What Covid-19 can teach us about workplace inclusion

As companies craft rules of the ‘new normal’, this is an opportunity to unlearn the ‘alpha male’ idea of leadership and create professional environments free of gender prejudice

Updated: May 21, 2020 06:00:16 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

Whether you own a company or work for one, the coronavirus has raised various questions about your livelihood options for the future. The uncertainties will only be cleared with time, but organisations and its leaders are opening up to newer perspectives. Businesses are in the midst of a fundamental reset: Innovating products to suit the new reality, changing the way they interact with customers, overhauling years-old hiring and talent acquisition processes and being outcome-oriented about assessing potential. The latter means that an employee’s contribution is not measured by the quantity of time spent at the office desk every day, but by the quality of contribution.

“Because organisations are more flexible about how roles are executed, women, who earlier felt disenfranchised when they got married or had a child, will feel more empowered,” says SV Nathan, chief talent officer at Deloitte India. “We’re actively looking forward to giving those who chose to take a break in their career a warm welcome back.”

There is data to support Nathan’s observations: The number of work from home roles posted on JobsForHer, a job search portal for women, has increased about 30 percent in the last month, compared with the same period a year ago. Job applications for women job seekers increased by 50 percent between February and March 2020.

A McKinsey report titled ‘Diversity Matters’ states that gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform their peers in terms of financial returns. “Diversity is probably a competitive differentiator that shifts market share toward more diverse companies over time,” states the February 2015 report. The World Economic Forum (WEF), however, estimates that gender parity in the truest sense might not be achieved in the next 100 years, but understanding challenges in addressing gender gaps would have a “huge bearing on the growth, competitiveness and future-readiness of economies and businesses worldwide”.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 by the WEF, the economic gap between men and women runs particularly deep, with only 35.4 percent of it being bridged in the last two decades. Reasons for this include that only one-fourth of women, compared with 82 percent men, engage actively in the labour market, which is one of the lowest participation in the world [ranked 145 out of the 153 countries that the WEF studied for this report]. The findings further reveal that women earned merely one-fifth of what men earned for the same job, which ranks it at 144 among 153 countries. Only 13.8 percent companies in India have women on their boards of directors. And only 30 percent of women are professional or technical workers.

“A lot of conventional gender workplace biases are being put to rest during Covid-19,” says Aswathy Palakkal, head of HR for Google-backed hyperlocal delivery platform Dunzo. She explains that with video conferencing tools, many employees that were earlier quiet during office meetings are now making their voices heard. “These behavioural patterns also show sparks of leadership. The coronavirus situation is helping us understand a lot more about ourselves, as we try to chase business goals.”


Johanna Beresford, CEO of In Diverse Company, a UK-headquartered startup that helps companies use technology to promote diversity and inclusion in workplaces, adds that Covid-19 could bring about a fundamental shift in the way we view leadership and employee participation.

“Leadership behaviour is often associated with being an alpha-male: Extrovert, forceful, loud, characteristics that are most associated with men,” she says. “What Covid-19 has done is present an opportunity for business leaders to learn that the only people who are going to excel are the ones that share empathy, compassion and are able to lead teams even when there is a huge amount of uncertainty.”

Since 2018, In Diverse Company has been working with 10 companies in India that range in scale and size, including Tech Mahindra and Goldman Sachs. The startup’s flagship solution to promote diversity and inclusion uses artificial intelligence (AI) and data science to develop behavioural programmes customised to organisations. Beresford, an HR professional with about 20 years of experience working in the US, Asia and Europe, believes that India has a huge opportunity to drive inclusion, because many companies here measure it through cultural patterns and shifts, and not just numbers to meet diversity targets, as in the US.

She explains that organisations in India have already collected a huge amount of valuable data around human capital and need to invest in studying it on a qualitative basis. “Instead of focussing on the number of women in certain positions, look at the data to understand employee experiences. This means not just looking at the number of women at the leadership level, but what is happening to those women: What happens when she takes maternity leave? What happens to her engagement and productivity levels? If she is not returning to the workforce, why is that?”

Such behavioural changes, she explains, should be implemented not only when companies are coming out of the pandemic in a staggered manner, but consistently over time.

Palakkal agrees that some of the changes need to be deeply behavioural. Like, more men taking up household work, and attaching more value to the more hours of unpaid work done by women. “That is when we will truly break workplace barriers, be more open and inclusive.”

MissRepresent is a fortnightly blog about news and trends, told through the lens of gender and sexuality. It will regularly feature incisive commentary, and voices of women whose work extends within and beyond the realms of gender justice. Read more here

Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

Check out our end of season subscription discounts with a Moneycontrol pro subscription absolutely free. Use code EOSO2021. Click here for details.