Covid-19 short term negative impact on diversity and inclusion could result in a watershed moment for the hospitality, travel and leisure industry.

In partnership with The MBS Group and PwC, Women in Hospitality, Travel & Leisure (WiHTL) launches a new report examining the impact of Covid-19 on women and ethnic minorities in hospitality, travel and leisure which highlights the negative impact of Covid-19 on progress towards diversity and inclusion.

The unique report entitled ‘Guarding Against Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Covid-19 on Gender and Race & Ethnic Diversity in Hospitality, Travel & Leisure’ is the first of its kind publication looking at the impact of Covid-19 on diversity and inclusion in the hospitality, travel and leisure sectors.

It draws upon data captured by The MBS Group from conversations with over 60 of the sector’s leading businesses, a survey of 1,500 HTL employees carried about by PwC and real-life case studies and insights from within the WiHTL Collaboration Community.

The report explores the unintended consequences and impact of ‘Covid-19 actions’ such as the furlough scheme, restructuring, reorganisations, shift to remote working, recession from a leaders’ standpoint and an employees’ perspective.

A focus on survival

With companies focused intently on survival, the report found that Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has dropped down the priority list for Boards and senior leaders over the last 6 months. Just 15% of companies interviewed reported that D&I has been raised at Board meetings regularly over the last period, with 42% saying it has come up infrequently and 43% say it hasn’t come up at all. The report also found that diversity has fallen down the list of priorities for shareholders.

D&I budgets and resources have been cut down, D&I leaders have been furloughed, let go or diverted to other parts of the business. Cost-cutting measures have meant that many of the action plans designed to improve diversity and increase representation have been paused or had their budgets cut.

Today’s report has found that existing imbalances and discrepancies that are present in HTL businesses particularly when it comes to the representation of women and ethnic minorities at all levels, are being exacerbated by Covid-19.

Negative impact

The report predicts that Covid-19 is likely to have a negative impact on gender diversity across the HTL sector, due to a number of reasons.

Firstly, a higher proportion of women have been furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant (65%) than men (56%). In turn, 67% of employees from ethnic minorities have been furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant, compared to 62% of white colleagues.

The report found that more women and people from ethnic minorities have accepted voluntary redundancy packages than men due to caring responsibilities, or because their roles are more easily transferable to other sectors.

With the HTL sector in turmoil, many leaders have reported that those in non-sector-specific roles which tend to have higher proportions of female and diverse candidates in, may choose to exit the business in favour of lower-risk industries. The sector risks taking a significant step back in female representation across at least two of the three leadership levels (Executive Committee and Direct Reports).

To further exacerbate the issue, mass restructures have decreased the number of visible female and ethnic minorities role models in the sector, long understood to play a key role in motivating diverse employees to progress and encouraging diverse candidates to enter the industry.

A significant finding of the report is the gap that exists in businesses across the sector between understanding and action. A lack of data is the most glaring weakness and the biggest opportunity highlighted by the research.

To ensure that organisations’ policies, protocols and actions are relevant to all employees, and to avoid bias becoming further engrained, it is crucial that responses are based on a clear understanding of the challenges faced by different groups of people, and what underpins them. Without data, insight and deep understanding companies are shooting in the dark.

Hope for the future

Despite backwards steps there are shoots of hope. Covid-19 has shown businesses that flexible and remote working policies can be highly effective. As the lack of flexible working policies has historically been a barrier to progression for women, this development could wave in a new era for those with caring responsibilities.

Overall, there is a belief that the changes resulting from the crisis could present an opportunity to improve diversity in the sector in the future (50% think it likely; 37% believe it is possible). 44% of businesses reported that D&I has been a higher priority for their business since the outset of Covid-19, with 33% saying it has remained as important as pre-Covid.

The time to act is now

“This is not the time to slow down individual and collaborative efforts towards creating more inclusive environments. This crisis might be the catalyst for more positive gendered and ethnic change if we are able to harness the benefits and mitigate the risks. This is the time to accelerate, propel and invest in diverse talent, creativity, innovation, create sustainable outputs and eliminate inequalities. It is not just a question of moral justice, it is a matter of competitive advantage in the face of huge adversity and uncertainty,” said Tea Colaianni, Founder & Chair, WiHTL.

“As a sector, we do have the opportunity to turn Covid-19 into a watershed moment – an opportunity to move the dial positively on D&I. With creativity and an informed approach, inevitable restructures could enable new and diverse talent to emerge. Put simply: businesses that fail to prioritise D&I – especially now – will suffer as they find themselves outrun by their more forward-thinking competitors, whose leadership is fully representative of their consumer base,” Elliott Goldstein, Managing Partner, The MBS Group.

“Our survey found an encouraging level of support for staff during an exceptionally difficult and stressful time. However, a significant proportion of HTL workers have felt insufficiently supported or protected, particularly from a personal safety perspective. And these concerns were highest amongst sections of the workforce that may already have faced discrimination. Our survey also found that these groups were more likely to have been furloughed, faced cuts in hours or been made redundant, although few felt that either their gender or ethnicity were a contributing factor to their experience. For many companies, collecting and considering diversity data as part of key decisions on pay and employment is a critical first step. More generally, organisations that are conscious of the particular issues facing their female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic workers, can actively build a more inclusive culture, which will give them a clear edge in winning over customers and developing innovative solutions to help their businesses survive and thrive,” said Katy Bennett, Director, People Consulting, PwC.

There are a number of suggested actions HTL businesses can take to curb the negative impact of Covid-19 on diversity and inclusion which are featured in the report.

The report ‘’Guarding Against Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Covid-19 on Gender and Race & Ethnic Diversity in Hospitality, Travel & Leisure’ can be downloaded here – https://www.wihtl.com/research