Duncan Hewett, Senior Vice President & General Manager APAC
The COVID pandemic has affected us all, but not equally. Several studies emerging show more women have been economically impacted in the last year than we could have imagined.
In Asia Pacific, we’ve made progress in the last decade to integrate more women in the workforce. From Japan’s womenomics’ to driving more inclusion with flexible work arrangements in many markets, digital tools and training have been adopted to bring more women back to work. Our programme on VMinclusion Taara has alone enrolled 10,000+ women for training to come back to the tech industry after taking a career break. However, recent research shows that many women have dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic—a reminder of not taking progress for granted and creating support models for women in the workforce.
While a recent World Economic Forum report highlighted the discouraging women labour force participation numbers coming from the US, Asia Pacific’s situation is also not encouraging. A recent report Women, COVID-19, and the Future of Work by the APEC Policy Support Unit and The Asia Foundation confirmed: Women are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Lockdowns, social distancing measures, and the risks of spreading the virus have led schools, childcare, and elder-care services to close or reduce services.
Without the right support at home and at work, many women are considering or have already left the workforce.
This is why building a supportive environment for women to thrive in the workplace has never been more important for organisations. I’d like to share two key areas where I believe organisations, leaders, and managers at every level can focus on providing better support for women participating in the workforce.
Focusing on compassion
“When ‘business as usual’ is not an option, we need to focus on helping each other.” – Betsy Sutter
VMware’s Chief People Officer could not have said it better. There is no single solution to solve the unique challenges faced by talented individuals we work with. For some, working remotely can exacerbate feelings of isolation, while for others, it has increased the amount of caregiving responsibilities at home. Regardless of the scenario, our colleagues’ response should be the same: have compassion for others’ situation. And while this is true for everyone, not just women, in households across our region, women often bear more of the burden than anyone else.
I’ve witnessed many examples of colleagues at VMware applying a compassionate approach. One I like to share is from my own leadership call. We reached a point where a woman colleague was due to speak, so I messaged her on the chat and she replied that her children were screaming in the background, the dog was barking, and her husband was struggling to calm down two kids under five. Unfortunately unlike on Zoom, you cannot mute real-life. So when she said in the chat that she was uncomfortable speaking, we co-ordinated her response to be posted in the chat, allowing me to reinforce this valuable insight to the team. This enabled her to share her view with the team while also giving her the time to deal with a home situation involving young children – something I am sure many can relate to. It may not be how we’ve done things before, but we’ve learnt over the past year to find alternatives to the ‘normal’ way of doing things and thankfully everyone has become much more understanding, inclusive and adaptable. A small act of kindness and compassion can go a long way.
In the initial months of the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, we rolled out additional employee health benefits focused on mental health. While the pandemic may have drawn further attention to mental health, I believe this support has to become a constant that organisations provide employees as we continue to work in this distributed manner. Combined with this, regular short surveys and ensuring employees have home-office environment technology can help improve their physical and mental wellness.
A lot of colleague interaction has now disappeared in a traditional sense. As human beings, we need to understand that human contact and engagement needs more verbal attention, especially when we do not see each other ‘in person’ as much as we used to. I encourage you to practice compassion and a listening ear – it really does help make a difference.
The opportunity of a distributed workforce
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
No other statement could have described the change brought about by the pandemic in a better way.
Work from home has had a profound impact on workplace dynamics. With thousands of conversations now happening through collaborative tools, respondents to VMware’s Future Ready survey said they found themselves and their teams more empowered to speak up. 70% reported that this is a common experience within the majority of their teams. This has also translated to more open conversations between employees and their leaders, flattening hierarchies and reducing groupthink. Collaborative tools, flexible work arrangements, and the mobility to work from home has encouraged more to participate actively in the workplace, regardless of physical constraints or family obligations. We need to provide more opportunities to help accelerate women’s growth in the workforce with a distributed workforce.
What has been really pleasing is in VMware several global roles have become open for global candidates. Pam Cass, our VP for Asia Pacific and Japan Marketing, took on a global demand and field marketing role while being based in Australia. A year ago it would seem impossible to have an HQ-led role be based in a different timezone, today it is not. The ability to offer remote work as an option has helped make it easier to recruit diverse top talent across levels. Leaders and organisations need to follow suit and become more open in their thinking about global roles across mid-management and leadership level.
Even at the entry-level, we’ve seen that video conferencing is a great equaliser and has disrupted gender dynamics. 73% of respondents of the survey also reported more equal airtime between men and women during meetings. One such uplifting experience was in Japan where this year we saw our number of women graduate applicants double when the briefing sessions are done virtually. The anecdotal evidence suggests our physical events created pressure on a minority, and the virtual event has leveled the playing field for women and allowed for more interaction. This is a fascinating trend and something we need to continue to do even as more offices open up across the world.
There is so much work yet to be done to create an organisation representative of our social mix. While the pandemic has pulled us down on some fronts, there are ways we can make the most of the opportunity before us to continue a transformational journey and get to equity in our workforces as well as in society overall.