Will Covid-19 alter the momentum for Inclusive leadership?

Tuesday 02 June 2020
Friday 29 May 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the equal pay act, and the perfect moment to ask two well-known leaders about the impact the Covid-19 crisis is having on diversity and inclusion. Ann Francke
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

Heather Melville OBE is chair of CMI Women, director of client experience at PwC and a leading BAME executive in the FT EMpower list; Pavita Cooper is a CMI Board of Companions member, founder of More Difference, and commissioner on the board of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The two experts were our guests at CMI’s latest Better Managers Briefing, held on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. Here are their thoughts...

Progress or setback?

There is nothing straightforward about the impact that Covid-19 is having on the diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda.

On the plus side is the visibility of many minority and female leaders in the health service, which has grown awareness of the diversity and capability of frontline leaders and created new role models. “People are starting to look up to these amazing people in our communities who are giving up their lives,” says Heather.

Flexible working has created a much greater willingness among managers to recognise caring commitments, says Heather – “to be able to say to people, ‘if this time doesn't work because you’re having to do childcare, then let us know and we’ll change the times’. Whereas before you would have people who wouldn’t want to say that; they’d just kill themselves to get into work for an 8:30am meeting when it was probably not necessary.”

Many employees feel a greater sense of inclusion, says Pavita, because their managers and leaders are placing more emphasis on wellbeing and communication. Men, in particular, have gained in empathy and experience by working flexibly, she says. “Many men who for many years were virtually absent from the household because of the demands of their job, are now having to be engaged in the house and home...

“Men particularly will be more conscious and aware of what it feels like to have an extended break from work and then understand the impact psychologically of what it means to go back.”

But there are clearly downsides. Women appear to be bearing the brunt of household chores and childcare, as well as playing second fiddle when it comes to office space. “The woman is in the bedroom while the man is in the living room with books behind him, in a business setting,” observes Heather. Heather and Pavita both feel that the crisis will broaden the pay gap and inequality for women and minorities, especially as many lower-paid roles are held by women and minorities. As offices reopen, many less senior roles may be put at risk of redundancy or individuals may not be able to travel as safely.

“It’s all the men who are volunteering to come back,” says Pavita, “so [employers] might find that, having had a very diverse workforce... in a post Covid world, the only people who come back are those who’ve got financial resources and the means not to use public transport – and those are predominantly men.”

The impact that these trends have on diversity and inclusion will come down to how employers behave as they restart.

Inclusive leadership for lasting impact – employer’s choice

Much of the impact of Covid-19 on diversity and inclusion will lie in employers’ and organisations’ hands, say Heather and Pavita. “People feel like they’ve got some degree of choice in what it feels like when they go back to work. And so [they should] come back to lots of engagement, lots of communication, and the appropriate safety in place,” says Pavita.

Covid-19 has created a more inclusive environment in which managers routinely ask their colleagues how they are, how they’re feeling, and take greater care to ensure that everyone contributes to the virtual conversation, she continues. “I keep praying that everything we’ve learnt through Covid, we continue post-Covid… We need to continue those conversations... This is where you will see the real test of who is a leader and who is a manager. The managers will wait to be told they need to ask those questions. The leaders are already doing that… That needs to continue because that’s what will help us change things when we get into the wider world again.”

Both women caution against slipping back into bad habits, such as hurried recruitment practices that typically disadvantage women and minorities. “I’m already seeing examples where people are trying to shortcut processes in order to quickly fill gaps or get people in quickly,” says Pavita. “That's where unconscious bias kicks in.”

Employers must challenge recruiters – and themselves – not to slip back and stay on a progressive trajectory, says Heather. “The responsibility needs to sit with the organisation because this is their opportunity to not only build a robust business, but a diverse business.”

Become remotely visible

Both Pavita and Heather believe that greater flexibility around the timing and location of work can provide new opportunities for women and minorities to become more visible.

Invest in yourself, advises Heather. “Make sure you’ve taken the time to create the persona of who you are and the additional skills you have.” Build your presence on LinkedIn and other platforms.

Both women believe that resilience – a quality often cultivated by women, minorities and other marginalised groups – will become even more valued by employers. Now is the time for you to showcase yours, they say.

Is future leadership more female?

Many female leaders possess resilience, and the ability to change quickly. “We women can accommodate a lot of that because we have to,” says Heather.

She cites NatWest RBS Group CEO Alison Rose as a role model for taking many tough decisions while remaining fair, lending to as many businesses and individuals as possible, and for giving her bonus and a large portion of her salary to charity. Many countries credited with having the best response to the Covid-19 crisis are led by women.

Heather and Pavita believe that qualities of resilience, combined with empathy and decisiveness, will mark out the leaders of the future, and that many of these traits are displayed by women. A recent Mckinsey study backs them up.

That said, we still often revert to gendered language when describing leaders: men are ‘tough’ and ‘commercial’; women are ‘empathetic’ and ‘people-centric’. It’s time this changed, says Pavita: “Both men and women will have to embody both skillsets. I’m very optimistic that we will have a new definition of what leadership looks like.”

To watch this webinar, visit CMI's YouTube page. We host these Better Managers Briefings every Friday at 1.15pm; we'd love to see you there.

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