This article first appeared on the World Economic Forum Agenda Platform on March 8, 2021.


Conversations about what it means to be a sustainable and responsible organization have dominated boardroom discussions over the last decade. And, while those conversations were important, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed them for what they were: talk. While discourse and debate are vital to progress, so is action. It’s time to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, on collective responsibility to achieve gender equity.


Recent headlines warn about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 pandemic-induced business closures on women: “Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace” and “Women running ethical biz seen worse hit by COVID than men.” Yet this is just the tip of the spear if you consider the effect of COVID-19 on intersectional groups. Today, the unemployment rates for adult Black and Latina women in the US are approaching 9% and 10% respectfully, compared with 6% for white males – a situation that is aggressively growing the health and wealth protection gap, and setting back the careers and economic opportunity of a generation of women.

Opportunities via digital ways of working


The good news is that the light on this topic has never shone so brightly, and it’s illuminating bright spots of practices that have emerged out of the crisis. DEI analytics, internal labour flow analysis, health and wellbeing education, inclusive cultural training etc. are all making a difference. But it’s the openness to digital ways of working and opportunities that flexible work arrangements can afford which might just start to tip the balance.


Prior to COVID-19, 67% of organizations globally offered a variety of flexible working arrangements, but only 45% said they equally value employees who work remotely, according to Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality report. In 2021, 52% of organizations plan to reinvent flexibility as a core part of their transformation agenda (tied to making progress on reskilling). During the pandemic, the percentage of remote workers jumped to nearly three-fourths of the total workforce and current estimates suggest most companies will adopt a hybrid model going forward.


The rub is that for working women and working moms the move from a pandemic response to a permanent reality requires intentional design to make it workable. The high level of employee exhaustion – 45% of organizations identify employee exhaustion as the barrier to transformation efforts this year – makes it clear that something is not working. And this demands not just work redesign, but a rethink of childcare, emergency support, work hubs closer to home and a wider acknowledgement of support networks that enable women to contribute to the workforce.


Care beyond career: How organizations are supporting women in health, financial wellness and caregiving.

Image: Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality Report

Unfortunately, these flex-work arrangements have only widened the gap between people who can work remotely and those who cannot. Intersectional groups, again, end up on the wrong side of the equation, as they are more likely to work in roles that cannot be done offsite or do not have the equipment or the head- and/or workspace to perform. To level the playing field, we’ll need to reshape work around tasks and challenge our views on what flexibility looks in a myriad of different occupations. The move to project-based structures and internal talent marketplaces are steps forward, heralding a greater democratisation of opportunity. The real acceleration, though, is skills.


A move to skills-based talent practices has the potential to be an incredible leveller, changing everything from the way we hire, develop, pay and promote talent. This move, in turn, makes it easier to offer flex work, shared work and to expand opportunities to more workers. Greater access to talent and to talent beyond the walls of the organization offers one of the few tangible opportunities to ensure cognitive and cultural diversity on critical projects. If your teams don’t reflect your customers, this is a risk.


5 ways to achieve gender equity


Because flexible working isn’t available to everyone, nor is it an answer to all impediments to creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace, organizations need to chew gum and run at the same time.


  1. Recognize that “women” are not a homogenous group. Addressing differences between, say, a Black woman’s and a White woman’s experience is vital. Splicing data by intersectional groups proves vital to understanding the impact of workplace decisions on futures – from career to health and pension protection. The good news is that pay equity analytics have grown four-fold in usage since 2019. The not-so-good news is that just 15% of companies have evaluated their workforce data by persona (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity) to understand how different populations have been impacted by COVID-19 and, subsequently, inform future workforce strategies, according to Mercer’s 2021 Global Talent Trends study.
  2. Ask your people what they want, and what they need. Employee listening is starting to enjoy a heyday, thanks to new technology and an increased openness to co-create. It’s easier than ever to survey your employees remotely, and to gather real-time, live and anonymous feedback. Building effective futures for your workers means understanding their realities and working on the cultural issues that get in the way. Novartis’s “unbossed” culture, for example, is evolving the way managers build inclusive cultures that are also conducive to new ways of working.
  3. Measure reskilling and upskilling success by how equitable they are. The COVID-19 pandemic, packed on top of 4IR, has accelerated changes in required skillsets. If today’s hidden (and not-so hidden) biases are baked into assumptions about what success looks like, your achievements will look like 2020, not 2030. GE’s moves to put DEI analytics on business dashboards alongside performance metrics sends the strong signal that balancing economics and empathy in decision making is just how business gets done.
  4. Get real about equal opportunities for career development and growth. Performance ratings, assessments and executive exposure all influence paths to social, physical and financial wellbeing. Continuing to be vigilant around biases in talent processes and talent data – from hiring to promotion – is critical. Use of “video-off” remote hiring and data-driven career advice all help, but psychometrics and talent-sifting software can have adverse impacts on those with diverse or non-traditional educational backgrounds if left unchecked.
  5. Offer benefits that address disparities for underrepresented groups. Identification of gaps between benefit offerings and employee needs (see #2), as well as those misaligned with organizational values, is the path to having people thrive today and tomorrow. To ensure a return for both employees and employers, companies need to look past trending practices, and understand what matters to their people and how their lifestyles can be best supported.

Getting ahead in a career.

Image: Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality Report

Sprinting the marathon


We often talk about how reaching equity in the workplace is a marathon, not a sprint. In today’s upended world, it’s clear we now need to sprint through the marathon to build off the momentum of last year. While no one solution will eradicate decades of inequality, and change is hard (managing it even harder), it’s time to turn our active dialogue into directive action for real tangible change.

Kate Bravery
by Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer

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