The pandemic revealed the inequities in the workplace, particularly for women of color, says Ruchika Tulshyan. It also provided opportunities—if we know how to find them.
Tulshyan, founder of Candour, a Seattle-based inclusion strategy practice, and author of the new book, Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work, spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about the “siloing” of DE&I efforts, the workplace as a force for societal change and the importance of understanding the experience of others.
What was the impact of the pandemic on women and women of color in the workforce?
Devastating: 13 million women left the workforce by 2021, while men’s employment returned to pre-pandemic levels at the same time. Women of color were disproportionately in lower pay, hazardous and front-line essential worker occupations, so many were bearing the brunt of keeping us safe, fed and stocked up, while putting their own lives at risk. Women of color who were also mothers faced unprecedented levels of burnout. If we don’t learn from this pandemic and create better workplaces, so much of the pain we have faced would be in vain.
What lessons can we learn from it to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?
We must focus on supporting the most marginalized in our workforce. Data shows that is most often women of color, lower-paid workers, front-line workers, caregivers and people with disabilities or immunocompromised—many who identify across various intersections of these categories.
However, one side effect of work during the pandemic is that it proved that for people who are in roles that can be done remotely, it’s possible to be productive and collaborative that way. Many inclusion advocates had been calling for better flexible and remote work opportunities and it took a devastating pandemic for it to be possible for all. I hope we take these lessons into the future, even when it is possible to safely return to an in-office environment.
In your new book, you write about how inclusion is something that is bigger than HR. How can HR work with leaders to encourage equity and inclusion across an organization instead of just in a DE&I silo?
An inclusive mindset and being inclusive on purpose can be cultivated by any leader, in any role, at any department in the organization. Demonstrating inclusive leadership spans from hiring and promotion to making intentional changes in our personal and social networks. HR can help educate and make other department managers aware how opportunities for DE&I arise in that particular function—for example, data-backed ways to reduce bias and promote inclusive hiring as a hiring manager.
When we move away from the idea that DE&I is a series of interventions in a silo and toward an approach that in this culture, everyone prioritizes inclusion and is responsible for it, that can change the game. I’ve also seen HR leaders take ownership of innovating in performance evaluations and compensation structures to recognize and reward inclusive leadership. That’s so powerful because it sends the message that everyone can and should be responsible for DE&I.
How can leaders develop an inclusion mindset and what actions can they take to elevate women of color in the workplace?
An inclusion mindset draws from the seminal work of psychologist Carol Dweck, that with a growth mindset, we can all learn and grow. Applying that growth mindset to inclusion, we must know that even if we were taught that practicing inclusion and reducing bias wasn’t that important, we must and can grow to make change. When we have an inclusion mindset, we know that we will make mistakes and we don’t know everything there is to know about DE&I but we do not let that limit us in our quest to be more inclusive leaders.
Unfortunately, research shows that many of us haven’t grown up with diversity in our lives and the first time many Americans meaningfully interact with a person from a different racial background is in the workplace. We need to see this as an opportunity to grow, not retreat into creating more homogenous teams because that’s what we’re familiar with.
There are a number of actions that leaders can take to elevate women of color, but the most important is to spend time learning exactly how women of color experience challenges in the workplace. These span from experiencing hiring biases to barriers to equal pay, promotion and progress to leadership opportunities. Once you identify and understand how and why these barriers exist, that’s when you can take action to solve them. Without this awareness first, the actions won’t be meaningful or sustainable.