By Vinati Dev
“Diversity creates positive benefits when people believe in its intrinsic value. They can’t just see gender inclusion as an obligation.”
We don’t, yet, know, how this pandemic, will change our lives – what will “change forever” (a bit of an oxymoron) what will remain the same or shift, just a little. We are hearing that our workplace is expected to change drastically. Some say this will happen because companies will accelerate their plans to go digital. Some, because, WFH is to be the “new normal” and some because our office real-estate may be sold off to save costs! All of this will, we are told, will change the ‘nature of work and the workforce’.
For now, however, we just need to wait and see. But as we think about this long list of potential ‘resets’ it’s worth exploring if COVID-19 will make the corporate workplace and event countries more gender-inclusive?
Let’s take the corporates first. The lazy assumption to make is that because, it is women who often desire flexible hours, the new ‘professional legitimacy’ accorded to WFH will mean that their numbers may go up, and if that happens, over time, there will be more women in the work-force.
But rarely do external factors, even a socio-economic crisis of this magnitude, have an automatic impact on individuals, organizations, and country’s mind-sets. Rather, awareness, intentional decisions, consensus building, and commitment to change are needed to shift and permanently exit age-old gender biases.
What do we mean?
Well, it is risky to think that COVID-19 will change social norms that have historically prevented women from being hired and even being promoted. Even the data has thrown up contradictory evidence. We have known, for long, that while there is economic sense in hiring women, organizations don’t just hire.
While there is research supporting the positive relationship between business value and diversity figures, there are data showing thath there isn’t a value to hiring women or that affect it little. We can take our pick. But we also need to ask what is the missing piece? This fascinating study talks about what “other” factors, like larger social context, are already at play.
Here, researchers at Harvard evaluated 1,069 leading public firms in 35 countries and 24 industries to discover this: yes, gender matters and has a positive impact on market value and revenue, but more gender diversity has been normatively accepted in a country or industry, the more it benefits a firm’s market valuation and revenue.
Basically, they are saying that it is pre-existing norms and views towards women – in companies and cultures – that determine how women will perform and add value. It’s a vicious cycle.
You may ask how were norms captured and measured? The researchers, first measured the prevalence of women on boards of directors in each country and industry, because, women in important leadership positions signal that organizations value gender diversity and view women’s role as pervasive.
The second, a measure of normative legitimacy, was the percentage of firms in a country or industry that have publicly announced pro-diversity policies or programs. To measure regulatory norms, the researcher used the World Bank’s Women Business, to examine each country’s legal environment for women in the workplace.
So what this study is trying to say is that pre-existing conditions and mindsets matter! Pre-existing views on the intrinsic value of hiring women matters!
As we talk about the post-COVID corporate world, therefore, it is likely that companies that have already implemented, acted on, and set goals on D&I initiatives are likely to carry on doing so. They can even take advantage of “WFH legitimacy” to convert the sceptics in their own companies to achieve their goals in an accelerated manner. Perhaps, more people with disabilities will find their way to win some of these companies because WFH is possible.
But it is important to emphasize and ask: what were the companies doing before COVID-19?
Microsoft, for example, publishes an annual Global Diversity and Inclusion report, where it renews their commitment and tracks its progress on D&I goals. Last year, it publicly shared an Inclusion Index, Equal Pay Data, and have called out metrics for women and racial and ethnic minorities.
Similarly, earlier this year, Unilever, announced that it had achieved ‘gender-balance’ (50-50 men-women across the management levels) and had done so globally. This was up from 38% in 2010.
So, we know that goals were set years ago – and it was a deliberate and intentional approach that got them to this parity. Nothing was ‘automatic’, hardly anything was ‘exogenous’. Rather, these were deliberate internal decisions taken by the people at the helm at any given point on the intrinsic value of hiring and promoting women.
On the other hand, if an organization hasn’t yet made that conscious shift, made that commitment, or isn’t tracking progress – pandemic or not – those shifts won’t come fast and furious.
Similarly, the way a society is structured to absorb women in the labor force matters; its societal views on working-women and the legal environment which oversees women in the workforce also matter. This means, at the country level, India will continue to face a huge challenge in absorbing women in the workforce.
Data has shown how India is an outlier, when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce, at this level of economic development. Instead of going up, labor force participation has been going down. India’s Female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR)—the share of working-age women who report either being employed or being available for work—fell to a historic low of 23.3% in 2017-18. This is despite the fact that the schooling for girls had gone up. The missing piece in the puzzle, economists have argued, are social norms and the way labour markets are structured.
Data also shows that were India to rebalance its workforce, it would be some 27% richer. But even this established economic value is not enough to automatically drive absorption. Social norms impact both the supply and demand of women in the workforce. Indeed, without an intentional policy approach, which addresses legal, social, and labour market structures that hinder women’s participation – it will be hard to absorb an estimated 235 million missing women from the workforce.
The good news is that where the hard work of tackling social norms, exposing biases is being done, results have come. Huge participation of women in rural settings, via Self-Help Groups for example, required convincing the male members of the house-holds to let women take part and has shown great results.
But India has a long way to go on all fronts – social and legal – to feminize its workforce. COVID won’t change that overnight. If anything, the history of pandemics has shown that these episodes accentuate inequity. Corporates and countries should keep this in mind.
There is already a call to gather the differentiated way in which this pandemic will impact women who already bear the double burden — they do most of the unpaid work, and face discrimination at the workplace and in hiring. It is only if we remain conscious of both the historical biases against women and realize their intrinsic value, will we intentionally enable them to join and thrive in the workforce.
About the Author: Vinati Dev, MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics, is the founder of The Script. The Script is an executive coaching and storytelling company working with leaders to decode their whole self and define their authentic self.
This article was first published here.