MORE THAN WORDS
Neta Meidav, CEO & Co-Founder, Vault Platform discusses Taking the lead on delivering change
With Covid-19 still dominating the global agenda, the clock is being turned back on issues of equality. Although the pandemic has galvanised companies to make statements of solidarity with marginalised groups, action has been less forthcoming, extending the life of a problem that has already existed for too long.
Research from US academics at different universities looked at historical data and warned that biases tend to re-emerge strongly during economic crises, despite evidence that diversity and inclusion has positive impacts. Unfortunately, people in leadership tend to stick with what’s familiar as they try to weather the storm.
Even before the pandemic gripped the world, the systemic nature of inequality means that it won’t be until the year 2277 that men and women will finally achieve equal pay at work, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020.
That gap is widening and in a recent paper, Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, warned that the businesses that do emerge from the pandemic-triggered crisis will do so with a long-term talent problem as these key biases re-emerge.
The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg sent a good portion of the world into mourning and led us to reflect on her almost single handedly setting the ball rolling for gender equality both via US legislative reforms and through the global power of her brand. Elsewhere, leaders are looking to the future – in the UK, fresh off the back of the 43rd anniversary of the Race Relations Act 1976 passing, the Shadow Equalities Secretary is calling for businesses to publish their ethnicity pay gap to help tackle pay discrimination. An initiative called 10,000 Black Interns, aimed at ending the “chronic under-representation” of black people across major British industries is also launching at the end of October with a target of securing 10,000 paid work experience places for young black people at employers across 10 industries, including accountancy, education, marketing and advertising, healthcare management and law.
In the wake of collective action by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the third anniversary of #MeToo, action from the top is becoming a necessary facet of domestic politics that we can expect to see influence outcomes in the near future.
What we are seeing is that the sort of change necessary to restructure internal procedures and offer better protection for employees needs to give a voice not just to those most affected but has to enable those with the ability to enact change to listen.
Strong leadership means advocating for reform from the top-down while listening to and not talking over those most affected.
Covid and Diversity & Inclusion
Discrimination and inequality are not new challenges. Both have been an issue for a very long time and are very much a business issue. Whether it’s discrimination against women, Black people, or LGBT+ people, there is a long way to go and it would seem that public sentiment is shifting more quickly on these issues than the business landscape is. We have seen some limited efforts to tackle these issues, such as the introduction of ‘gender pay gap’ reporting for UK companies with more than 250 employees and the Board Challenge announcing the launch of a pledge for US corporate boards of directors to add a Black director within the next year.
Yet the systemic racism exposed through the Black Lives Matter movement has once again highlighted the huge problem of inequality for Black people and People of Color. BAME individuals are not seeing enough change and people have grown tired of consultation after consultation around racial inequalities that never come to any tangible movement. In 2020, black people in the UK had the highest unemployment rate of all groups; were most likely to have a household income below £400 a week; and, after Bangladeshi households, were most likely to claim income-related benefits.
A survey Vault Platform conducted from before the pandemic revealed that stakeholders are aware of the issue: 65% of the 1,000 enterprise HR and Compliance leaders polled answered ‘Discrimination’ when asked ‘What forms of misconduct do you feel your organization should address proactively?’. Yet employee focused research shows that a significant proportion of employees still witness and experience harassment, bullying, and discrimination and do not feel incentivised to report it.
Now, the pandemic has exacerbated barriers that threaten progression. HR analytics platform Syndio published research earlier this year highlighting deep concerns that Covid was going to exacerbate existing pay/opportunity disparities between genders and race/ethnicities. They suggested that BPOC who are parents/caregivers were much more likely to be considering quitting their jobs than their white counterparts to care for family during the pandemic. This potential for a large portion of women and minorities to exit the workplace creates a massive risk of setbacks in pay equity, potentially by decades.
Delivering meaningful change
But there is a nugget of truth in the adage: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. While the pandemic is causing significant setbacks it also offers significant opportunity. During a recent webinar, Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei, who has helped address cultural crises at companies such as WeWork and Uber, posited that change can be most effective when it happens rapidly, and that global crises give leaders a mandate to radically overhaul their business models and shift priorities in a way that is not often seen during periods of relative stability.
This suggests now might be the right time for savvy leaders to reassess existing initiatives and deploy new ones. A good place to start would be facilitating a better dialogue between those most affected by injustice and those with the power to change that.
With employee activism on the rise we’ve seen evidence that front line workers understand both the opportunity and the problem. We’ve also seen that these increasingly frustrated groups, without a platform to drive change internally, are taking to social media and the press to get their voices heard. This can have disastrous consequences for shareholders and stakeholders.
For US-led multinational corporations such as Adidas (who saw protests from employees against existing checks and measures to tackle inequality at the firm that they claim do not work), introducing greater protection via internal procedures and scrapping or enhancing inadequate legacy speak up tools such as anonymous hotlines could see significant numbers of employees get their voices heard.
The opportunity for new technological solutions that provide a more accessible framework for reporting can alter workplace culture in favour of speaking up and enable better listening for those in positions of power.
One of the many things 2020 will be noted for is an increased focus on the collaboration between the functions of compliance, legal, and HR – specifically at the intersection of a company’s culture and whether the company and its employees act with integrity.
If you look at public sentiment, government and regulator action, and employee activism, it’s clear that doing the bare minimum required to comply with the law is no longer enough as companies are pushed by their employees, governments, and customers to step up and adopt a multi-stakeholder approach that serves social purposes as well as investor demands.