25 March, 2020

Leading through COVID-19: The role of Leadership and Diversity & Inclusion in times of crisis

I would like to start by giving thanks to all the carers, health workers, doctors, nurses and essential workers for everything you are all doing to keep our families healthy, safe and provided for. It was fantastic to see the show of support last night as the UK stepped out in solidarity, clapping from windows, balconies and front doors, to thank our incredible NHS. On behalf of Green Park, I would also like to thank our customers for their support and wish you and your loved ones safety throughout these challenging personal and professional times.

Like many other organisations, focused on the health and safety of our employees & customers and the continuity of our services, Green Park has transitioned its employees to a work-from-home model and is utilising remote technology to keep us connected. For me, this means the reduction of my daily four hour commute – time I wanted to put to good use by researching and reflecting on the many factors concerning business leaders right now….the first one being how to lead by example in such difficult times.

Being a leader in a business right now, however big or small, is difficult. When you have a robust plan and clarity on the future, conveying leadership strength and direction is an exciting challenge. But with unprecedented levels of uncertainty ahead, conveying leadership strength and direction becomes a different ball game. We are juggling employees, customers and markets who are looking to us for answers, some of which we may not have. But, what most of us do have is gratitude, ideas, entrepreneurialism and an ambition to do our best by our company stakeholders at every stage of this ever-evolving situation. We must pull together, listen to each other and admit that we too feel fearful of what lies ahead, while remaining positive that collectively we will bounce back from this stronger than ever.

At Green Park, we work with organisations across the private, public and third sectors to develop inclusive and culturally intelligent leadership teams. In times of crisis, leaders must demonstrate these qualities and so much more. Through tough times, our employees are looking to us to lead by example. As leaders, yes, we must maintain a positive mental attitude, but it is also so important to show that we share the same fears as our colleagues and peers. We must act with authenticity and humility, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers right now but that we are willing to listen and collaborate more than ever before – our business depends on it.  

We need to listen to everyone: the quietest voice may add the greatest value. We have to role model and show integrity. We may have to make decisions we didn’t expect to make. We need to do this in an honest and transparent manner.

Change and uncertainty often causes anxiety. Faced with a high-pressured situation, we must act compassionately and effectively. To overcome this crisis and move forward, we will need to manage multiple issues that we haven’t faced before, such as operating a remote-working business model, while being mindful to stay connected to our colleagues & customers, and finding new ways to work smarter and harder together to overcome the economic challenges we face, simultaneously acknowledging and appreciating that our employees wellbeing and resilience has probably never been so tested.  

Diversity & Inclusion during a pandemic

I also know that the work we do - improving diversity, inclusion and culture - has to remain at the forefront of our minds and our actions. What is happening in our businesses, our personal lives and our world is unchartered territory and, no more than ever before, is diversity and inclusion (D&I) impacted. For me, as a D&I professional and leader, I am painfully aware that almost no diversity strand is untouched by this...

  • Ethnicity because our Chinese colleagues are facing awful discrimination and harassment in both work and society.
  • Women because, as the majority of primary carers for children, the closure of our schools means juggling family and work is more difficult than ever before.
  • The pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or with underlying health conditions that may be at greater risk if contracting COVID-19.
  • Those suffering from mental health conditions, especially OCD, who will almost certainly be impacted by additional anxiety in these uncertain times.
  • Those affected by social economic and environmental factors that this crisis may greater impact.

And I could go on...

Whilst we all follow the guidelines and keep our colleagues safe and our businesses ticking along, many people will be going through all sorts of emotions.

Mother’s Day this year will have been tough for many, making us all realise how different life is right now.  With my Mum and family living in Spain and moving into their second period of complete lock down, I feel mixed emotions: happy that the Country is taking the situation seriously, but sad that my family are so very far away in a country that is fast becoming one of the worst hit in the world.

Whilst this is undoubtably the worst crisis to hit our country and the world in modern times, sadly this has been the reality for many countries in times before. Looking at the impacts that past pandemics Ebola and Zika, have had on diversity and inclusivity, we can observe different dimensions of impact by gender. For example, the Zika virus typically results in a relatively mild infection but is particularly risky during pregnancy as it is linked to birth defects. Gender roles also affect how outbreaks are experienced. During almost all outbreaks, women provide the majority voluntary home care to the ill at greater risk and cost to themselves.

Global health policy has been slow to recognise the gender dimensions of outbreaks. During the West African Ebola outbreak, from 2014 to 2016, Sophie Harman, a professor from Queen Mary University of London, wrote that "gender and women are conspicuously invisible at every point in the international response to the outbreak." A review of research on both the Ebola and Zika outbreaks found less than 1% of published research discussed gender issues.

Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women, speaking on Woman’s Hour last week also made an interesting connection; she argues that providing food but not fuel or water during the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone in 2014 meant that women were forced to leave quarantine areas and spread the disease. A larger proportion of women contracted Ebola than men.

In my research found that a lot had been written on gender and pandemics and how they can affect men and women differently. My hope is that after all of the progress made to move the dial on gender diversity, during this tragic and unsettling period we do not regress and set gender equality back any further.

For many years now we have seen more positive inclusivity measures in place, such as shared parental leave and an increase in maternity retention rates, many women (albeit not enough) now hold senior positions and have worked hard to carve a successful career. Research suggests that purely as a physical illness, the coronavirus appears to affect women less severely. But in the past few days, the conversation about the pandemic has broadened: we are not just living through a public-health crisis, but an economic one.

With normal life suspended for the next couple of months, if not more, job losses are inevitable. At the same time, school closures and household isolation are moving the work of caring for children from the paid economy - our nurseries, schools and babysitters - to the unpaid one. This will have a significant effect on dual-earning couples who have implemented a structure allowing both to work while someone else looks after the children. Instead, couples will now have to decide which one of them will take back on this role.

Jo Heath

Written By

Jo Heath

Managing Partner

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