February was a very busy month for us, and for many DEI practitioners, thanks to Black History Month. The theme this year, “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day”, was an important reminder that Black History does not exist within a vacuum. Black excellence is not only relevant in February, but always, and the important conversations and work that took place should be ongoing. Beyond February, the first Monday in March is Black Mental Health Awareness Day – an opportunity to check in with your Black family, friends, and colleagues, and an invitation to extend and sustain your learning and inclusion efforts, long after February has ended.
March is also home to a number of holidays and observances. I’d like to invite you to take a look at our (non-exhaustive) list and to identify which ones will resonate within your workplace. The articles featured in this month’s newsletter reflect 3 of these observances – International Women’s Day, International Day of Trans Visibility, and Sikh Heritage Month.
Through these awareness campaigns, we are reminded of the significance of celebrating the progress that has been made – but perhaps even more importantly, the necessity of continuing to do the work required to bring us closer towards a truly equitable and inclusive world, free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
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Working Women, Covid-19, and IDEA
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive medical and economic disruption across the globe and there will be long-term disruptions; we won’t be returning to the pre-pandemic “normal.” Canada is better positioned than many countries as COVID-19 becomes endemic, but research indicates that women in the workforce have suffered disproportionately. Work toward increased Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) in organizations has also been affected as COVID and the economy have been the immediate priorities for management, leading to further ill-effects for marginalized and racialized women.
The Front Lines
Women who have remained employed have been on the front lines of the response to the pandemic. Women, including those in feminized and racialized parts of the labour force, form the majority of the workforce in retail, accommodation, food service, social assistance administration, and healthcare – sectors of the economy deemed “essential.”
The sectors may have been deemed essential, but job losses have been higher among women and particularly among the lowest paid. Understaffing has exacerbated the problem, with management pressing exhausted workers to cover more shifts. In healthcare, the consequences have been borne by women since they make up four out of five Canadian health workers. Nursing has been especially impacted, with estimated shortages across Canada as high as 60,000. Canadian nurses number approximately 300,000, so a shortage of 60,000 is critical. Other sectors have also seen negative impacts. In short, the effects of COVID-19 on many front-line working women have been devastating.
Working from Home
Working from home is popular. It saves commuting time and expense and allows families to spend more time together. In the aftermath of the pandemic, it seems likely that working from home will be more common. Many job types, however, require presence at the employer’s location, particularly the front-line positions mentioned above in which the majority are held by women. The result is that working from home is not an option for many women, particularly marginalized lower-paid women.
For women who can work from home, the advantages are often outweighed by the disadvantages. Despite incremental changes in Canadian attitudes, responsibilities for child-care, meal preparation and cleaning are still borne by women. The closure of schools and daycares has effectively meant that employed women have had two jobs – or three, counting supervision of children’s online education. If their spouses still work outside the home, women have dealt with the responsibilities alone. This situation has forced many women to unwillingly drop out of the workforce, resulting in an undermining of progress toward equitable workplaces.
The additional pressure of living in close proximity month after month has also increased relationship issues, gender-based violence, and the demand for mental health assistance. Schools and daycares are reopening, but daycare costs are prohibitive for the unemployed. There is also the matter of housing insecurity and what constitutes “home.” Many unhoused and under-housed working women faced substantial challenges when they were asked to do their job where they lived. Working from home may be terrific for upper-middle class women, but it isn’t a viable option for many working mothers.
Back to the Office
As operations are slowly restored, some companies are adjusting the distribution of employees and moving head offices, giving up multiple floors in office towers. If mid-level managers are working from their homes, their absence will affect their influence and immediate contributions to the office culture. The disruption of career paths has also affected the “pipeline” that helped to prepare women for future leadership roles. Without measures to correct that disruption, there will be lasting damage. For companies with large numbers of lower-paid employees, the challenge is greater. IDEA program delivery is inevitably complicated by a dispersed workforce and immediate existential threats to companies’ entire operation.
Post COVID-19, organizations must align their IDEA training efforts with the new conditions. The setbacks caused by the pandemic mean that training efforts will have to include making up lost ground as well as trying to move forward. One heartening piece of information, from McKinsey analysts, is that 90% of companies with existing IDEA programs have remained committed to those programs. Adopting IDEA programs tailored to companies’ needs will indicate their commitment to equity and inclusivity. COVID-related setbacks to working women in general and racialized and marginalized employees in particular, can be mitigated, but not without attention and effort.
Baisakhi, which happens this year on Thursday April 14, is the most important holiday for many Sikhs. It celebrates an event in 1699 when the heavily persecuted community found strength in five devotees who showed a willingness to lay down their life to protect the community. Sikhs are often visibly notable for the turbans some wear, and that garment traces to this day when Sikhs who wished, could make an extra commitment to the community, becoming “khalsa” Sikhs. Khalsa Sikhs also wear other items including the kirpan (knife) to remind themselves that they must be willing to stand against injustice, even at personal risk. For Sikhs the holiday marks commitment and the need to do everything one can to prevent injustice, not only against oneself, but injustice perpetrated against anyone.
On the eve of Baisakhi, Sikhs participate in processions with the Guru Granth Sahib, their holy book, while its hymns are chanted. People dress in their best clothes, exchange sweets, recite the sacred hymns, sing songs, and pay tribute to the Guru Granth Sahib. Joyful dance performances like ones popularized by Canada’s own Gurdeep Pandher, including Bhangra and Gidda are also common ways to celebrate Baisakhi.
If you would like to recognize this day it is appropriate to wish your Sikh colleagues, clients or communities Happy Baisakhi and to add a note wishing them joy, prosperity and many blessings in the coming year.
For more information about creating a welcoming workplace, Encounter World Religions offers free resources including one on Sikhism and another on Islam which is great for sharing in advance of Ramadan, which begins April 2 this year.