Lemonade From Lemons: Diversity And Inclusion In The Terrible ’20s

Lemonade From Lemons: Diversity And Inclusion In The Terrible '20s

Events of the past three months have exposed and exacerbated many longstanding cultural fault lines.  First, came a global pandemic devastating both our healthcare system and the economy; then, serial killings of unarmed black men and women at the hands of the police.  The human tragedies wrought by these events played out on TV and social media in continuous and painful loops.

Even as we grapple with the ongoing turmoil, it is indisputable that society is already profoundly transformed in both positive and negative ways. In fact, one of the most powerful and positive changes to come from this era is the abrupt dismantling of the previously impervious wall between our lives at work and our lives “outside,” which will hopefully provide a catalyst to achieve true workplace diversity and inclusion.

The traditional corporate office environment has been shattered in the past three months, sending most into a remote working wilderness. Whereas our work identity was previously the dominant (if not exclusive) measure of our social status and, for many, self-worth, we have morphed in this short time-span into fluid hybrid roles of professional-teacher-caregiver-short order cook-housekeeper and more.

The lack of access to safe, stable childcare, elder care and schools has impacted women and single working parents in a particularly stark fashion. The digital divide has similarly been illuminated and our new, pervasive reliance on reliable internet connectivity threatens to leave many “remote workers” (and, indeed, “remote learners”) in the dark.  The life-and-death choices (or lack thereof) faced by “essential workers,” many of whom are on the bottom of the economic ladder and “invisible” to those at the top, has exposed systemic inequity as never before.

Our “outside the office” lives are now inextricably meshed with our professional lives. We know well the sound of a fussy toddler interrupting a conference call to plead for yet another snack, the barking dog demanding to be let out or the alternating sounds of parental cooing with pointed, nuanced professional advice. This is the symphony of life today and although these sounds have always been there, they were relegated to the deep background or, more often, forced out of view.

Historically, diverse groups have struggled in the rigid corporate hierarchy –and, of course, elsewhere in the economy–because their unique experiences and voices were not appreciated or sufficiently promoted. The quest for an inclusive workplace, by definition, is the process of creating an environment where any individual or group feels welcomed, respected, supported, and valued. An inclusive climate embraces differences and offers respect in the words and actions of the organization so that all of its members are fully engaged and successful. Diversity is fundamentally about seeing and supporting the multiplicity of backgrounds and demands on our time in a way that allows all people to rise.

In this post-COVID world, our incessant videoconferencing brings us into the living spaces of our colleagues. In a world “woke” to centuries of structural racism and systemic deprivation, on the one hand, and privilege and power built on the backs of black and brown people on the other, we can no longer hide from the diversity of our realities. As we are compelled to ask and truly hear the answer to the question “How are you?” our bonds with our colleagues will surely be deepened and broadened in ways we couldn’t have foreseen.

If workplace leadership is forced to see co-workers with different, yet valid perspectives, then work “outputs” will be more nuanced, empathetic, practical–and with potentially broader appeal. Cultivating a workplace that openly embraces our myriad experiences, fosters different modes of thought, and which allows for multiple intelligences takes full advantage of diversity. Now that it is no longer taboo to schedule conference calls and Zoom meetings around doctors’ appointments, homeschooling responsibilities, other caregiving obligations, or simply your mental health space, we may finally be on the verge of inhabiting truly inclusive work environments.

Thus, the new “terrible ’20s” presents a unique opportunity to transform the way we work, to realign our expectations that life must bend to the dictates of work, and to redesign our workplaces, policies, benefits and communication strategies to embrace and celebrate the fluidity of our new roles. Ultimately, if we seize this moment and allow this transformation to wash over our workplaces permanently, then this frightful and tragic period will usher in truly diverse and inclusive workplaces that allow all individuals, including diverse and underrepresented groups, to flourish.

I, for one, welcome this new “work-life balance.”

Ali Metzl

Ali Fidler Metzl is a corporate attorney who specializes in middle market M&A transactions, with an emphasis on consumer products. Ali founded and currently serves as co-chair of the firm’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) to develop female attorneys and policy professionals into leaders in their respective practice groups, the firm, the communities in which they live and the larger legal and lobbying professions. Ali also founded and chairs the firm’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion & Equity.

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