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09 February 2022

Recovery is not enough – society needs a post-Covid transformation

Julie Battilana and Kara Sheppard-Jones

Returning to our pre-pandemic ways will not solve the inequalities that have deepened because of Covid. What we need is not a recovery, it is a transformation.

Recovery is not enough News story and event

Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

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Julie Battilana is Professor of Business Administration in the Organisational Behaviour Unit at Harvard Business School, and Professor of Social Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Kara Sheppard-Jones is a Research Fellow at the Social Innovation + Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School.

It is by now considered a truism that Covid-19 revealed and reinforced profound inequalities in our societies, including gender-based ones. Pandemic layoffs hit women harder than men. In fact, women in the US, especially racialised women, had to drop out of the labour force so much during the pandemic that it put women's labour force participation back to what it was 30 years ago.

In the services, hospitality, and leisure sectors in North America – those hardest hit by the pandemic – women are over-represented, which led to higher levels of employment losses among women than men. Concretely, what these statistics mean is that women suffered greater wage losses and precarity over the course of the pandemic, even though women, especially racialised and Indigenous women, were already poorer than men before the pandemic. Simultaneously, they shouldered a larger amount of care work both at home and in the workplace, as the need for care skyrocketed when schools and childcare centres closed and the virus infiltrated nursing homes. Covid-19 became a great revealer of these inequalities, while deepening their impacts.

The term “recovery”, so often used to point to policy changes meant to address these inequalities after the pandemic, implies a return to a prior state that was assumed to be healthy. It therefore misses a crucial point: returning to our pre-pandemic ways will not solve the inequalities that have deepened because of the pandemic. Recovery may move the distribution of power back to its levels prior to the crisis, but it will not address the root of these inequalities. To do so, what we need is not a recovery, it is a transformation that will ensure a fairer distribution of power in society.

To achieve this kind of transformation, we must understand what power is and what it takes to redistribute it. Power is the ability to influence others’ behaviour. But to understand how to create transformative interventions requires going one step further to understand where power comes from. As Battilana and Casciaro write in their book, Power, For All, power derives from controlling access to resources others value. This simple but vital insight – that power flows to those who control resources we all decide are valuable – is critical for understanding how to change the distribution of power and address intersectional inequalities in the wake of Covid-19.

For those in organisations, government, or other institutions striving to create a post-Covid world that is more equitable, including for women and LGBTQ+ people who face intersectional discrimination, we offer a tool to map power dynamics and, thus, identify levers for transformation. It comes down to systematically asking and answering the two following questions: What do people value? Who controls access to these valued resources?

Transformation requires understanding these two questions, then devising interventions that shift the answers. It requires changing what we value to better recognise everyone’s contribution to our society – instigating nothing short of a cultural change. It also requires shifting control over these valued resources.

To illustrate how these questions can serve to facilitate transformative interventions, consider a salient example from the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis has prompted a shift in the words used to describe certain work. The most evident example is the well-deserved term “essential worker” to underscore the contributions, and public value, ascribed to those whose frontline contributions allowed everybody else to work from home and out of harm’s way. The pandemic has especially revealed our dependence on care work to function as a society. Yet, there is a disconnect between the words used to value these workers as essential and how we compensate care workers such as nursing home aides, cleaning staff, and childcare workers, for example.

In other words, we can say we value care workers as essential, but to change the distribution of power durably requires more than words. We must redistribute resources in accordance with these values. This is where the second question – who controls access to the resources that are valued? – comes into play.

Transformation requires a change in the levels of control essential workers have over valued resources, such as wages, flexibility, and safety. Consider the example of Sandra, a worker-owner at Up & Go, a cooperative cleaning service based in New York. Sandra and her fellow domestic worker-owners vote on what services to offer and prices to charge, how to respond to Covid-19, and how to use the cooperative’s profits. The worker-cooperative model, which puts control over valuable resources in the hands of workers, stands as an example of a transformative intervention. There are others, though.

The German codetermination model, which has spread to countries across Europe, including Austria, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, grants workers formal representation on the board of directors of their organisation. Adopting such co-determination policies, while ensuring the representation of all employees, including women and members of racialised groups, would help redistribute power by giving workers a vote and voice in important organisational decisions. More generally, contrary to one-off diversity trainings or symbolic promotions, initiatives in organisations that track and rewire how opportunities and resources are distributed at every level – from the frontline to the board room – are critical to redistribute power more fairly.

Creating and implementing such transformative interventions, be they in organisations or policymaking, is not only necessary to address the root causes of inequality – research has found that this redistribution of power ends up benefitting everyone. Indeed, extreme levels of inequality are detrimental even to people at the top, as they result in less productive, less healthy, and less safe communities and societies.

In the wake of the pandemic, we must aim for more than recovery. To build more resilient, just, healthy, and fair societies, we need transformative approaches that address the root of inequality by redistributing power.