What are the success factors that make companies stand out from the competition? Typical answers include organizational leadership, customer centricity, and a constant drive for innovation. Those factors are all crucial, but there is one additional, more hidden, factor that can amplify a company’s ability to innovate: a focus on diversity and inclusion. Based on academic research an inclusive work environment strengthens an organization’s ability to innovate. It gives employees the opportunity to realize their full potential. The benefits are huge for the employees and the organization alike. Higher employee engagement and work satisfaction is linked to a company’s ability to outperform the competition. It leads to operational excellence, better bonds with customers, and a better ability to new products and services. A steep incentive to take diversity and inclusion seriously.
More and more companies are spearheading a diversity mission. Five years ago, Shery Sandberg, COO of Facebook, launched her “Lean In” book and network to empower women around the world to break the glass ceiling. “We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored,” demanded Shery Sandberg. The “Lean In” movement alone spawns 35,000 support groups in 162 countries today. It also has inspired countless women’s networking and mentoring groups within organizations, including at SAP. The initiative to get more women into senior positions had started long before “Lean In”. One of the SAP career development programs for female employees, the SAP Business Women’s Network, just celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2017. Other initiatives include the Women@SAP online community and the Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program (LEAP) that prepares high potential women for leadership positions at SAP.
We are starting to see progress. The Wall Street Journal predicted that 2018 could become a record year for women in the board room. The publication reported earlier this year that women comprise 31 percent of new board directors in the 3,000 largest publicly traded companies across the U.S., based on a study by ISS Analytics.
One of the biggest hurdles for moving more women into senior management positions, especially as board members and CEOs, is to remove bias and gender stereotypes, not just in the company, but also in society overall.
The Importance of Role Models to Remove the Gender Lense
New approaches to diversity and inclusion help overcoming gender bias in education and remove the “gender lense” in corporations. Many initiatives provide role models, successful business women in senior leadership positions. While female role models are an important inspiration for the next generation of women entering the workforce, equally important is to have male role models.
One of my favorite examples for the inspirational role a father can play is from the founders of the startup Roominate. The two co-founders, Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks, met at their master’s in engineering program at Stanford University. Being the only girls in class, they wondered why not more girls are pursuing an engineering degree. This led to the idea of Roominate, a series of engineering toys for girls that encourage more girls to explore technology and engineering. In their pitch to investors at the American TV series “Shark Tank”, Brooks shared how she had asked for a Barbie at Christmas and her dad gave her a tool kit with saw and hammer instead. It’s not enough to have an open mindset, it is also important to open the eyes of others to all the opportunities.
Focus on Leadership Qualities
How would you picture a leader? That’s the question Tina Kiefer, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, asked in a workshop full of executives. The majority present the drawing using language that indicates male (he) rather than neutral or female, even when the drawings are gender neutral, said Dr. Kiefer in a New York Times article about her research results. Her findings are consistent with other organizational psychology studies. When we “process information through the lens of stereotype” our interpretation may be “consistent with stereotyped expectations rather than objective reality,” said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the same New York Times article. This means our stereotypes can prevent a new generation of leaders take the reins. Part of our accountability should include breaking existing stereotypes around leadership. We can help employees see more women in leadership roles. The way to do it is create higher visibility – and more positions – for female leaders within the organization.
Diversity and inclusion need to be an organic part of daily business operations. They should guide every business decision from planning to building teams to execution to performance reviews. Like Alice Brook’s father encouraged his daughter to think beyond gender stereotypes, team leaders across the organization need to encourage employees to embrace diversity and inclusion in all its facets (not just gender diversity) in their daily work.
Use Technology to Remove Bias
Technology can help to remove gender bias.
For example, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning can be used to screen and match candidates in recruitment processes. Through the Business Beyond Bias initiative, SAP employs business process expertise combined with machine-learning based biased language detection to prevent unconscious bias across the workplace – not just internally but even at our customer’s organizations. Crowd technology can be used to engage employees across the organizations for product development or organizational initiatives. More diverse teams will positively impact product innovation to help solve economic, societal and environmental problems on a larger scale.
By embracing our differences and see diversity and inclusion in all its facets as an opportunity, we can become better leaders and organizations can become more innovative. It’s a win-win for all.