Women urge tech giants to innovate on office return

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After an unprecedented year that saw record numbers of women leaving the workforce, tech employees and advocates are urging the industry to continue its tradition as innovators and rethink workplace models to offer the flexibility and ease that could help retain women in the field.

As companies grapple with plans to return-to-office — with shifting timelines amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases — advocates are cautioning businesses not to overlook lessons learned from the pandemic that already exacerbated existing inequity issues.

“Don’t rush back to what was before just because of what was before,” said Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of the non-profit

“We have some sort of opportunity to return to normal, but what really should be normal is not necessarily what was normal before.”

Employment rates plummeted last April, at the height of pandemic lockdowns, with a disproportionate impact on women. At the start of 2020, employment rates were fairly evenly split between women and men, but by April there were 1.9 million more men employed than women, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

Even as employment rates trended back toward pre-pandemic levels in June 2021, there were still 710,000 more employed men than women.

Although women accounted for 47.6 percent of job gains last month, they will need more than nine straight months of job gains at that same level to recover the nearly 3.8 million net jobs women lost since February 2020, according to an analysis published by the National Women’s Law Center

The higher unemployment rate for women compared to men in 2020 was steeper in service occupations, but it was still apparent across management and professional related occupations, according to a June BLS review

“We’ve known for a long time that one of the reasons that women overall tend to be paid less than men and women overall face so many barriers to advancement, promotion, is because they tend to spend more time out of the workforce for child and other family caregiving, and our corporate systems are set up in a way to really devalue that work,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“And that comes at a huge cost, not only to women themselves, and their families, and their household incomes and their retirement. It also comes at a cost to the companies and to the economy at large who miss out on all of those perspectives and skills that those women can bring.”

Beyond contending with the burden of unpaid caregiving, tech companies are confronting calls for cultural change to help retain women — especially women of color.

Google, for example, had higher levels of attrition among Black and Native American women than other employees, according to the company’s annual diversity report. Attrition rates reported for 2021 among Black and Native American women were 146 and 148 respectively on an index that uses 100 as a baseline. 

The attrition rates among Black and Native American women at Google were also higher than the rates reported by the company for the prior year.

The report was released after a series of high profile departures among Black women in key roles at the tech giant — including the controversial dismissals of top researchers on Google’s ethical AI team, Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell.

Tech giants are now being forced to reckon with addressing accusations of discriminatory workplace cultures that may have been overlooked pre-pandemic, Wilkerson said.

“There were a lot of women who were experiencing marginalization in the office. They were experiencing racism, sexism, ableism, body size-ism — all kinds of things in the office that they didn’t experience when they were at home. And so many of them are like, ‘I don’t know that I want to go back to that,’” Wilkerson said.

One Google software engineer based in Austin told The Hill the microaggressions she faced when interning at the company — coupled with more mundane concerns such as commuter traffic — are leading her to pursue full time remote work even after the company welcomes employees back to their campuses.

“The office climate isn’t necessarily the most welcoming. Even with all of the effort that people are putting in on an individual level, I still know that at any point I could be walking around and I could hear people say things or see them do things that signal to me that they don’t understand my experience as a woman of color, as a queer woman of color,” she said.

The engineer, who asked not to be named, started working full time at the company last June and has been fully remote since starting the position. But she worked in person at the New York and Sunnyvale offices as a summer intern.

“It’s a lot harder to run away from people when you’re in the office,” she said.

Google’s return-to-office plan, announced in May, defaults to a hybrid of about three days a week in office, but allows employees to request completely remote work.

In an update Wednesday, Google said it is extending its voluntary work-from-home period globally through Oct. 18 and said it will be requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as part of its return-to-office policy.

Facebook said last month any employee “whose role can be done remotely can request remote work,” and that it would be “more flexible” for those expected to return. On Wednesday the tech giant said it would also require COVID-19 vaccinations for those returning to the office.

Amazon’s return-to-office plan is also based on a hybrid model that includes a baseline of three days in the office, and offers exceptions for workers to apply to be primarily remote.

Charlotte Newman, a manager who works in Amazon’s cloud computing services, said the ability to work from home has been “absolutely liberating.” Newman is suing the company over allegations of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. 

“Over the course of many years, reporting to work was actually a traumatizing experience. I don’t know if I hadn’t had this period of working from home if I ever would have felt safe enough to report the harassment and discrimination that I had been experiencing,” Newman told The Hill.

Newman’s suit is one of several Amazon is facing alleging discrimination across its warehouses and corporate offices.

Amazon has pushed back on the allegations laid out in the lawsuits and stated the company aims to “foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture.” Amazon Web Services CEO Adam Selipsky also pledged to hire an outside firm to investigate the allegations after employees circulated an internal petition

Newman, who has a background working in Democratic offices including for Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), also urged Congress to take action to enforce workplace equity after the pandemic highlighted the deep rooted issues.

“We’re at a point where there has to be concrete actions and real repercussions given that on the other side of this what you’re looking at is impact on the lives of women and people of color like myself,” she said.

“I don’t think we’re in a space where we’re saying that we’re okay with just allowing women and people of color to be vulnerable in these organizations,” she added. “I don’t think that’s what society would say or what members of Congress would say if asked. I think it just begs the question why there hasn’t been more material steps to rein in anti-worker practices, and policies and cultures that have been truly toxic for women and people of color.”

Tags Amazon Coronavirus coronavirus lockdown Cory Booker female employees Google Pandemic Sexism Sexual harassment

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