Lessons from the Pandemic on Diversity and Inclusion in Leadership for Women@Work

Three women with laptops sitting on a couch

The pandemic changed the way people work and do business, and it created opportunities for employers to effect meaningful change and support a more equitable workplace. Here are some of the insights and best practices shared by panelists during the Women@Work Summit, hosted by ADP on May 25, 2021.

Equity in the workplace won't happen on its own. Across industries, building diversity and inclusion in leadership begins with policies, programs and cultures that enable women and underrepresented groups to thrive in the workplace of the future.

As part of the virtual Women@Work Summit, hosted by ADP on May 25, 2021, Isabel Espina, Vice President of Product Development for WorkMarket at ADP, moderated an interactive discussion between leaders in technology, hospitality, finance and the federal government titled "Creating Equity Across Industries." Panelists included Susi Collins, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leader at Amazon Web Services; Mari Marques-Thomas, VP of Social Responsibility and Talent Development for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts; Natalie Pittore, Chief of Enduring Security Framework at the National Security Agency; and Kristin Winford, Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Operational Excellence for BDO New York.

During the discussion, the panelists shared insights and experiences from the pandemic, details about their organizations' responses, and their thoughts on how employers can support women and underrepresented groups in the workplace and promote greater diversity and inclusion in leadership. Here are the top lessons from the session.

Working During a Pandemic Disproportionately Impacted Parents and Caregivers

When the pandemic first began, many working parents suddenly needed to teach their children and care for older family members at the same time. Employers needed to pivot quickly to offer the flexibility that working parents and caregivers required.

Pittore said she was accustomed to working solely in classified government facilities and never imagined she would be able to work remotely, so the change has been surprising in a positive way. "What's been amazing is seeing the National Security Agency step out into this unclassified space so that we can work from home where it's possible for our mission," she said. "That's been a real success for us. Our leadership really prioritized the fact that we needed to evolve in this space."

The shift to remote work inspired an enduring focus on flexibility and the pursuit of "work/life fit" according to Winford, who said the concept has been part of her organizational culture for years. Winford noted that during the pandemic it became even more important to identify burnout and offer resources to support employees' mental health.

Wellness and Mental Health Are Now Closely Integrated With Work

Employers are working harder to educate workers on available resources, such as benefits coverage and Employee Assistance Programs, as well as taking proactive steps to engage employees in healthy practices, such as weekly mindfulness workshops and meditation sessions. Many of these programs also include consideration for employees' children, pets and other family members, acknowledging that employees are not "working from home" as much as "working in their home," as Marques-Thomas put it.

This new wave of support for employees may be in response to issues that gained attention during the pandemic, but it cannot be a passing trend. "These new policies and systems that have been built to support employees over the past 12 months will continue," said Collins. "We're really seeing a shift in how we reimagine the workplace, and that's really good for the culture."

The goal is to foster a culture where employees are empowered to set healthy boundaries and the stigma around asking for help is eliminated. "Reducing the stigma is so important," said Espina. "It's like that silent issue that no one wants to talk about. At ADP, we have a tagline: 'it's OK.' It's OK to say, 'I'm not OK, and I need help,' and that's a very important conversation."

Talent Acquisition Needs to Be Creative and Flexible

The increase in demand for remote work and flexible schedules means recruiters must adapt. Now that many positions have gone remote for the first time and executive leadership understands the benefits, recruiters can search across geographic barriers and improve diversity.

"We have a different mindset completely, and that's a positive," said Marques-Thomas. "For us, and for so many, it really broadens the talent pool, and it continues to allow us to be flexible. It also allows for more representation to be considered and hired because it doesn't matter where the candidates are."

At BDO, this culture-driven approach to finding the right talent has grown for more than 10 years. "What is really important for us to acknowledge is that the way in which we collectively work has fundamentally changed," said Winford "It's not going back to the way it was. There's really not even a new normal. It's the next normal, and I think that's going to continually evolve and change, and there isn't going to be one static way we do things."

Employers Must Actively Work for Global Social Justice

Employers need to make their positions on social justice known and back up their ideals with action. "Our leadership has really stepped up and continues to be involved with the workforce by ensuring that our training and every part of our upbringing within the NSA acknowledges and promotes inclusivity," said Pittore. "That's critical to us — having it baked into who we are as professionals."

Further examples of walking the walk are plentiful. "There are a variety of ways in which we can support social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace," said Collins. "[We do this] through pay equity, by making sure that LGBTQIA rights are protected, by supporting the rights of immigrants and immigration reform, and by ensuring that all people have access to housing they can afford. We've also provided substantial funding to social justice organizations that focus on racial equity, among other social issues."

Organizational Leaders Must Actively Cultivate Diversity and Inclusion

Employers must develop programs that address the needs of underrepresented groups and offer proactive support throughout the career path. Many organizations achieve this through sponsorship or mentorship programs, such as the Seat at the Table program at AWS. "[The program] is intended to help support the various leader pipelines for Black, Latinx and Indigenous team members," explained Collins. "The program supports retention and creates that increase of upward opportunity for underrepresented talent. The program allows folks to be partnered with a more experienced leader higher up on the command chain to support them and cultivate that relationship."

At times, supporting diversity and inclusion can be a granular endeavor. "We host workshops to dive deep on the topic of allyship and turn awareness into accountability and action," said Marques-Thomas. "A lot of these workshops we host are available to all employees across the world, so we're also very sensitive to the different cultures that we represent, and we make sure that their content is applicable to their experiences."

Creating Equity on a Global Scale Starts at the Top

Executives must set the examples and expectations that will transform their organizational cultures for the better. This begins with understanding the needs of employees in our next normal and finding ways to take action every day.

In addition, leaders must embrace the discomfort that comes with having difficult conversations. Working toward a more equitable workplace requires integrity, strength and cooperation at all levels of the organization, and the only way out of these challenges is to work through them.

Interested in learning what else was discussed during the Women@Work Summit? You can watch the entire program on demand.