Alaina Robertson was raised in a house with non-traditional gender norms, in what she refers to as “hyper-liberal” Seattle. Having discovered her sexual orientation early on, it was easy for her to come out. As an athlete who was supported by friends, family and the organizations she participated in, Robertson dubs her younger self a “norm-bashing idealist.” She acknowledges that equality wasn’t something she needed to fight for in her youth. After beginning her education in the U.S., Robertson decided to relocate abroad for school and work – a move that burst what she calls a “progressive bubble of acceptance.”
Indeed, navigating public spaces and the relatively conservative social norms in her new home proved to be a struggle for Robertson. After returning to the U.S., she started to notice that some of the same conformity pressures she’d experienced living abroad seemed to carry through to her new working world.
That’s when Robertson decided that she wanted to contribute to creating communities where everyone is included as they are. Over the years, Robertson’s journey has brought her to VMware, where she currently works in human resources operations. But that’s not her only role. She also directs her passion and energy for driving equality and inclusion by serving as a leader in the VMware Pride POD. (PODs are VMware’s Employee Resource Groups designed to help participants grow as leaders, engage employees with different communities and drive business impact.)
Most of my day-to-day experience is not shaped by being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I am a woman who presents as femme. Most people assume that I am heterosexual and adhere to female gender norms.
We got a chance to sit down with Robertson and ask her a few questions about her story and experience as a leader influencing LGBTQ+ inclusion at VMware. Check out the interview below:
How did you become involved in the Pride POD at VMware?
I’ve been involved with the Pride POD before PODs existed. We used to have a small group that met for lunch every month or so to talk about LGBTQ+ issues in the workplace and to find a sense of community. Some of us were involved with brainstorming and feedback in the early stages of POD concept formation. Our original co-leads both worked in the same organization, which wasn’t ideal logistically, so I stepped up for a term as a co-lead early in 2018.
What has your experience been at VMware as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?
Most of my day-to-day experience is not shaped by being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I am a woman who presents as femme. Most people assume that I am heterosexual and adhere to female gender norms. At an individual level, I think we can all do a better job of checking our assumptions, but VMware has been an accepting place for me overall.
On an institutional level and as a POD lead, I’ve always felt very supported from my leadership chain. I know that VMware leadership wants to make the company inclusive for anyone who wants to work here. Every interaction with VMware’s leadership team has been marked with a sincere commitment to equality, and to understanding the employee experience and improving it as needed.
Two years ago, we were assessed by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for LGBTQ+ inclusion and scored very well (95/100). In true VMware fashion, the 5 missed points were not acceptable, and we were able to change some practices to gain a perfect score in our most recent assessment. It is not easy to get a perfect score, and the bar is raised every year. I love that VMware has accepted the HRC challenge and continues to strive for 100 points. On a personal level, I’ve been through five managers during my involvement with the POD, and every one of them has given me the time and support to fulfill my duties as a POD lead. They all show an interest in what we are doing and a desire to help. They make me feel supported in my POD lead role.
What piece of advice would you give to other people who want to bring more of their authentic selves to work?
My advice is to respect your own journey to self-actualization. There is a Silicon Valley narrative around following your passion and being authentic but discovering your passions and your “authentic self” might be its own challenge before you even get to the part where you try to bring it to work. If it makes you happy to be authentic and you know what it takes, do it. If you know yourself, but it makes you nervous or stressed to be yourself, get a therapist, counselor, life coach or spiritual advisor to help you examine what is holding you back.
Based on your experience, how can allies help enable and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community?
I think allies can educate themselves about the business case for diversity and initiate relevant discussions within their teams. Innovation depends on diversity of thought.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the need to stop making assumptions about heteronormativity. Many LGBTQ people do not fit into traditional gender roles and the common response is to try to fit us into the heteronormative paradigm. It’s 2018 and from here, things will just get more queer: be an ally by setting your assumptions aside. For example, a common question to lesbian couples: “Who’s the ‘man’ of the relationship?” These types of questions indicate an antiquated view of gender without considering that (obviously) there is no man, so the masculine labor must be divided along different lines, and not always to the more masculine-looking woman. In modern relationships everywhere, even outside the LGBTQ+ community, men cook and clean, women handle confrontations, and both members of a couple duck out of work at 3pm to pick up kids from school. I think world would be a better place if we stopped pigeonholing people into outdated heterosexual and gender norms.
Additionally, I think allies (especially allies who are people managers) can educate themselves about the business case for diversity and initiate relevant discussions within their teams. Innovation depends on diversity of thought. If you don’t think you can get gender, LGBTQ+, or racial diversity on your team, think about other forms of diversity (hometown, personality type, communication preferences, urban vs. rural, workplace background, etc.). These differences paired with great collaboration practices = success at the bottom line.
How does VMware create an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community?
VMware creates an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ people in a number of ways. The company allocates funding to run educational events on campus, they support our celebrations during Pride month, and listen to us when we encounter issues that require escalation. Our HR employee advisors spend time staying up to date on LGBTQ+ employee best practices, and recently went through a transgender inclusion workshop. We sponsored Lesbians Who Tech in March. In October, VMware is sending a delegation of Pride POD leads and other demographic and location-based POD leaders to the Out & Equal Workplace Conference, the largest LGBTQ+-focused conference in the world, where employee group leaders, diversity and inclusion experts, and HR professionals come together to share best practices around diversity and inclusion. We’re also sponsoring the conference and partnering with Dell to deepen our collaboration on LGBTQ+ inclusion. These kinds of investments reflect a commitment to LGBTQ+ diversity and also to the employees who wear a second hat as a POD lead. I’m very happy to be attending with a group of allies who will walk out of that conference with a toolkit of inclusion practices to share with their own teams. One of my favorite indicators of a growing inclusive culture is when a manager comes to our POD to seek knowledge about LGBTQ+ inclusion. As VMware innovates in everything we do, I’m seeing a parallel narrative around inclusion in everything we do. I love both narratives.
Learn more about what Robertson and others like her are doing to help foster equality at VMware by checking out our diversity and inclusion page.