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Gender and cultural discrimination in the workplace: SAP looks to remove it

GIRLsmarts program at UBC
GIRLsmarts program at UBC

The tech sector on the one hand represents a force for progressive society-wide change and disruption. Legacy companies are frequently portrayed as dinosaurs who aren’t agile enough to cope with the disruptive energy bubbling up through the relentless innovation of start-up culture.

On the other hand, start-up culture looks a lot like a retrograde monoculture, in case you were hoping that their new paradigm might also reflect a reality beyond the creation of apps and social media platforms whose main target is an affluent, overwhelmingly white, middle class demographic with money to spend on smartwatches or hailing grey market taxis.

Recently, though, it’s become clear that if the workplace of the future is going to resemble reality, the reality in which women are 51% of the population and not everyone is white and younger than 28 years old, it is going to be the legacy companies who end up leading by example.

If that strikes you as a backwards arrangement, it ought to. Why is the most aggressive talk about implementing diversity in the workplace coming from huge companies like Intel and SAP and not from the ground up?

Head of HR for SAP North America Jewell Parkinson
Head of HR for SAP North America Jewell Parkinson

Sitting down with Cantech Letter at the recent Sapphire Now conference, Jewell Parkinson, head of human resources for SAP North America, put to rest any question that these initiatives exist mainly for fuzzy PR reasons. And she is succinct in stating that workplace diversity is quickly becoming table stakes for anyone hoping to participate in the global economy.

“You have to do it,” she says. “There may be a runway of three to five years where you’ll dabble in the status quo, but I predict that you will increasingly lose market share, you will increasingly lose to competion, and you will find yourself irrelevant if you don’t change.”

Parkinson enumerated several workplace priorities that SAP is implementing on a global scale, including increases of workers according to gender, age, ethnicity and ability. On that last category, the particular focus is on bringing autistic workers into the technology workforce.

The Autism at Work program was piloted at SAP India, where program mentor Michelle Isaac employs the slogan, “They can’t change for you. You have to change for them.” The Autism at work program has resulted in hires for SAP Canada, with six employees in the Vancouver office and three in Montreal.

That slogan actually neatly distills the modus operandi of any company’s overall workplace diversity strategy.

In order to meet the challenges of 21st century relevance, companies that thrive will allow themselves to be shaped by feedback from their employees, encouraging structural change which better prepares the company to engage with customers who don’t look and sound exactly like them, thus expanding their markets.

Contrast this approach with start-up culture, where the emphasis is squarely on indoctrination fostered by a general atmosphere of cognitive bias, groupthink and the illusion of a meritocracy, and you begin to see the shape of the problem.

In terms of gender, 17% of leadership positions within SAP globally are occupied by women, which the company plans to bring up to 25% by 2017. “This is a data point that we measure on a quarterly basis,” says Parkinson. And while those numbers represent the company’s global statistics, their North American benchmarks are considerably more progressive.

“We’re currently sitting in North America, just the United States and Canada, at 28% of our leadership positions at SAP in North America being comprised of females in leadership,” adds Parkinson. “This is against a backdrop of a total workforce in North America that is represented at 33% of all of our employees, managers and non-managers, being female. So when we look at it from an SAP North America perspective, our statistics for women in management as well as the overall composition of the workforce, compared to other high-tech companies, we are actually performing better than many in our peer group.”

“There is a clear business case out there that organizations that are more diverse, whether it be on the gender spectrum or the cultural and ethnicity spectrum, also correlate to higher business performance. That’s something that I think we all want as a thriving organization.”

To meet the challenge of attracting and retaining digital native millennials, SAP has shifted how it hires and then communicates with new employees, favouring engagement over punctual evaluations.

“We think about performance dialogue, less about traditional performance management where you would meet with your manager once or twice a year, for your year in review,” says Parkinson, adding, “We’re trying to evolve to a culture that’s more about continuous dialogue and feedback, which is being driven by our millennial population who really want and demand that. But what we find is that it has residual benefits for all the populations.”

To facilitate company-wide feedback, SAP has a variety of networks, including their Black Employee Network, a Business Women’s Network, a Latino Network and an LGBT network cleverly titled HomoSAPiens.

But again, while the development of these networks looks good from a PR perspective, there’s also a direct economic rationale for connecting diverse communities within and outside of a company.

Describing how SAP leverages community insights to feed the company’s bottom line, Jewell Parkinson asks, “How do we tap in to these various networks and make sure that we’re incorporating their insight, their feedback, their points of view, their experiences, into what we’re trying to do from a strategy perspective? There is a clear business case out there that organizations that are more diverse, whether it be on the gender spectrum or the cultural and ethnicity spectrum, also correlate to higher business performance. That’s something that I think we all want as a thriving organization.”

There is also the question of relevance from a customer acquisition standpoint.

“When our account teams show up at customer sites, it is important that we do look to see, do we represent what they’re about? Not just the organization and makeup of their own account team, but who their customers are,” she says. “So it’s important to show up the way that you need to show up in order to be connected to the needs of that prospective customer. It’s not just a technology discussion, because behind all technology is the purpose of engaging with people and doing business and growing.”

But the bottom line remains, business culture is changing quickly. And the need to stay ahead of that curve presents nothing less than existential irrelevance for companies who decide to roll with the status quo.

“I think it’s almost to a point of urgency where you can be out of business,” says Parkinson. “What could be lost is your viability in the market, especially in terms of how we see the increase of technology and innovation and increasing globalization. Technology is the great equalizer. Education is as well, but technology is really at the forefront of that because it’s allowing more individuals around the world, emerging economies, to have access to information and education. It’s very competitive, that war for talent and the war for customers and mindshare.”

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