SAP’s Shuchi Sharma discusses with Information Age the importance of embracing diversity in tech, and how organisations can achieve it
In 2017, #MeToo and the first Women’s March incited energy into the female population which has carried into 2018 with #TimesUp and the second Women’s March. As these movements reach out towards the corporate and enterprise level, it’s important for organisations to support the continuation of these conversations and empower female employees.
Shuchi Sharma, Global Lead for Gender Intelligence at SAP, is responsible for creating and organising efforts to promote gender equality in the tech industry. In an exclusive interview with Information Age, she discusses how organisations should: develop a culture of “allies” through employee network groups or teams who join together based on shared characteristics, ideals, affinities or life experiences; offer career development resources like SAP’s Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program (LEAP) program, aimed at providing women with a different experience with career development and progress in their career; and align HR processes and approaches with business goals to open discussions that will move the needle toward gender parity.
What can organisations promote greater diversity?
To create a diverse culture, it has to start from the top. There’s got to be that executive level sponsorship and vision for the organisation, so that an understanding of why this can no longer be a side topic, and why this is really related to an organisations competitive advantage can be broadly sponsored and supported. With that executive leadership vision, real sponsorship, resources and budget are needed to make that organisational change happen. That’s the way you’re going to hold people accountable, along with some very concrete goals and targets that are going to help you reach that vision. I would say, first and foremost, that is the way to promote greater diversity.
Then it is the case of communicating the fact that this is about everybody. It’s not something that women have to do by themselves. For a long time there’s been a lot of business literature related to women, about how women should fix themselves, improve their leadership, speak differently and dress a certain way. That all has to go away in my opinion, it’s not helpful. This is really something that everybody has to embrace. There’s a wonderful professor from Harvard, Frances Frei, who is now on the board of Uber and she has a very compelling quote: ‘Diversity is not on the burden of the diverse, it is an obligation for us all.’ This is what has to be understood, which takes time, because it requires a culture change in a lot of places. I think that is ultimately what is going to drive a change in creating more diverse organisations.
Who should lead advocacy in an organisation?
Depending on the size of the organisation it will take different shapes and forms. But I can tell you that in a large, global company like SAP, it certainly has to start from the top. Nevertheless, you do need resources, budget and individuals who are going to able to drive this change very intentionally. And that sends a message to the organisation. The minute you put resources or budget behind something, people know that they are serious about it.
We have done that within SAP, but then that’s probably not enough either. You’ve got to create a culture where people, at an employee level, are engaged. That’s where we have – for example – employee network groups, that are like affinity groups but have great potential to not only provide the informal and formal networks for our employees, but to use their collective presence as a voice to our leadership and management to help them understand what is the change needed in this organisation, and how do you as leaders help us make this happen. So, it has to be a bi-directional movement, but it has to start from the top.
Can you talk about the issue of unconscious bias, and how it is problematic in the recruitment process?
As somebody has worked in organisational transformation for a long time, you have to approach unconscious bias with three lenses: people, process and technology. There’s a lot of awareness you can raise, but we’re all human and we all have biases, but making individuals aware of it at every level is certainly going to drive change. I have heard so many accounts of men who, through no fault of their own, didn’t fully realise their unconscious biases. And there was no malintention, it’s just how you’re socialised, raised and conditioned. It’s very powerful to show people, to help them and to coach them to recognise their unconscious bias and then make conscious decisions to overt it.
From a process perspective, you can look at the recruitment process and identify where are the points at which bias could enter this process, and how do we remove those. For example, when you’re sourcing candidates; where are you sourcing the candidates from, is your sample broad enough, are you asking questions that may be more bias to towards one gender or another in sourcing or the interview process. It takes quite a bit of awareness to step back and look at the entire process, and ensure that all of those points are removed. There’s always room for error, but I think if you take a systematic approach you do remove a great potential for that bias to be a part of your process.
Today’s technology solutions with the emergence of AI and machine learning offer great potential. At SAP we have a tool called Job Analyzer, which looks at job descriptions and identifies words that are not gender neutral, and then removes them from job postings. We’re taking that functionality and building it throughout our platform for human resources, so that it will be present in other places, like succession planning and promotions.
Why is it important to have a diverse workforce?
Diversity will add incredible value, but it has to do so with profitability and purpose. Most of the formal government institutions are not that progressive around diversity and issues like pay equity. So, corporations who have a lot of sway have an opportunity to really change the world around us, especially now. How can diversity help that? There’s a couple of different ways. If you have a lot of diverse perspective in your organisation then you create a lot of solutions and ideas that people just haven’t thought of. Some of that comes through collaboration, sometimes it comes through healthy controversy, because of those differing perspectives. Ultimately, businesses will see more non-homogeneous ideas and solutions.
Can you discuss some of the diversity initiatives that SAP run?
At SAP, we’re looking at how to create an inclusive culture, and what that means to the organisation. What are the traits that an inclusive leader brings to the table to ensure that everybody has a sense of belonging and acceptance, regardless of whatever differences they may have? The next step focuses on how we address that and make it very tangible in the organisation, and we’ve segmented that into five main pillars: gender, cross generational intelligence, race and ethnicity, culture and a programme called autism at work.
Within gender we have a number of programmes. One, in which we have very public targets around, is women in leadership. Every board area is aligned to those targets, has accepted them and is committed to driving those targets. And those targets then translate into a number of programmes and activities at the process level that are going to help drive more women into leadership.
We also have a number of programmes around specific processes company-wide. For example, we’re looking at how do we ensure that men are part of the conversation. So, we’re piloting programmes to help men understand their unconscious bias, take on more roles as sponsors within the organisation and driving that through different areas of the business. The other areas we’re focusing on are things like back-to-work programmes for both men and women who have taken an absence from the workforce and are looking to return. That’s a pool of talent that is rich, well-educated and eager individuals that have difficulty re-entering the workplace after time away for whatever reason. In our individual board areas, even at a lower grass level, we have a number of very specific programmes that are going to focus on process, awareness, or technology.
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