Meenu Agarwal is senior vice president of worldwide customer success at VMware. Opinions are the author's own.
The pandemic completely transformed the way we work, forcing leaders to rethink the traditional work environment, the convergence of people, processes and tools, and much more. However, the hidden and visible burdens women face in the workforce is another kind of pandemic all together.
Last year, 80% of the 1.1 million people who exited the workforce as of September were women, according to reporting by Fortune. Even worse, women accounted for all U.S. job losses in December alone. And within the group of women I studied engineering with at university, only 5% (including me), are still in the workforce today.
For working mothers and pregnant women, the stereotypes and discrimination encountered by those seeking employment after a break in their careers to care for family or children, is not often spoken of. And even women of childbearing age without children or with no intent to have children will face hidden discrimination due to unconscious bias and societal expectations that may not even apply. These hidden and seen barriers require collective awareness and organizational support to be broken down.
I believe parents can actually be the most productive type of employees due to their ability to multitask and prioritize, and more research reveals that mothers are the primary source of income for 40% of households with children. Knowing this, and as a mother of two, it should be a board-level priority for organizations to create a culture that values and supports employees growing their families. There are many ways for employers to promote such allyship, including:
- Removing bias and stereotypes: At VMware, we are encouraged to take unconscious bias trainings and build awareness around the issue across our teams. Organizations need to address unconscious and implicit bias and train managers to not only identify it, but course correct, which often sparks greater understanding, education and change.
- Promoting "returnships": Whether it's a formal initiative or just a community dedicated to supporting those re-entering the workforce, it's critical we pay attention to the strains and insecurities that accompany all adults re-entering the workforce after taking time away. Hiring and supporting such employees through models like VMware's Ascent: Non-traditional Hiring Programs is not only good business, but it gives fresh perspectives to teams and promotes a caring culture that values family — an attribute that top talent seek in an employer today.
- Prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion: At VMware, we have a belief: "Belong here. Transform everywhere." It's not enough to just offer maternity leave. We all come from vastly different cultures and backgrounds and yet we all want to belong. How we help our employees feel that sense of belonging — whether on a team, in the company or in their own communities — is what matters the most. Diverse, happy teams make better business decisions, grow faster and are more creative.
A little over a year ago, I would have included a commitment to flexible work as another way to promote allyship with women. However, as we plan to emerge from a year working remotely worldwide, we must as employers support a hybrid model that best fits the needs of every unique employee. We can no longer claim that remote work is unproductive and, on the contrary, VMware finds that a remote model advances environmental, diversity and inclusion goals. While human contact is key to organizational and societal survival, we must continue to support the necessary working environment of every unique individual.
At VMware, for example, we introduced our Future of Work initiative that supports a hybrid workforce model and rethinks our traditional office environment and way of working. It's critical for companies to build diverse and highly engaged distributed teams that have access to the resources and support they need to be productive in whichever work environment they are in. This past year presented incredible challenges for women workers, but the shift to remote work gave us an opportunity to design a more inclusive workplace and accelerate our momentum around initiatives that can support them.
We're committed to keeping the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion for women — and all employees — going.