Lorraine Vargas Townsend says she’s on a mission as queer, Latinx and a daughter of an immigrant: to develop people-first HR policies that go beyond tokenism to build inclusive, anti-racist workplaces. Our special report, Creating Equity For Women At Work, covers the inequities that caused many women to leave corporate America in the dust, and how we can fix it. Vargas Townsend has her own “maybe it’s time we parted ways” story, but the world is lucky she stayed, since she’s still furthering her mission as Chief People Officer at ESO.
Vargas Townsend also contributed to our report, Creating Equity For Women At Work.
Tiffany Meyers, Built In: What was it like to be a leader during the time when women were leaving the workforce en masse?
LVT: It was an exhilarating time as a female executive. It was empowering to watch and be a part of. That wave of resignations put power behind statements like: “Your culture is a differentiator.” I worked for three companies during Covid, and it was so interesting to see how culture played a part in the rate of resignation. I worked for a company where attrition skyrocketed. For two other companies, it never even blipped. The more focused you were on being employee centric, flexible and mission driven, then the exodus reinforced your commitment to doing all the right things. If you weren’t doing those things, you really felt the consequences of your culture for the first time.
I can’t think of another time in history where employees had more bargaining power as individuals, and I was so happy to bear witness to it. Organizations that didn’t value women probably felt the most pain.
“I can’t think of another time in history where employees had more bargaining power as individuals, and I was so happy to bear witness to it.”
TM: When you contributed to our women at work report, you spoke with clarity about why women started leaving the workforce. But we didn’t talk about you. I’m curious. Have you ever wanted to pack up and go?
LVT: Hell yes! At one point in my career, I began to see a divestment in DE and a drive for profit over people and I was ready to hang it up. But I read this book, “The Second Mountain,” and I started asking questions: “What impact was I having on the world?” “What impact did I have on my teams, peers, people around me?” “How was I making the world better for my daughter?” “Was I realizing my values through my work?”
I started coaching young folks in their careers and working on a book, but I kept talking to CEOs. I was unimpressed by their overall ego and money drive. Even when they had good missions, I just didn’t believe the promises.
TM: Fast forward and you’re now the Chief People Officer at ESO, a company I know you love. So you found a way to be happy while in the C-suite. Tell us the secret.
LVT: ESO is making an impact on communities by supporting first responders with data that helps them improve their performance in the field. We’re improving health and safety outcomes — making a real difference in the world.
Also, it’s not the annoying tech culture that I’d become disenchanted with. We’re a company of former and current first responders — a company based in community — and one that only attracts passionate people who want to make a difference. I had to say yes.
Still, I feel pretty sure that this will be my last job in corporate America. You don’t get lucky like this three times! After this one, I’ll finish that book, coach people who are unsupported and early in their career and travel with my girls.
TM: Book? Inquiring minds want to know.
LVT: You will be the first to know when it’s ready! My life’s work is about DEI and how to help people get better at attacking the systemic issues that keep people down. I will just leave that there.
TM: Yes, we love it there. Can’t wait to listen to your Audible.
“My life’s work is about DEI and how to help people get better at attacking the systemic issues that keep people down.”
TM: For the report, you shared insights into creating equitable workplaces for queer women in particular. Can we dive in a bit? What are some of the unique struggles queer women face?
LVT: Well, as a marginalized group, gay and trans women are more likely to have a worse employee experience. If you’re not visibly queer, or you’re “straight passing,” you spend a lot of time having to analyze who is safe to come out to. Even after all these years, people still make assumptions about what gender you’re married to. You still have to dissect the questions and assumptions, decide where to invest in the truth and analyze if you will be penalized, consciously or unconsciously. There’s more pressure to stay hidden if you don’t feel safe – and living in the closet is not good for your mental or physical health.
LVT: For example, queer women often have a chosen family, not just a biological one. The last thing anyone wants to do is to have a fight with HR about why they need to take time off when their chosen mother figure is ill. No one should have to tell a company representative about the grief they might have experienced because of biological family rejection and the ways they’ve built community to heal from those injuries. It’s private, and we shouldn’t have to justify taking time off for caring for our families — or worse, justify taking time off to grieve.
Additionally, we don’t want to have to build your fertility policies or benefits for you. We just want to have equal access to what we need to create the families we want. For queer women, your policies speak for themselves, and they make a difference in where we decide to work.
TM: So you laid out the challenges. Let’s look at some solutions, starting at a high level, like with culture. What do leaders need to do to create cultures queer women don’t want to leave?
LVT: At a minimum, continue to embrace hybrid work. We face fewer microaggressions and cope with them better when we’re in the safety of our homes. The best solution, however, is to teach managers to be better at their roles and give them the capabilities to be inclusive. Hold them accountable if they aren’t building safe team environments.
Overall, give as much as you take. Focus on growing careers as much as you focus on EBITDA. People spend one third of their life at work. Are you giving them everything they deserve for that commitment? I’m not just talking about money. Community, connections, career opportunities and meaningful work matter as much as money.
“People spend one third of their life at work. Are you giving them everything they deserve for that commitment?”
Make sure what you do matters to the world. Shareholders manage the bottom line. But people want to feel something when they come to work. They need to feel like they’re making a difference. They need to feel valued.
Finally, don’t give us lip service. Have visibly diverse leaders. Make queer people feel safe. Say your pronouns, even when you don’t feel like it matters. Talk about career growth and pay equity with data. Prove you’re a fair place to work.
TM: What can we do to create policies and benefits that make a difference for queer women?
LVT: Rewrite and modernize them to be less heteronormative. Use HR data to make sure you are equitable in pay and promotion opportunities for women and people of color. Treat people like adults who deserve to have agency over their time as long as their results are there. Offer comprehensive benefits for reproductive and legal and mental health matters.
TM: Tell me more about benefits for reproductive health. That’s a particularly heteronormative area. How do we fix it?
LVT: I’ll list out a few things: Offer parental leave that is not dependent on someone physically giving birth to a baby. Offer IVF and family-forming benefits that support any kind of family, family law benefits, queer doctor and facility options, better prescription plans and medical and therapeutic support for all genders. Basically, less judgment and more support. I’ll add that we need to think about menopause, too, and how you support women during that time of life — which is the most common time for high level women in your org.
TM: Recruitment and hiring. What needs to change?
LVT: Well, first, I’d say: Get over yourself. It’s easy to judge the gaps in experiences, the job changes. Stop judging all that and be open to the why.
Second, don’t waste her time. She’s going to know what your culture is when she arrives. It’s just better for everyone if you’re upfront when you’re not ready for her kind of power!
I read a study that showed companies prepare white men in advance of their interviews. Why not normalize that? Be open about what the interviewer will ask. Let people put their best foot forward, but give women and queer folx and people of color the same advantages.
“Don’t waste her time. She’s going to know what your culture is when she arrives. It’s just better for everyone if you’re upfront when you’re not ready for her kind of power!”
TM: If you know a woman is seeking to leave, what ought you do?
LVT: Listen! Ask why — and be honest with yourself when you assess that “why.” Take it to heart. Are you really creating an environment that’s supportive, makes people feel valued and gives them the chance to grow? Support her and help make sure she’s not the only one fighting the battle.
Find Vargas Townsend via LinkedIn.