International Women’s Day has been observed, in some form, since the early 1900s. Since its birth in the socialist movement, International Women’s Day has shifted from being an event defined by political uprising and rallies for women’s rights to becoming a global day of recognition and celebration. The new millennium has witnessed a significant shift in both women’s and society’s thoughts about women’s equality. With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and increased visibility for women in nearly every aspect of life, it would be easy for us in the western world to conclude that all the battles have been won.
The unfortunate fact is that women’s pay, their education and healthcare, and their representation in business and government still is not on par with that of men. Fortunately, the next generation to enter the workforce, known widely as the millennials, is more globally aware than previous generations. And they’re demanding that their employers accommodate their desire to be global citizens and leaders and enable them to better collaborate with people from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.
SAP’s Social Sabbatical program is a great example of such an initiative. It offers short-term assignments to high-performing employees to participate in international, cross-functional teams dedicated to solving business challenges for entrepreneurs and small businesses in emerging markets. One of the millennial women who traveled to India through the program, Sarah Lottman, said, “The social sabbatical was a life-changing experience, not only professionally but personally as well. The impact of the sabbatical will stay with me always. The fact that my employer invests in nonprofits located in these emerging markets is amazing, and the impact from the work that we did will be lasting.”
In addition to the global experience they gain, program participants tout personal boosts in areas such as creativity and empathy—both valuable business competencies. Lottman emphasized her personal growth and empathy through her experience. “Throughout my work, I have the opportunity to work with people from all over the world,” she said. “It is important to understand the cultures of those that you work with. Being in India helped me to better understand the culture overall, and the challenges that people face there. This allows a person to empathize with an individual but also to realize the strength that they carry with them.”
Another millennial participant, Rikka Nikkinen, reflected on her own social sabbatical. “Diversity is also key for innovations,” she pointed out. “We need different ways of thinking to find new solutions or ways of working. We shouldn’t think that our way of living or working is the right one and close our eyes for new ideas. We could learn so much from other countries or regions. I was amazed by how much the small businesses we worked with could achieve with limited resources and unlimited creativity.”
Perhaps the most impressive outcome of the Social Sabbatical program is the impact on future generations. Laura King of SAP Ireland was able to envision the impact of social entrepreneurship in emerging markets. “As part of our project with the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Economy, we had the opportunity to visit some of the social enterprises and see first-hand the amazing work they do in the communities in which they are based,” she said. “Through our work with the Tshepang programme in Roodepoort, Johannesburg, South Africa, which provides a daycare and after-school service for children living in informal settlements, we could see how they are helping the next generation of the workforce to get a good start. By empowering people to be self-sufficient, it helps to make businesses more sustainable in the long term and ensures money and resources stay in the community.”
One can’t help but feel optimistic and hopeful as this motivated generation of global citizens joins the workforce. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, let’s look back to recognize the challenges overcome by generations of women before us, and also to the future as we progress toward gender equality for every woman, regardless of geography or circumstance.