice to have”
Extreme poverty in the world has been decreasing for the last 30 years, where we have gone from 1.9B to 700M people or from 36% to 10% of the world population, but this trend will probably reverse this year, and sadly millions of people will join the ranks of the extremely poor. Even in countries like the US, suffering for economic reasons is increasing, with around 20 million people losing their jobs only in April.
Under these grim circumstances, it may seem like a frivolous exercise to ask companies to hire more women and pay them equitably, to make LGBTQ employees, people with special abilities or from all generations feel included in the workplace, to reduce the use of plastic and carbon emissions, to recycle and reuse more and to invest in local communities, when more and more people are getting out of work, and covid-19 is disrupting everybody’s lives. After all, these things are all “nice to have”, aren’t they?
I don’t think so, I think they are imperatives. Having socially responsible companies is a must, even more so in today’s turbulent days. Having companies who care about their employees and have a diverse workforce in which everybody feels included also is a must.
Climate Change will be a bigger problem than covid
As Kal clearly illustrates in the vignette above, if we think the Covid-19 pandemic is a big crisis, and it certainly is, wait for Climate Change to fully materialize in all its might, and we will really see what it is like to have our world changed beyond recognition.
It is a huge problem that is there, lurking in the sideline and simmering in slow motion, but still there, panning out slowly but inexorably, and it will fall upon us if we don’t do anything to mitigate it (it is already too late to avoid it altogether). In the last couple of months, planes are not flying, many factories are closed, and people are not taking their cars to go to work, so evidently, pollution levels have gone down to levels not seen in decades.
This is a good respite for the planet, but it’s not enough, and it will not stop or slow down significantly the warming, so we need to continue working to reduce, permanently and structurally, our carbon emissions. All of us, as citizens, have an important role to play here, but so do the companies and governments of the world.
It is the same with other problems we as a society are facing: companies have the responsibility to help combat them. As I already explained elsewhere, companies exist to make money for their shareholders but also to have a positive impact on society and take care of their employees and consumers. I believe that the companies who understand this and act with a clear purpose that goes beyond their bottom line will come out the other side of this crisis much stronger and will have a better probability of succeeding.
Hard times like the ones we are living require socially responsible companies to do more, not less. Now is the time to walk the talk. Now more than ever.
As I don’t get tired of repeating, looking after the interests of all stakeholders is the right thing to do, but it is also good for business. As an example, a couple of years ago in Sodexo, we conducted some research on the impact of gender balance on performance.
The positive impact of diversity
We surveyed more than 50,000 managers at all levels of the organisation in around 70 entities, and the results of the research were revealing: gender-balanced teams (considering as such those who had between 40% and 60% of each gender in their teams) consistently outperformed those with no balance in different indicators such as margins, employee retention, client retention, employee engagement and safety. We only measured the impact of gender, but I am sure that these results would also be replicated with all the other dimensions of D&I.
We perform better when our workforce is diverse (because this reflects society and our customer base, but also because it brings a diversity of ideas and perspectives) and when we all feel included and that we can come to work as we really are, without pretending to be someone else. It is self-evident, I think, but not everybody agrees, and there is still a long way to go.
I am lucky enough to work for a company with a clear purpose. Our mission in Sodexo is to improve the Quality of Life of those we serve, and Corporate Social Responsibility and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion are ingrained in the way we do things; they are part of our DNA and our values. We have been recognized as leaders in both these areas in our sector for a decade, but still, there is a lot of work to do and we have plenty of things to improve on.
I should not have remained silent
This is why I should not have remained silent when my colleague asked me that question, “how can I keep pushing our managers to have more gender-balanced teams when their teams aren’t even working because of the lockdown?”.
Our entity in the country she is concerned about has one of the lowest female representation in the workplace in the entire APAC region. We are well above the industry benchmarks for the country, so many people could argue that this is cultural and there is not much else we can do about it, but my colleague feels very strongly about it, and she gets frustrated when she sees that we cannot keep increasing the number of women in the workforce and in management positions as fast as she would like to.
She is right. Country culture is no excuse, but neither is the crisis we are suffering due to this pandemic. It is more reason to continue working for what we think is just, because it is the right thing to do and will benefit our colleagues, but also our company and its results in the long term.
When she asked me that question, I shouldn’t have remained silent. I should have told her, “let’s fight together, what can I do to help?” because this is who we are, but for some reason, I didn’t. I didn’t realize now is the time, now more than ever.