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Three ways to use language to build a more inclusive recovery

In May 2020, Textio evaluated nearly 100,000 job descriptions just before and just after the Covid virus turned into a global pandemic that spring. The language of the job posts revealed that inclusive words and phrases were being left behind in the wake of a burgeoning recession, and we predicted that this may be symptomatic of an unevenly felt recession and an unequal economic recovery.

Since then, we have indeed seen a recession that disproportionately affected groups that were already underrepresented. And re-hiring, now that the worst of the recession is over, has been uneven. Let’s have a look at the data trends and what inclusion efforts you can reinvest in to mitigate these worrying patterns.

A look back on the pandemic’s impact on hiring language

In 2018 and 2019 words like “inclusion” and “diversity” were on the rise. From 2018, “inclusion” increased nearly five-fold and “diversity” nearly three-fold. The labor market was tight, and the United States in particular was at almost full employment. In this environment, companies competing for candidates were making an effort to stand out and highlight the central role of inclusion, diversity, and belonging in their cultures.

In 2020, these trends reversed. Language like “inclusive,” “diversity,” “equal opportunity,” and “culture” all dropped significantly. As a language company, we predicted that this language change was a symptom of something more worrisome: that when the economy was no longer growing, corporate commitment to inclusion may be the first or easiest thing to neglect, and that this would have dire effects on both economic inclusion and economic recovery.

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The pandemic labor backslide

Unfortunately, the our prediction turned out to be true. The populations most likely to be let go, kept out, or withdraw from the labor market were the ones already underrepresented: women—in particular women of color, people with disabilities, and Black men.

An NPR article titled “The Pandemic’s Devastating Toll on Women,” published last October, recounted the “female exodus” from work. In the seven months since March 2020, women accounted for 5.4 million jobs lost, 55% of the total losses during that time. 2.1 million women have dropped out of the labor force entirely. As the infection rates surged in December 2020, Fortune reported that women lost 156,000 jobs of 140,000 net jobs lost in the US that month, even as men gained 16,000 jobs, according to an analysis by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC). Women accounted for more than 111% of jobs lost that month.

There are many reasons for these gender disparities, both economic and social. For one, women tend to bear the brunt of unpaid responsibilities at home and tend to make less than their male partners.

“They can't send their kids to school. Someone has to supervise the learning. Someone has to deal with the cooking. Someone has to deal with the cleaning, and it's falling onto [women]. And so they can't make choices that they want to make because they're being restricted in all these ways.” - Martha Gimbel, labor economist at Schmidt Futures

Women of color in particular are overrepresented in industries like service and hospitality that couldn't easily shift jobs to remote work. Women in these roles also lack important safety nets like sick leave or flexible working hours, according to Margaret Brower, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.

The impact to the labor market due to this exodus has been devastating, turning “back the clock by at least a generation, with the share of women in the workforce down to levels not seen since 1988.” And not only are we seeing women leave the workforce at disproportionate rates, we’re also not seeing them return.

“The pandemic's female exodus has decidedly turned back the clock by at least a generation, with the share of women in the workforce down to levels not seen since 1988.” - NPR, October 2020

Recessions also disproportionately affect the most recent entrants in the workforce, and people with disabilities were often the last to be hired, according to Carol Glazer, President of the National Organization on Disability (NOD). In fact, a million people with disabilities have lost their jobs since the pandemic, or one-in-five workers with disabilities in 2020. That's a rate 43% higher than non-disabled workers.

Tracking uneven economic relief and recovery

While women (and in particular women of color) have been hardest hit by pandemic layoffs, men have been affected as well. Black and Hispanic men became unemployed at much higher rates than white men, and in the months following initial layoffs, Black men were not being rehired at the same rates as White and Hispanic men. White men, unsurprisingly, re-entered the workforce the fastest. 

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And these inequities aren’t just in re-hiring; they're showing up in access to relief programs, too. A policy analysis from the Washington Post from December 2020 showed that Black and Latina women are less likely to benefit from various unemployment assistance and poverty alleviation programs that are meant for all women.

Although cash assistance was associated with improvements in Latinas’ overall economic status, it showed no boost for Black and white women. Minimum wage thresholds were most likely to benefit employed white women and less likely to benefit Black and Latina women—either because Black and Latina women disproportionately reside in states that have blocked increases to the minimum wage, or because they're disproportionately represented in industries that use the lower minimum wage for tipped employees.

In light of this data, it's more important than ever that businesses adopt more nuanced, active, and intersectional practices to ensure that investments in inclusion made prior to the pandemic remain on track, even amidst these challenges.

For a more equitable economic recovery, keep the whole system in mind

Now that hiring is picking back up again, it's time to reinvest in a culture of belonging to prevent the backslide we've seen from continuing further.

To start, look beyond just “diversity targets” that narrowly bucket women as women, men as men, and people of color as people of color, and instead address the whole system. At Textio we created the Flywheel of Belonging framework to help visualize how your organization's practices and communications, policies and accountability structures work together and reinforce each other.

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For example, communication plays a fundamental role in determining whether current employees feel like they belong, and whether potential employees feel welcome. With 73% of job seekers saying that they won’t apply for a job unless the company’s values align with their own, this means you need to demonstrate inclusive values in your career website copy, life at work blogs, talent newsletters, and other candidate-facing material.

Here are a few language-focused suggestions to consider as you reinvest in inclusion and belonging.

1. Encourage growth mindset language in candidate communications to build a more successful, inclusive workforce

Decades of research have documented the benefits of having a “growth mindset” (the belief that you can expand your abilities with hard work and dedication) over a “fixed mindset” (the belief that abilities are stable, unchangeable traits): students are more likely to succeed, employees are more likely to feel empowered, companies are more likely to be innovative.

2. Interrupt bias and harmful language so you don’t accidentally exclude anyone

Often without even realizing it, people use language that can cause offense or psychological harm in the workplace. In some cases, the offenses are blatant and obvious, but frequently they are subtle: like when they are hidden in the discriminatory origins of the phrase. Regardless of intent, careless use of this kind of language may signal to current and potential employees that their histories or identities are not important and not recognized at your company, and do damage to the inclusive culture you want to build.

3. Let language and conscientious communication bolster even more inclusive practices

Inclusive language doesn't just impact the way your organization communicates: it can even strengthen inclusive policies and actions. For example, being more conscious of your language can lead to more inclusive and equitable meeting facilitation. Recruiting with a lens toward growth and learning might make you take a second look at the candidate with a less traditional career journey—which can be especially important for groups like workers with disabilities—and keeps you from turning to the same candidate pools over and over again. “If you look in the same places you always looked, you'll have the same workforce you always had,” cautioned Glazer.

Similarly, you can look at inclusive practices from a communication lens. Are there inclusive practices you’ve set up that you may believe to benefit everyone or even a broad “target demographic,” for example, flexible work schemes or working from home, maternity leave or employee resource groups? This could be a good time think critically about how you communicate and leverage these policies so that they really impact the groups who need them most. Do your employees know about them, or is the level of information at the company uneven? Asking yourself these question is to begin to create a more inclusive culture at your company.

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