My daughter was born during a pandemic. How this will impact her life experience remains to be seen. But we know the world she grows up in will be drastically altered from the world we knew just months before her birth. While I can live with the idea of virtual work environments being the standard in her world, I cannot live with the possibility of my daughter thinking women in the workforce are the exception, not the rule.
Consequences of Pandemic Proportions
2020 turned workplaces upside down. The increased stress, burnout, and blurring boundaries between work and home due to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in 1 in 4 women downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.
All working parents have dealt with the overwhelming pressure and anxiety of the last year, but for working mothers in particular, those burdens have been shown to be even heavier. According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study, mothers were more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic while also trying to fulfill work expectations. This unsustainable environment means something’s got to give—and unfortunately for millions of women, it’s been their careers.
Why is this problematic? We risk losing much of the progress we’ve gained toward gender diversity in the workplace. We risk losing our current women in leadership and setting back future female leaders.
Why does this matter? Research shows that when women are well represented at the top, innovation and creativity goes up, and companies are 50 percent more likely to outperform their peers. During unprecedented times like these, it’s worth it for companies to invest in programs, policies, and cultural values that support their people and encourage flexibility and balance. Such support, available to everyone equally, benefits working parents and women in particular.
As Organic Valley has proven over the past year, to do this well all it takes is a little creativity and a lot of heart.
Cream of the CROPP
As a working mother to two small children who has worked at Organic Valley for eight years, I can tell you with full confidence that our cooperative is rising above. As of January 2021, our employee base continues to be nearly 50-50 women and men, and women at CROPP hold 45% of leadership roles compared to less than 30% in most other companies. Throughout the last year, no working mothers have left our workforce due to family care concerns or any other COVID-19-related reason.
How is this possible? Because Organic Valley cares deeply about people. Since the co-op’s beginnings in 1988, we have always put our people first with a supportive work environment, and that commitment to our people only intensified throughout the pandemic.
Support for Work-Life Balance is the Norm
Even before COVID-19, Organic Valley encouraged a flexible and casual work environment for all positions that could allow it, promoted the importance of taking time off, and offered a holistic wellness program that focuses on the whole person.
Then during the pandemic, we stepped things up. We introduced new virtual well-being tools to support employees while they’re working remotely, such as a social distancing resource center, a free meditation app, and online exercise classes. We made sure people were aware of existing free counseling services. We made adjustments to paid time off policies to support the unique challenges of COVID-19. We learned to adapt to children and pets interrupting meetings. And we learned that our people can be just as productive outside the office thanks to the flexibility and encouragement that trickled down from our leaders.
As any working person knows, it is impossible to leave our personal lives at home while we go to work. We bring all parts of ourselves to the job, whether we want to or not. Organic Valley has always supported and celebrated this whole-person concept for employees and continued to do so throughout the pandemic.
Staff are encouraged to take time off to attend school events for their children, use break time to focus on their well-being, and when appropriate, set their work hours around their personal life. In 2018, we implemented a Paid Parental Leave program that provides paid time off for natural or adoptive mothers and fathers—equally. We know that supporting both parents is essential to promoting equality in the workplace; giving fathers the time and encouragement to support their partners can ultimately help these working women remain in the workforce. On-site mommy suites are available for lactating mothers, and those who wish to use them are supported. Work-from-home protocols and support resources were put into place to help staff who were home with children during the pandemic.
As is usual with Organic Valley, we’re not stopping there. We plan to expand our support of a family-friendly culture, and those plans are coming from the top. Our CEO Bob Kirchoff is leading a team to explore offering on-site child care for employees in the future—the results are still to be decided, but we’re excited that the conversation is happening.
Robust Training & Development Program and Promoting from Within
Internal training and development programs are available year-round for all employees. We have an entire team of internal trainers focused solely on helping employees build skills and knowledge that will help them reach their career goals while helping the cooperative achieve its mission.
Organic Valley offers an internal scholarship program to support employees who are seeking professional development opportunities or continuing education. By removing financial obstacles, we make it easier for all employees, including women, to advance their careers.
This focus on employee development could be one reason why we’re seeing such high rates of women in leadership. Our employees are given the tools needed to succeed. Even better, those tools are adapted to meet individuals where they are at, and to help them get where they want to go.
Hope for the Future
There’s no denying that the events of 2020 changed our world forever. While we should come to terms with that truth, there is one change we should not accept: Let’s ensure gender equality in the workplace doesn’t become a casualty of 2020. Employers need to take action now if they want to attract and retain diverse perspectives at all levels of their company.
I find my hope in employers like Organic Valley who are leading the way. Even with nearly half of leadership roles held by women, Organic Valley has committed to do even better. There’s no silver bullet that will keep women in the workforce, but in creating an entire culture of support for everyone, a company like Organic Valley can offer a safe place that enables all people to bring their full selves to work. A place where we are encouraged to focus on our careers without leaving our personal lives behind. Everyone benefits when workplaces are better for parents, for women, and for all.
As all mothers do, I want my children to experience the best this life has to offer. I know workplaces like Organic Valley will give them that opportunity, and because of that, I am proud to support this cooperative.
"Here’s to strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them."
Amber Wendorf is Organic Valley’s benefits manager leading the employee wellness, engagement, and benefits programs. She is a mother of two and has been in a management role for three of her eight years at the cooperative.