6 Proven Strategies That Move the Needle on Gender Equality in Corporate America

Awareness of gender inequality has spiked in recent months. With impassioned speeches at the UN from Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson regarding the U.N. “He for She” movement, and more recently a heated discussion that ensued from Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech at the 2015 Academy Awards, gender equality is growing more top of mind for men and women alike who share a common interest in, and commitment to, addressing it.

If you haven’t seen it, listen to Ms. Watson’s important UN speech.

What is clear is that the economic engagement of women is a significant driver of our economy. 85 percent of consumer purchasing decisions are made by women, this purchasing power ranges from 5-15 trillion USD annually. So just how do we make it happen?

To learn more about specific, proven strategies that corporate America can take to address this question, I caught up with Jewell Parkinson, Head of Human Resources of SAP North America. Jewell provides HR leadership across the region for all board areas, and leads the HR Business Partner organization.

In this advisor role, she offers consultation and delivery of solutions that ensure SAP’s people, strategy, and programs meet the needs of the region’s more than 19,000 employees. SAP has taken intentional steps toward progress in gender equality in their ranks, and has a long term strategy for success. In North America, since 2011, SAP has seen an approximate 4% increase in the percentage of women in its overall workforce (33%).  In addition, the company has seen an estimated 2% increase in the percentage of women in leadership (26%).

Here’s what Jewell shared:

Jewell Parkinson: In the workplace, we are seeing more women than ever before in the boardroom and a few are running some of the world’s most well respected companies. However, as a recent New York Times article, Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John pointed out, we still have a long way to go before realizing true equality and shattering the glass ceiling, and the field of technology is no exception. Generally, women are paid less than their male counterparts in a number of industries and positions, and are not represented in this industry in numbers that would be expected based on their availability.

Unfortunately, any directional progress made to improve female representation is now under threat given the noted trend of qualified women who are electing to leave the tech industry. The recent Los Angeles Times article Why are women leaving the tech industry in droves? noted women are leaving in part due to work environment, being passed over for advancement and lack of flexible work arrangements.

Kathy Caprino: So, Jewell, how do we make it happen for women? How do we encourage women to continue to pursue more technical roles and of equal importance when they do, how can tech companies retain and support them?

Parkinson: Part of the responsibilities of a human resources officer at a global technology company is to ensure we attract, hire, develop and retain the best people in all markets, both men and women. We at SAP, and leaders of other organizations, understand and recognize that diverse workforces give our organizations an edge, and the variety of perspectives and thinking styles help boost a company’s bottom line.

Like many technology companies, SAP sees the value in creating and sustaining an environment where diverse talent, including women, can thrive in all functions, across all markets, in all roles and at all levels, including leadership. To make this a reality, we have taken a multi-prong approach to drive meaningful change. Here are six different strategies and areas where we have focused our efforts to help make it happen that could prove beneficial to other organizations.

Establish critical goals and communicate them powerfully.

As the maxim goes, “what gets measured gets done.”Organizationally, it is important to articulate what you want to achieve and how progress will be measured. This is why we think it is critical to, in partnership with the CEO and board, establish and communicate a clear and unambiguous goal which is tightly linked to the business results and customer outcomes you want to achieve.

For example, at SAP, we have established a global goal to have (at least) 25% of leadership positions held by women by 2017.

It’s critical to communicate the goal in a way that permeates across the entire organization and shows an authentic commitment to take the necessary actions to drive awareness and mobilize the resources and investments needed to help close gender gap, therefore benefiting the entire organization. It is also critical to understand that SAP’s primary focus is to ensure that it addresses gender inequality, meaning that the goal is not simply to benefit women, but to ensure that we have a culture and business that treats and respects both genders equally.

Other critical steps are to measure and report progress at meaningful intervals in varying forums including executive board meetings, town-hall meetings and other platforms where employees congregate. Sharing information is key to building organizational trust, which is also essential to achieving the goal. Then, don’t be afraid to evolve the plan as needed based on what the data indicates.

Evaluate current policies, processes and cultural and environmental norms.

Ask the hard questions around your current policies and processes – are they consistent with what is needed to attract, develop, train, promote and retain the best talent including women? In addition, review benefit offerings and employment policies such as part- time employment, job share options, flexible/ virtual work arrangements, maternity, paternity, adoption leave and other paid time off policies.

Review your recruitment strategies and candidate sourcing practices. Look for opportunities to strengthen the diversity of candidate slates at all levels: university, professional and executive levels. Invite hiring managers to demand more diversified sources of qualified candidates. This requires collaborative partnership.

Review your talent management practices in the areas of performance evaluation, succession, promotion and compensation and ensure they are administered fairly and consistently.

