Gavin Hinks, journalist

As the pandemic unravels, it has become increasingly clear that some groups have been worse hit than others. The cause of diversity and inclusion around the world may have been slowed or obstructed by Covid-19.

Members of ethnic minorities, women and those with disabilities have been disproportionately hit, while company leaders may have been forced to turn away from their diversity and inclusion (D&I) agendas to focus on corporate survival.

Despite optimism the pandemic might promote diversity, it has not. According to Samira Rafaela, an MEP for the Dutch D66 party and a member of the EU parliament’s committee for women’s rights: ‘Some of us hoped that the pandemic could function as a big reset to overcome certain inequalities; the opposite actually appeared to be true.’

Rafaela was speaking at a recent webinar, organised by ACCA, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and PwC, which brought together politicians, policymakers and diversity experts to explore Covid-19’s impact on D&I. She highlighted the scale of the issue by pointing to a change in organisational culture as the means by which D&I progress can be made.

‘Europe needs all of its talents and to offer the means to succeed to all’

Disproportionate impact

Anna Ludwinek, liaison manager for Eurofound, the EU agency for improving living and working conditions, described how the impact of Covid-19 on women has been profound. Lockdowns have disproportionately affected women through job losses and reduced income, because they are more likely to be in customer-facing jobs, such as hospitality or retail, or in non-standard forms of employment with lower levels of protection.

Those with disabilities have had a similar experience. According to Catherine Naughton, director of the European Disability Forum, the employment position of those with disabilities has worsened compared with pre-Covid times – and even then just 50% of those with disabilities were in work compared with 75% of the general population.

In Europe there is a recognition that D&I is an urgent issue. According to Presilia Mpanu Mpanu from the office of Helena Dalli, European commissioner for equality, 2020 saw the launch of projects in Brussels looking at gender equality, anti-racism, the inclusion of the Roma people, an LGBTQ equality strategy and disability inequalities. Mpanu Mpanu said: ‘Europe needs all of its talents and to offer the means to succeed to all.’

Reset opportunity

Despite the downsides, the pandemic also represents an opportunity for a ‘reset’.  Vinciane Istace, a partner in the people and organisation team in PwC Luxembourg, pointed out some positives. For example, lockdowns have led to men and women finding common ground while working and educating children from home; remote and home-working has been shown to be feasible, making employment more flexible; and strong female leadership role models (including Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, Su Tseng-chang in Taiwan and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand) have emerged.

But the D&I debate will still need to be started up again, she added. With this she expects a change in the nature of leadership. ‘Tomorrow the perfect chief executive will be the champion of collaboration and inclusion. He, or she, will be the one who can relate in an optimal way to a huge diversity of people and really unlock all the great potential in all the different people that we are.’

Others have been working on corporate policies that recognise the importance of D&I, including those who work on helping employees focus on the needs of their colleagues. Chuck Stephens, global head of inclusion, diversity and belonging at, revealed how the online travel agency had measures in place before the pandemic allowing managers to bring in clinical psychologists to help support employees.

The company also has an online forum allowing employees, ‘advocates and allies of inclusion’, to help colleagues, and a programme to reward employees for ‘inclusionist’ work. ‘We were able to harness the passion and energy of our employees and their desire to take care of their colleagues,’ Stephens said.

Proximity bias

Elsewhere, there has been a focus on the way new styles of working may disadvantage some employees. Sarah Cheyne, global head of talent experience with Adecco, revealed the recruitment company has compiled a set of principles to manage ‘hybrid’ working and the potential for ‘proximity bias’ — employees in the office being favoured in some way over those working from home.

The advent of working from home for significant proportions of the workforce presents employers with many questions, Cheyne said. ‘As we start to return to work in a more hybrid fashion, what are all the conditions that we need to think about to prevent issues like proximity bias?’ she asked.

Working from home is viewed as an opportunity in some quarters. Naughton said for those with disabilities it could open the door to new employment opportunities. However, the adjustment that some companies are making to their property portfolios, as a result of a reduced need for space, should include wheelchair access. ‘Every time we purchase a new service, set up a new system, it’s an opportunity to make that accessible from the beginning,’ she said.

Countermeasures taken

The pandemic may have stymied the cause of D&I, but the issue has been noted and countermeasures have clearly started being taken. Perhaps the biggest lesson is that a belief in D&I progress remains strong, not only among campaigners, but also in companies and among lawmakers.

According to Helen Brand, ACCA chief executive: ‘One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is the need to reappraise our values and approaches. Rebuilding our lives, our economies and our professions can – and should – be done in ways that challenge accepted norms. We should pause to think how we can do better.

‘We’re convinced that organisations embracing diversity not only widen their access to the best talents but, by doing so, drive superior performance across all its aspects, and are more creative and innovative.’

Visit ACCA’s Inclusion in Action online hub

D&I in accountancy

ACCA research has confirmed there are concerns over diversity and inclusion in the profession. A poll of 10,000 members for ACCA’s Leading Inclusion report found that 73% believe accountancy to be an inclusive profession. However, 63% said the profession has, or ‘maybe has’, a diversity issue that needs to be addressed, and 68% said more should be done to promote diversity and inclusion among members.