COVID-19 and the data about it forced Americans to look at the disparities within the healthcare system and the workplace. Paid leave and working from home were not options for many people of color.
Yet, when the economy went into a tailspin in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns, corporations cut budgets. Although lots of research over the past few years shows that diversity improves financial performance, sharpens problem-solving abilities, and enhances creativity and innovation, there was a well-founded fear that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives would be cut. "We saw organizations cut their diversity and inclusion (D&I) budgets, and lay off D & I staff," lamented Mandy Price, cofounder and CEO at Kanarys. "It was one of the first things on the chopping block."
Prior to the protests, D&I initiatives focused on celebrating such things as Black History month and an occasional unconscious bias training. While it certainly is important to highlight notable figures in history and within the organization, not much was being done to address structural issues and challenges employees face.
Before COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, D&I initiatives were plentiful but ineffective, according to BCG, a global management consulting firm. "Theyunderestimate the obstacles confronting an employee of a diverse group, perceiving a workplace with far less bias than actually exists." Only four Fortune 500 companies have black CEOs. Although black people account for about 13.4% of the U.S. population, they only occupy 3.2% of senior leadership roles in large corporations, writes Yola Robert, a Forbes contributor.
Kanarys provides companies with anonymous feedback, ratings, and reviews from their employees. Data from submissions are analyzed through artificial intelligence and natural language processing. This enables partner companies to understand better the challenges and opportunities facing them and build a more inclusive workplace culture.
Her goal is to help companies maintain healthy workplaces. "As you know, back in the day, canaries were used to alert whether a workplace was healthy or toxic. That's where our name comes from," Price explained. The premise was based on her own experience as a woman of color practicing law for 12 years. She saw the disparity between actual equity in companies and the lip-service often given to diversity programs. So she started Kanary.
Mountains of data started coming out that highlighted the pandemic’s inequities, unfairness, and disparities for black and brown people. Black and brown people were much more at risk of being infected and dying from the new coronavirus. They were also disproportionately more likely to be economically affected, too. The media explained how systemic injusticeswere at the root of the problem.
Then came the killing of George Floyd and videos documenting police brutality. Rage turned to action and Black Lives Matter protest rallies erupted around the world. Pushed by employees and fear of losing customers, companies pledged to play a prominent role in combating racism. "We are at a watershed moment," emphasized Price. Going back to old normative patterns wasn't going to work.
Diversity program decisions have been based on gut instinct, not proven results. Diversity, equality, and inclusion require leadership commitment, a tailored approach based on the unique needs of the organization, and metrics for gauging progress. Employees need to be involved in developing solutions and in assessing the impact of ongoing measures.
"Companies recommitted to diversity, equity, and inclusion. [Some] organizations committed to action," Price said." The current environment is showing that diversity and inclusion are important to everyone. People want society to be fair and just.
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