COVID-19 is an unprecedented time of deep uncertainty. This fact is not lost on most. However, as we’ve read in the newspapers, heard in podcasts, and seen in our communities, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on many communities of color. Coupled with the compounding effects of xenophobia, police brutality, and the misclassification of Native Americans in COVID-19 data, communities of color are experiencing heightened trauma while still being expected to show up fully to work.
Though the reality is that these traumas are not new, the global pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities that inordinately affect marginalized communities.
In this piece, we examine a particular demographic that has been hard hit by COVID-19, offering insights into what women of color (WOC) - who often stand at the intersection of multiple barriers – may be experiencing. We provide strategies to equip managers and co-workers with tools to support WOC in the workplace during this current climate and beyond, as we work collectively to reshape the future of work.
Many WOC are bearing the compounding weight of structural racism and domestic expectations of gender roles. COVID-19 has brought on an increasingly difficult workload for mothers doing 31 hours more housework each week. A recent poll found that 57% of Latinx women (compared to 37% of women overall) are struggling to manage work and family burdens.
Even more challenging is that 29% of Asian Americans, 27% of Hispanics, and 26% of African Americans are in multigenerational family households, increasing the domestic responsibilities of many WOC during this time. As immigrant communities struggle to access timely information about COVID-19 in their native language, many WOC in multigenerational home environments (and those who are not) are often relied on to translate COVID-19 recommendations.
One of the most significant challenges facing some WOC is that “home” is unsafe. Given stay-at-home orders can increase the risk of intimate partner violence, we as leaders in the workforce must pay close attention to signs that our employees may be at risk. Unfortunately, WOC are more susceptible to these acts of violence, as research suggests that Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of domestic violence than White women.
The accumulation of these factors naturally affects the way WOC show up to work, and leaders must take proper action.
Ways to alleviate household stress
- Communicate your commitment to your employees during this uncertain time, and develop an action plan for specific types of additional support. Tangible strategies include giving employees a day off in times of tragedy and the opportunity to operate at reduced capacity during hardship. In addition, you may want to guide ways they can take leave that minimize financial impact. It’s also important to signal and reassure WOC that their job is secure, as we know they are more likely to experience stress and anxiety surrounding a leave of absence.
- Ensure your employees know about company benefits and policies regarding leave and family benefits. Benefits offerings can be overwhelming, but most plans provide support resources that can help women with many responsibilities right now. Make these resources more accessible by highlighting relevant programs during periods of stress.
- Provide childcare services or stipends for childcare support. Black and Latinx women are more likely than White women to be single heads of households.
- Schedule virtual social activities with working parents in mind, and recognize working parents (and all employees) who are excelling at their work. Leaders can make these events more inclusive by sending out a quick survey to ask the team for their activity suggestions, ensuring no participation costs, incorporating family-friendly options like a Paint Night or virtual bingo, and scheduling these events during standard work hours.
- Ensure the safety of your employees. If you see signs of intimate partner violence or elder abuse, consult your company’s appropriate personnel and consider providing guidance on external resources and programs available to support your employee.
WOC have the same level of professional expectations (deadlines, attending meetings, leading teams) as everyone else, even though they may have additional responsibilities that make meeting some of these expectations more challenging.
Recent reports demonstrate that 75% of Black and Latinx women spend a combined 21+ hours per week on housework compared with just over half of White women; they also spend more time on childcare and eldercare than their White counterparts. For perspective, 21 hours per week is equivalent to taking on an additional part-time job.
WOC are overrepresented in childcare, hospitality, and other industries experiencing job losses due to COVID-19. In addition, LGBTQ people of color are more likely than their White counterparts to have lost work hours or become unemployed due to the pandemic. The culmination of these circumstances makes it such that WOC are more likely to have greater financial responsibilities. Even if WOC don’t get laid off, they are still more likely to have families that are out of work during this time.
WOC are already more likely to be asked to do office housework and are the most likely to be harassed at work. The resurgence of protests against police brutality has made navigating the workplace even more difficult. Insensitive workplace comments regarding police brutality, xenophobia, and the loss and erasure of Black female and Black trans women’s narratives in the fight against police brutality only add stress to exhausting workplace dynamics.
Ways to alleviate professional stress
- Create a culture of empathy and help employees adjust deadlines and reschedule meetings during this time.
- Consider modifying or canceling performance cycles. There are several options to adapt performance evaluations in a way that considers the pandemic's stress and aligns with your company culture.
