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COVID-19 Is Disproportionately Affecting Women and People of Color. Here’s What Leaders Need to Do about It.

May 21, 2020 Deana LaFauci
Thoughtful Mature Businesswoman Looking Out Of Office Window

When coverage of COVID-19 first began to dominate the airwaves, and the extent of the threat of this once-in-a-generation global health crisis started to become clear, one message was continually shared: Anyone can get sick. This affects all of us—equally.

Among the first highly publicized cases of coronavirus were business leaders who had attended large meetings, those who traveled abroad for college, and even Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks and his wife, who have since recovered.

Two months later, though, it has become apparent COVID-19 has not impacted us equally.

Yes, anyone can become sickened with the coronavirus. Everyone is in danger from the disease it causes, which has no known cure and no vaccine, and we should all take every possible precaution to slow its spread.

But, this public health crisis has affected Americans in very different and highly unequal ways. COVID-19 has magnified and worsened systemic inequalities in the United States. And, hard-won economic gains that have been made over the past decade have evaporated in a matter of weeks.

Across class, gender, and racial lines, people of color and women disproportionately are experiencing the harshest impacts of this crisis.

A health crisis

COVID-19 is most affecting communities of color. Although African Americans make up 13% of the US population, they represent 27% of known COVID-19 deaths, as of May 8. A recent study finds that counties with higher Black populations account for more than half of all COVID-19 cases and almost 60% of deaths.

COVID-19, which poses great harm to people with preexisting conditions, is bringing to light the inequalities that exist within a healthcare system that is not equally available to all Americans. Decades of research show that Black patients receive inferior medical care to white patients, and this inequality is embedded in the care patients receive in relation to COVID-19. The biotech data firm Rubix Life Sciences recently released a study which found that Black people who visited hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms in February and March were less likely to get tested or treated than white patients. Inequality has had deadly consequences as we battle this health crisis.

Acknowledging this history of bias in care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently advised health professionals to not allow racial bias to influence their treatment of patients during the pandemic. For many, the pain of losing a loved one during the pandemic is further compounded by the knowledge that they may have received substandard care or have been delayed from receiving potentially life-saving care.

Women are also unequally represented in the fields on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle, including the senior care workforce, which is about 90% women, as of 2018. Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been devastated by the coronavirus. According to the New York Times, about one-third of all coronavirus deaths in the US are residents or workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

An economic crisis

New research by LeanIn.Org & SurveyMonkey reveals that this economic crisis is impacting women of color most of all. The study found that Black women are twice as likely as white men to say they’ve been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours or pay cut because of the pandemic. More than half (54%) of Black women report experiencing one of these events, compared to just over a quarter (27%) of white men.

Overall, women comprise a greater share of employees in the service and hospitality industries, representing two-thirds of minimum wage workers. These jobs have been especially hard hit by the coronavirus, which has made it all but impossible for hospitals, hotels, venues, bars, and restaurants to function as usual—the loss of these jobs is one of the major factors behind the worst jobs report in US history.

According to TIME magazine in partnership with the Fuller Project, two-thirds of tipped restaurant workers in the United States are women. Many of these women have little to no access to paid time off, which means voluntarily missing work due to sickness or to care for their children represents a substantial financial burden.

Prior to the coronavirus, women already were at an economic disadvantage, due to unequal pay and unequal access to opportunity. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, in 2018, women overall earned just 81.6% of what men earned, with further increased inequality among specific racial groups—Black women earned 61.8% and Hispanic or Latinx women earned just 54.5% of what men earned.

During times of crisis, as many experience lost wages, furloughs, layoffs, or a loss of seasonal work, they are forced to rely on their savings, when possible. Unfortunately, women have 30% less money in savings, putting them and their families at further disadvantage.

A social crisis

We must also consider the societal role of caregiver that women continue to play within their own families. In the United States, women remain the primary caregivers for their children and elderly relatives. Before the coronavirus public health crisis, women were ten times more likely than men to stay home from work to care for sick children. And women are more likely to be the sole caregiver for their children, with five times as many single mothers as single fathers in the United States.

Where do we go from here?

1. Recommit to Efforts to Achieve Gender Parity and Actively Promote Cultures of Inclusion

As we grapple with the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has impacted our economy in profound ways, much progress has been lost in the fight for parity and equality. This crisis represents an opportunity for organizations and communities to recommit to the important work of fostering diversity and building cultures of inclusion, where all employees are given access to the same opportunities. As organizations strive to meet these challenges, leaders must remember that creating inclusive cultures is a business imperative. Organizations in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity are 35% more likely to post better financial performance, according to McKinsey. And, Linkage research has found that inclusive leaders are the most effective leaders.

Organizations must identify and set benchmarks around the advancement of women leaders and address the four dimensions most associated with their advancement.

How are you purposefully and strategically recommitting to your work to advance women leaders and people of color? In what ways will you double down on your goals around advancement and parity, as you rise to the challenge of COVID-19?

2. Rethink How You Manage Your Teams and Their Time

When social distancing became a critical requirement for us all and we could no longer do business in person, organizations acted quickly to build the policies and incorporate the technologies needed to empower their employees to continue to work from home. But, COVID-19 has changed so much more than just our ability to see and work with one another face-to-face. Switching to a remote workforce, whenever possible, made sense, but there are further actions we can take to enable employees to thrive during crisis.

In a new piece for Fortune magazine, Sheryl Sandberg points to a startling statistic: Only 40% of employees say their companies have taken steps to increase flexibility since the pandemic began, and fewer than 20% say their employer has rejiggered priorities or narrowed the scope of their work. She calls on all of us to rethink the ways we support our employees, both on the organizational level and a personal level. Adapt and adjust existing policies and benefits to better meet the changing needs of your workforce. Stay aware of new scheduling and personal needs within your teams so you can pivot processes to keep workforces effective. And, in a world where people are more isolated from one another than ever before, make a commitment to personally connect with members of your team.

How can you adapt your organizational systems, including human resources, benefits, performance review processes, and paid time off, to allow your employees the flexibility they need during a deeply uncertain time? Are you regularly checking in on all members of your team, especially those who are experiencing increased stress in their jobs or personal life?

3. Educate Yourself and Hold Yourself Accountable to Understand How Inequality Affects Us Disproportionately

During times of tragedy, crisis, and uncertainty, information can feel overloading and stressful. Your instinct may be to simplify—to only take in what is necessary for your daily life or your job. Resist the temptation to tune out, and instead, purposefully and thoughtfully seek out detailed, nuanced information about this public health and economic crisis.

Every leader has an obligation to understand how their teams and employees are each impacted by this crisis, and to understand the systemic and societal factors that continue to unfairly affect women and members of different racial and ethnic groups. When leaders are equipped with the right information at the right time, they can preemptively act to create and foster the cultures of inclusion needed to support gender and racial parity.

How are you continually educating yourself on how groups are affected differently by public health and economic crisis? How are you seeking out diverse voices and opinions on important topics related to diversity and inclusion?

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