At SAP, our talent management reviews include a focus on employees who demonstrate high performance and potential, and we ensure that females are well represented in this process. We also engage in dialogue with our global executive team on topics ranging from career development, mentorship, sponsorship, shadowing, succession planning and international assignment options. This encourages managers and executives to be committed, engaged and to expect results when they do the work to make it happen as a top business imperative, not an HR mandate.

Implement targeted training and development programs

These programs increase gender intelligence helping women and men understand and appreciate gender differences in order to capitalize on them for mutual success.

At SAP, we implemented the program, Men and Women Leading Together in partnership with the Barbara Annis and the Gender Intelligence group. Key to the programs’ success includes:

  • Offering quality content and global relevance.
  • Promoting the program extensively and securing the advocacy of our senior executive team.
  • Measuring and reporting on participation.

We are starting to see a return on this investment as validated by the positive feedback from employees who have participated and have been able to apply the insights and learnings to their personal and professional lives.

Such a program helps drive awareness, appreciation and helps foster a more tolerant culture as measured by employee surveys. Companies could also consider offering a leadership development program to enable a strong and flourishing pipeline of female leadership candidates alongside qualified male talent.

In 2014, we implemented a program called Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program (LEAP), which is designed to foster the next generation of female leaders. This program is focused on maximizing the value women bring to the table through an enriching development experience centered around skill-building, mentorship, networking, executive exposure to support their capability and desire to progress into leadership positions.

Network, sponsor and mentor.  

It’s vital to success to establish an internal network to bring people together, provide a forum for growth, and generate new ideas which support the goal and hold organizations accountable.

The SAP Business Women’s Network that was organically initiated by our talented female workforce does just that: provides opportunities for women to share their professional insight and learn from each other, championing change in the workplace as well as mentoring and encouraging other women.

Mentorship remains key as they serve as guides, advisors, and coaches. The best mentors are able to share their experiences, listen closely, and offer direction and advice to help you solve problems and navigate the workplace.  At SAP, we offer formal and informal mentorship options to employees.

In addition to mentoring, sponsorship is instrumental to achieving the goal.   The role of a Sponsor is to genuinely support you including as opportunities arise to encourage you or even recommend you for promotions, development opportunities, and any kind of visibility that helps contribute toward advancement. Sponsors have strategic insight and perspective to help locate opportunities. Sponsors also exert influence and have a network of relationships that can support alignment with career goals.

As a best practice, sponsorship decisions and commitments should be embedded in the talent management and succession planning practices.

Partner with outside organizations who share similar goals.

Today, there are numerous impactful organizations that encourage girls in particular to consider and get involved with technology and careers in the field as early as middle school. Partnering with organizations outside of the office gives females and their male counterparts an opportunity to grow and learn from other women leaders in the field.

To do this effectively, companies have to first do the research to identify the right organizations with proven track record of success with which to partner.   These are organizations with shared values, commitment and goals resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship.

To this end, SAP has partnered with TechGirlzGirls Who Code and GIRLsmarts4tech. Each of these programs provides young women with the resources needed to effectively and enthusiastically embrace technology.

Recognize and celebrate successes.

This is a journey and true systemic change takes work, time and investment.

Along the journey, it is important to recognize the achievements of those who serve as exemplars in the goals of addressing inequalities and championing diversity, as well as celebrating when milestones along the journey are achieved.

At SAP, we publicly recognize annually in each of our major markets, leaders who walk the talk and serve as role models for diversity and inclusion.

The technology industry touts itself for its ability to innovate and change. This field is typified by its ability to adapt quickly to rapid changing needs in the market that beg for new solutions and forward-looking ways of thinking. This should hold true not just for the technologies we produce, but for also the opportunities we offer our employees, ALL of our employees.

Solving inequalities is not an overnight fix, and the technology industry still has a long way to go. But we are confident it can be done, and in keeping with this year’s International Women’s Day theme, we can “make it happen” through a collective and conscious effort to act in ways which recognize women’s capabilities, celebrate women’s achievements and empower and promote their success.


Kathy Caprino

Kathy Caprino

Kathy Caprino currently runs a leadership and career success coaching and consulting firm focused on the advancement of women. A trained therapist and coach, Kathy has had the pleasure of working with over 10,000 emerging women leaders at Fortune 100 companies, national women's conferences, non-profits, academia and startups. Kathy has also served as a graduate instructor for New York University and career trainer for Mediabistro. She blogs for Forbes, Huffington Post, AARP's Life Reimagined and her own Ellia Communications career blog. Kathy is the author of Breakdown, Breakthrough: The Professional Woman's Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power and Purpose. You can reach Kathy at www.elliacommunications.com, Amazing Career Project, and connect on Twitter @kathycaprino, Facebook, LinkedIn, and on Google+.

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