5 Lessons Along the Path to a More Diverse and Inclusive Workplace

By Theresa Kushner, Vice President, Information Innovation Center, VMware

When we started our women’s initiative at VMware, we knew that we wanted to do it differently from other Silicon Valley high-tech companies. No one was having a lot of success in the area of recruiting, promoting and retaining women. We wanted to increase our diversity and provide an inclusive environment for our people. Our culture demanded it. After all, we are the company that does the impossible by virtualizing computing, networking and storage—either on premise or via software as a service. We could do anything.

What we learned in the past three years was humbling. Here are our five key lessons:

#1. Women are not a problem to fix. We sought advice from Deloitte’s diversity and inclusion team and determined that our women’s initiative should be centered on opportunities within our environment. In other words, we set out to create opportunities for women, not to fix them.  

To that end, we reevaluated where we recruited and changed our approach from a cycle that followed college graduations to an always-on recruiting environment. To create internal opportunities, we developed programs for our executives to sponsor women throughout their careers. Sponsorship backed with programs around executive shadowing and mentoring helped to create opportunities that women had never seen or been exposed to before.

We also saw the need to create opportunities and reasons for women to stay at VMware. Our peer mentoring circles, called “DIALOGUE Circles,” established a common understanding of organizational barriers and made it possible for our women to form solid relationships that would endure throughout their careers. We gave many women a reason for sticking it out.

#2. It’s better to teach than to preach. We launched in 2014 with a two-part program that involved our executive leadership. With over 200 vice presidents in attendance, Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard and author of Blind Spot, introduced the topic of implicit bias, followed by a special Q&A with the top three officers of the company, which only our women vice presidents attended. This smaller session was our time to ask the questions that were overlooked during the earlier talk.  

We continued the education throughout the next two years as we brought unconscious bias training to over 60 percent of our management staff. This training focused on not just awareness, but also on actions that managers can take to block bias in the workplace. It has made a big difference: over 90 percent of attendees have reported leaving with a commitment to take action in their talent decisions.

#3. Executives need a number. We are a company of engineers, and engineers need a number. One of our first actions was to get the data associated with our representation of women in our population—by management level, by area of the world. Then, we looked at what the movement of this population was from one position to the next and how we were retaining women at each level. With these numbers in hand, our team went to executives and showed them—with numbers—their areas of opportunity. Each was slightly different and this caused each executive to look at the women’s initiative through their own lens. With this as their focus, they began to own the problem.

The first year we told them that the numbers were only guidance and emphasized that this was a long process—consistency was key. This year, the executives have goals around moving the needle on their numbers. But remember, we are three years into the program: they would not have agreed to such goals had they not had some time to understand how to move the needle.

#4. Men have to be involved and not every woman will want to be. Since most of our leaders are men, we knew from the beginning of the program that we would have to engage men. So we concentrated on getting them actively involved in helping us build, maintain and guide the program. From the onset, our “VMwomen Council” was 50 percent men. They have shared our perspective, spoken out for us, engaged their counterparts and told our story from their viewpoint.

We also learned that just because you are a woman does not mean that you want to be involved in the women’s initiative. One VP once told me that she “would rather be sitting in the board room with the men than helping with any women’s initiative.” Two weeks after she made that remark, she left the company because of a political shift she didn’t see coming. We encountered others who had the same feeling and there was marked difference in early-career professionals and mid- to late-career professionals. So we had to learn to adjust our message to each different group of women.

#5. Top, bottom and middle must be involved. We were very lucky that our president, Pat Gelsinger, was passionate about diversity and had been responsible for the women’s initiative at Intel. He knew how long cultural changes take and he was adamant about beginning the journey.  Without his support, the program would never have gotten the traction it needed.

But everyone needs to understand what part to play and how that part makes a difference. We started our managers first on unconscious bias training and augmented these lessons with discussion groups and other training to support them and their teams on this journey. We knew that we would need to ignite things at the grassroots level and mobilize individual contributors to be an active part of the community, to bring innovative ideas and to help us roll out the programs.

Last year, the company decided to expand what we had learned in our women’s initiative to the broader community. We formed a diversity and inclusion team and developed “Power of Difference” (POD) groups for underrepresented minorities. We are also attempting in our small way to drive our enthusiasm into the larger community. On February 28, VMware hosted its second one-day conference, this year’s theme being about breaking barriers.

As [email protected] moves into its third year, the company continues to break barriers. Recently, we released publicly for the first time our diversity numbers. Today, 23 percent of our population is women. We are making progress. Is it where we want to be? Not yet. The important thing is that we have a plan and we are executing it with diligence and consistency and in style true to VMware—where nothing is impossible.


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