- Ensure office housework – the less-important/more administrative tasks around the office, such as ordering food – is equitably distributed. Harvard Business Review offers strategies for how WOC can feel empowered to say "no" to office housework. Some use humor, setting up systems for rotating tasks, practicing saying no with allies, and asking the requestor for more information on why they are explicitly asking them to do the work.
- Challenge biased behaviors in the moment and humanize the workplace with more meaningful one-on-one and team interactions.
The New York Times noted that COVID-19 has a predominantly non-White, female face. Not only are Asian communities combating an increase in xenophobic comments, but COVID-19 has also exacerbated long-standing health disparities for Black Americans. There has been an extensive recording of the racial disparities in infection and death rates of COVID-19. Given Black and Latinx communities are more likely to live in densely populated areas, the virus can spread more easily.
Research has shown communities of color often face implicit and explicit discrimination in medical treatment, which can affect their likelihood of seeking treatment. But for some communities of color, the fight against COVID-19 includes a desire to simply be counted – some states are misclassifying Native Americans as “other” in COVID-19 data.
Though many of these challenges are rooted in structural inequalities, there are still tangible steps HR leaders can take to address them.
Ways to alleviate healthcare challenges
- Ensure your employees know company policy regarding healthcare benefits and feel comfortable discussing this information with HR representatives - this may affect how they show up at work.
- Ensure there is diverse representation on your HR team to support your employees (i.e., having a Latinx HR representative may help Latinx employees feel more comfortable discussing healthcare questions or concerns that are more prevalent in the Latinx community.) If you don’t, a few things you can do are: (1) proactively increase the recruitment of candidates from underrepresented backgrounds at fairs, (2) post job positions on websites geared towards the recruitment of talent from underrepresented backgrounds, and (3) consult with recruiting firms focused specifically on historically underrepresented talent.
- Acknowledge that your WOC employees may not be showing up as their full selves in the workplace due to structural inequalities in healthcare. Creating a safe and inclusive workforce will be even more critical during this time. A few examples of how to tactically do this: Avoid biased healthcare news resources, share facts and accurate information from reputable sources that recognize the various experiences, and actively challenge bias and stereotypes in the workplace.
- Share resources on how to be better allies with WOC at work and review them collectively as a team.
- Hold inclusive virtual meetings to ensure all voices are heard.
- Invite industry experts to discuss what leaders and organizations can do to advance equity in the workplace in light of the racial injustices plaguing our nation. For example, UT Southwestern recently held a webinar with experts in academia, employee relations, diversity & inclusion, and mental health.
- If you mess up, admit your mistakes, apologize, and educate yourself.
Mental health challenges
Many WOC are from collectivistic cultures. These cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. This means that WOC are rarely just thinking of themself or their immediate family. Often, they’re also thinking of their extended family members and wider community.
Furthermore, compared to their White peers, members of minority groups are at risk of experiencing higher levels of stress. In one study, stressors were measured in relation to occupation, finances, relationships, racial bias, and violence. The study found Black, Latinx, and Asian respondents reported higher levels of stress when compared to their White peers. In addition, a 2017 study in the Rand Health Quarterly found that levels of self-stigma surrounding mental health were particularly high among Asian American and Latinx participants. This, coupled with the fact that WOC often try to manage depression and anxiety on their own, can prove to be particularly harmful during a pandemic of this proportion.
Ways to alleviate mental health stress
- Change your company’s culture around holistic wellbeing. Create an environment where everyone – from leadership to peers – encourages each other to use mental health services when necessary.
- Provide mental health resources that include therapists from a variety of cultures, as they may be able to better support the unique challenges certain groups are facing. To start: Here is a list of Black, Asian, and Latinx healthcare resources. Consider providing stipends or subsidizing the cost of mental health services. In addition, make a list of therapists that use a sliding scale in case this feels too costly for some employees.
- Consider providing stipends for meditation apps such as Liberate, Insight Timer, and Calm or partnering with apps such as Modern Health and Two Chairs to provide easy access to therapists, including teletherapy.
The path forward
Many WOC are facing unique challenges during COVID-19. However, we’ve begun to see WOC at the forefront of change. Asian-American women doctors have become the #facesofthecure, Navajo women are leading on the front lines, WOC virtual businesses are flourishing, a Black-founded beauty company is giving away 10,000 hours in free therapy to WOC impacted by COVID-19, and grassroots groups have moved online to capture the Latino vote. While barriers continue to exist, we commend the many WOC paving the way forward and encourage organizations to do their part in supporting structural changes.
Learn how to ask your employees about their experiences with racial injustice.
Identify meaningful ways to provide support