Diversity Insight

Option to Return to Work Amplifies Inequity for Vulnerable Groups Like Single Mothers of Color

As people start going back to work, what will happen to working mothers who don’t have a place for their children to go because their child care is still closed? What about those who can’t commute or can’t afford to? This conversation needs to start before your doors open.

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The concern, according to Maria Colacurcio, CEO of Syndio, is “returning to work on an uneven playing field.” The same kinds of social, economic, and political forces that already provide disadvantages to single mothers and especially for black single mothers are still in play.

In fact, the coronavirus makes these vulnerable groups even more vulnerable as unemployment numbers skyrocket, services close down, and people are forced back to an uncertain workplace without consideration of the services needed to accomplish that.

The uneven playing field that Colacurcio mentions extends across cultures, races, and gender. It has “implications across the workspace.” In other words, despite these socioeconomic variables, the constant is the demand to get people back to work. She uses a metropolitan area as an example. Even the most basic things like commuting have become fraught.

“Everybody wants to avoid mass transit,” says Colacurcio, but the people who have the luxury of avoiding mass transit are those who live nearby, have a car and can afford parking, or can pay for a taxi service. Such luxuries do not cut evenly across all employees.

Employers need to be aware of these considerations because there are “socioeconomic, racial, and gender implications to setting a policy that is an optionality around coming back to the physical workspace,” says Colacurcio. She asks this important question: “Is this going to increase or break down barriers?”

Inequality of Opportunity

Not only will it be more challenging for people like single mothers or those who can’t afford to commute back to the office to stay employed, but even when they do, there will also be other subtle challenges. Colacurcio notes that there are advantages to being physically present with regard to opportunity within the workplace. The visible workers are better heard and have better proximity to the boss and tend to get better career-related opportunities.

The other side of the same coin is that there are disadvantages for those not in the office, such as not being taken as seriously, not getting credit for ideas, and receiving fewer opportunities. If social forces cause certain groups to be less likely to return to work physically, the remote workforce will naturally be skewed unfairly, and those groups will receive an unfair disadvantage.

Colacurcio believes the most affected will be women, particularly women of color, and even more so if they are a parent or single parent. In fact, she says these groups have already been “drastically impacted” even before the push to return to work began.

“Women are spending more time caretaking, taking care of parents and children, not able to focus and spend as much time working, whereas men are spending more time working,” she says, adding that “when you go from that environment to an environment where there is an optionality to return to the office—and 14% of those in our survey said they were considering just dropping out of the workforce—people will fall just further behind.”

Pay Inequity Particularly at Risk

Colacurcio began this topic with some good news, “which is that it’s still top of mind and people are still talking about it.” But she cautions that COVID-19 is exacerbating pay-equity issues for those most at risk: women. “Virtually all companies have some kind of pay gap; it exists where there is any discretion,” she adds.

What she means is that when pay is not based on systematic equity but instead rests in the hands of those in charge, inequities will arise, and they tend to favor men. Add the widespread impact of the coronavirus to that environment, including one where the choice to go back to the office auto-selects against women, and the pay gap increases.

What Can Be Done?

Take stock. Like with most inequities, awareness is the key ingredient for correcting problems. That means understanding that employee challenges take many forms, including those you may not have considered.

Use every tool you have to characterize your current work landscape, as well as what it will look like a month from now, a few months from now, and a year from now. That includes surveys, phone calls, discussions, leveraging your employee resource groups if you have them, and anything you can use to get a clear picture of what the challenges are.

Include leadership, managers, and supervisors. The leaders within your company, from the top to the bottom, must be part of the effort to balance workplace opportunities for all employees now more than ever. Such an effort should not exist only in the HR office. When leaders are made aware of the challenges, they can be part of the solution.

Balance capabilities, quality of work, and individual challenges when considering opportunities. Just because one of your workers may only be able to do 30 hours of work due to his or her childcare considerations does not mean he or she deserves fewer opportunities.

With a little perspective, employers can recognize that those who still dedicate their time to the job when everything is working against them are very valuable employees indeed. Consider meeting such dedication and effort by extending support and opportunities.

Never assume those who have to work less don’t want a move up because “they can’t handle the extra work.” Give your employees an opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

Remember that your organization is more than who you see. Due to remote work, some workers may seem invisible. Connecting with them may not be easy, but it is critical if you want to foster a healthy workplace culture. That means providing them with a voice, acting on what you hear, and remembering that everyone in your organization plays a critical role. In fact, if you have invisible workers, that’s the employer’s problem, not the employees’. Find ways to make them visible.

Be human. Remember that your employees give a lot to make your organization operate. They bend their availability, sacrifice time with their families, and do everything they can to meet your requirements. Why shouldn’t you do the same for them?