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How our new work-life reality is chipping away at equity and inclusion

Beware of letting the COVID-19 crisis exacerbate established biases, warns a focus group of corporate and nonprofit leaders.

How our new work-life reality is chipping away at equity and inclusion
[Photo: Sandy Millar/Unsplash]
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For the first time in modern history, three of our major social institutions—work, school, and family life—are all happening in one physical place: our homes. And that shift may have a greater adverse effect on women, according to Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and a professor of organizational behavior (by courtesy) at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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“Even in the best of times, the great majority of employees report experiencing conflict between the demands of work and the demands of family,” says Correll, who is the Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden Family Professor of Women’s Leadership and director of the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. “For heterosexual couples, resolving this conflict is decidedly gendered, with women continuing to perform significantly more housework and childcare, leaving men more time to focus on work.”

To better understand inclusion and equity concerns during the pandemic, Correll and her team recently convened a focus group of 27 leaders from the corporate and nonprofit sectors. “We were interested in understanding how the new work-family arrangements occasioned by the pandemic are affecting employees and what organizations are doing to support their employees during these challenging times,” she says.

Correll’s research centers on gender, workplace dynamics, and organizational culture, including biases and barriers that limit women’s full participation in society. Here, she discusses some of the findings from the group’s discussions.

What do employers need to understand about the challenges around work-life balance during the pandemic?

SC: The first thing employers need to do is adjust expectations of what productivity looks like. Some of the focus group participants shared how their organizations were canceling or deferring performance reviews, recognizing that it is not possible to evaluate performance against goals set prior to the pandemic.

Second, several participants expressed the need to “center the employee at this moment.” Employers shouldn’t assume there’s a single experience for their workforce. Some employees have young children to take care of, and these families vary in their circumstances and composition. Many are increasing eldercare responsibilities. Others may be feeling extreme isolation, and some are facing mental health challenges compounded by this crisis. Many are worried about family or community members “on the front lines.” And economic anxiety is being experienced across the spectrum.

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Third, employers should arm managers to support their employees. A large body of research shows that having a supportive manager can lead to greater job satisfaction, engagement, performance, and lower turnover. Several of our participants stressed that managers should “lead with empathy” and “model vulnerability” by openly sharing their own concerns and challenges.

What particular issues around inclusion and equity are arising now?

SC: Going to a fully virtual workforce is creating immediate challenges. Without clear norms for communication and managing airtime on platforms like Zoom, employers report that some employees feel less visible and less able to contribute. This reinforces status dynamics that tend to favor members of the majority and leave out the contributions of underrepresented employees. There’s also a danger of replacing the value of “face time” with “Zoom time,” even though some employees may not be in a position to show up at a certain virtual meeting time.

Another issue raised in the focus groups is that the fear associated with the pandemic is increasing prejudice and discrimination. For example, Asian employees are suffering from the increase in negative stereotypes that have led to hate crimes, fueled by racist rhetoric coming from our federal government.

There are also considerations around the perception of who is showing up to help an organization through this crisis and who is unable to because of their personal circumstances. I am concerned that when organizations make layoffs, they will be more likely to eliminate those who can’t live up to ideal worker norms, which is more likely to be women and people of color. We also see inequality over who is deemed to be more “essential.” In the service sector, for example, women of color have been the first hit by the wave of unemployment.

There is concern that the current economic situation will worsen workplace bullying and sexual harassment, especially when social distancing eases. When resources are scarce, as they are now, power dynamics are heightened, which makes sexual harassment by those who control resources more likely. An example is that we are hearing about graduate students struggling to secure funding, which can heighten their dependence on those who fund them. Increased dependence can be associated with increased sexual harassment.

What should companies consider doing in terms of work-from-home infrastructure, policies, and communications?

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SC: Adjust performance expectations and be mindful that well-known biases in performance evaluations could be exacerbated in this crisis. What are appropriate criteria for evaluation in this “new normal”? If the answer is ambiguous, research suggests that the probability of bias will increase and further disadvantage women, people of color, and others. If organizations are continuing with their performance review cycles, they should be especially mindful of providing clear criteria for managers. Several companies we talked to in our focus group are simply delaying or canceling performance review cycles.

Paying attention to the role of managers and providing them with the right resources and skills to support employees is critical. In our research, we see that managerial decisions and behaviors are at the crux of inclusion and equity. Managers may not be used to leading a remote team and being in charge of crisis management, so they need access to frameworks and research-based insights. Providing tools and infrastructure to work from home safely is also important. At Stanford, trainings on using telework software, for example, have been useful.

How can leaders and managers best support their workers now and plan for the future?

SC: One difficult component of this crisis is that it is a moving target. We talk about a “new normal,” but not a week goes by without another change. Managers and leaders are faced with planning for multiple future scenarios—ongoing social distancing, a partial reopening of certain sectors, or a return to “normal.”

Now more than ever, employers need to reaffirm their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. During past economic downturns, some leaders put inclusion goals on the back burner and focused on issues that they perceived to be more critical. If we back off our diversity and inclusion goals now, we run the risk of losing all of the gains we have worked so hard for during the past several years.

Are there any opportunities for improving inclusion and equity in the current situation?

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SC: Based on our research, we are seeing some unexpected and promising reasons to be hopeful. Several of our participants shared that this crisis has dispelled the notion that “face time” is absolutely necessary for team and individual performance and innovation.

We also have seen some great examples of online teamwork increasing inclusion when managed well and with the appropriate norms. Several of our participants reported that Zoom meetings made it easier to equalize participation. By requiring people to raise their hand on Zoom before speaking, it is easier to avoid interruptions and ensure that all voices are heard than during an in-person meeting.

We’ve also heard from executives that younger employees, who were less able to contribute to the team before, have now been stepping up and teaching organizational leaders best practices in telework and digital communication tools. Finally, employees now have more of a window into their colleagues’ lives, which is leading to increased empathy.

In our lab, we are now focused on studying how we can solidify these new, inclusive practices as organizations create the “new normal.” As one of our participants put it, “This is a test for us for healthier times.”


This piece was originally published by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.