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Workplace diversity: Pandemic may erode years of progress

Careers of women, LGBTQ+ and those with disability threatened by fallout of Covid-19

The global impact of the pandemic on diversity and inclusion, particularly in relation to women, has been clear.

According to António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, Covid-19 could reverse the limited progress made on gender equality and women's rights around the world.

Not alone are women more likely to work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty, but their paid jobs were more likely to disappear while their unpaid care work increased exponentially as a result of school closures and the increased needs of older people. The pandemic has also led to a stark increase in violence against women.

At home, Ibec research carried out in March found that 20 per cent of organisations had noticed a change in the position of women in their organisations over the previous 12 months, citing increased pressure and stress for women, childcare responsibilities, and requests from women for worktime flexibility to accommodate childcare and/or eldercare.


A key factor in women’s progression within organisations is the visibility of their input to colleagues and managers, it points out. Yet just 8 per cent of companies surveyed said that training for managers was in place to ensure visibility of female workers while remote working.

“Historically, women are disproportionately impacted by crises, disasters and societal disruption, and Covid-19 checks all those boxes,” said Ibec head of social policy Dr Kara McGann, speaking at the report’s launch.

Gender equity

“Our survey findings confirm that Covid-19 has accentuated long-standing gender imbalances across several dimensions, threatening hard-won markers of gender equity. The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic.”

Some indicators are more positive however. According to the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (Ahead), a not-for-profit that promotes inclusive environments in education and employment for people with disabilities, the move to remote working has made it abundantly clear that “work isn’t somewhere you go to, it’s something you do”.

This offers the potential for greater workplace inclusivity. “Remote working can be particularly beneficial for people with certain disabilities. This may enable people with significant health issues to work from home occasionally and mean that they are a lot more engaged in the work that they do with less absenteeism,” it pointed out.

In Ireland, there are just under 650,000 people with a disability, or just over 13 per cent of the population. According to a report by Tom Cooney, professor of entrepreneurship at Technological University Dublin – Pathways to Entrepreneurship for People with Disabilities in Ireland – Ireland has one of the lowest employment rates for people with disabilities in the EU, at 26 per cent compared to an EU average of 48 per cent. During the pandemic TU Dublin took the opportunity to launch an online programme which is specially designed to help people with a disability to start a business.

Workload and stress

According to a report from McKinsey, a US consultancy, employees who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or gender nonbinary (LGBTQ+) disproportionately feared losing ground at work and reported feeling isolated during the pandemic.

“They report more acute work-related challenges than their straight and cisgender peers, including workload increases and stress over performance reviews, as well as a heightened loss of connectivity and belonging. This may contribute to the fact that LGBTQ+ employees are more likely to report challenges with mental health issues,” it says.

It will take time before we have enough data to fully assess the impact of the pandemic on diversity and inclusion, according to Julie Sinnamon, co-chair of Balance for Better Business, an independent review group tasked by government with improving gender balance in senior business leadership in Ireland.

What remote working has done for everyone is help reduce geographic barriers. “That’s good for both males and females in terms of providing access to a wider portfolio of opportunities around the country,” says Sinnamon.

However, there is a risk that more women than men will opt for higher levels of home working, and a concomitant risk that out of sight will mean out of mind when it comes to promotion.

While employers are keen to facilitate greater flexibility, they need to be aware of the risks remote working may bring too. “I’d be anxious to ensure that companies look out for this issue, so that we don’t have slippage in terms of representation,” she says.

Family life

On the other hand, “One of the positives of coming out of this pandemic is that a lot more men have been much more involved in family life than they might previously have been,” says Sinnamon.

“Though a higher proportion of childcare and eldercare still falls to women, equally I’ve spoken to lots of men who are saying ‘I’m not going back to how it was’. I’m a strong believer in the need for a balance of responsibilities within the family and there is now the potential for a societal rebalancing which should facilitate families.”

Diversity is not about being nice to people, she points out. “Even if you take equity out of it altogether, it’s about the fact that a diversity of views around the board table is important because it can impact business performance,” she says.

“Also, in terms of the kinds of places that people want to work for, young people coming through are looking at organisations’ sustainability and values. They want to know that this is an organisation that provides a career path for them, and diversity is very much a part of that.”

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times