Diversity and COVID-19: a silver lining to the pandemic?

COVID-19 caused a radical re-examination of working practices including a forced move to home working for many. New Zealand market participants hope some of the benefits will linger even as the crisis recedes.

CRAIG Has COVID-19 had any positive impact when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the New Zealand workplace?

DODDRELL COVID-19 has humanised us all. It was interesting to be on deal calls and hear children’s noise in the background from my male colleagues and clients.

What is very important for empowering woman is the strong proliferation of support from male colleagues within my organisation. They help to provide strong momentum to change.

REEVES One aspect I have noticed at Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities is the continuous supportive messaging and communication style coming from the top. I have seen a huge shift in this regard in recent years, and this messaging demonstrated greater empathy and more focus on employee wellbeing during the COVID-19 period – particularly when we were working from home.

With more women coming into leadership and advisory roles, I think we will see this trend continue. It is great to see this level of care and the ‘put yourself first’ factor in the messages that have always been forthcoming from the board and senior management at Kāinga Ora.

It is obvious to me that Kāinga Ora wants its people to experience fair and equal opportunities in the workplace, free from discrimination. This is also true to the communities we serve – to feel a sense of belonging our customers need to live with dignity, stability and be connected to their communities.

NG We have seen positives and negatives. ANZ released a report on the impact of COVID-19 across men and women to coincide with International Women’s Day – and the pandemic has affected everyone regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.

The report shows that men were more frequently hospitalised but women carried the greater burden, particularly around home schooling, and were more vulnerable to unemployment. Having said this, the data also show that women were more able to flip into self-employment.

In New Zealand, we did not experience this to the same extent as has been the case in some other countries, but another very sobering impact of working from home has been an increase in domestic violence.

RAYNER Some accelerators we have discussed today, such as flexible-working practices, may allow us to attract a broader, more diverse range of talent in the future, particularly women.

However, as in previous economic downturns, unfortunately there have been negative distributional impacts from COVID-19. Women, young people, and workers from the Maori and Pasifika communities have had a proportionately higher level of job losses, which will have a negative impact on the diversity of our workforce in the short term.

MARTIN If we are talking about full inclusion, there are many types of work that can’t be done from home. These are possibly the areas that have been suffering most in recent times. I imagine that, globally, home schooling has also accentuated the social divide. I am sure plenty of people have been well-equipped for home schooling but an equal number will have lost several months of their education.

LE QUESNE Flexible working should allow us to access a deeper and more diverse pool of candidates. However, we need to be careful that the expectation isn’t that work creeps into any hour of every day.

CRAIG How might we expect the world to be different for the next generation of leaders?

DODDRELL Everyone here is passionate about this issue. However, as the mother of a son and a daughter my priority is not only to give my daughter greater choice but to give my son more choice as well. Full equality involves everyone.

I like to think that in future there will no longer be a debate about the positive benefits of inclusiveness – because they are obvious. The best way to connect to our customers, and to get perspectives that mirror the world they operate in, is to have an inclusive workforce.

However, what it means to be inclusive is also changing and this means we cannot just tick boxes. It will only be different for the next generation if we continue to prioritise this issue. There is a strong belief in the importance of diversity and inclusion at Westpac, we have a target-based approach and we are still not where we want to be, so we need to remain focused.

RAYNER I agree. It would be a sign of success if we did not need to talk about this topic in the future simply because diversity is who we are and it is embedded into everything we do. But we are not quite there yet. In the short term, at least, it is leaders like us that must be brave and call out when we see evidence that we have not yet got the right behaviours, processes or culture to embrace diversity and inclusion fully.

I am sure a lot of leaders want to change but may need help to consider how we make our workplaces the best they can possibly be for everyone to thrive.

REEVES For me, COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the need for leaders to demonstrate skill and ability in leading under crisis conditions, in particular being adaptable to change. The scale of the disruption we have seen recently will shape leadership for a long time.