SAP on the Edge of diversity goal

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and reports editor, DataIQ

Six years ago, software and technology company SAP set itself the target of increasing the number of women in its management team to 25% by the end of 2017. It is within a hair’s breadth of meeting its objective with the figure currently standing at 24.8%, said Nicole McCabe, global head of gender equality, global diversity and inclusion office at SAP.

Nicole McCabe, SAPAccording to McCabe, the board recognised the issue of gender equality at management level in 2011 when the figure was 18.8%. She said: “In technology, where things are changing so rapidly, we need to be able to innovate.” Furthermore, she said that, as SAP is a European organisation, it would be subject to quotas but didn’t want to wait and took the lead on the issue.

For her, data was essential to understanding the problem. “The first step we took was to see what the data was telling us so we at least knew what to focus on first,” she said. One problem was “career-pathing,” the issue of women not being sure of how to take their careers forward. Some female technologists at SAP seemed to have resigned themselves to remaining in unfulfilling roles, uncertain about finding a better job with the same flexibility. In response, McCabe developed the LEAD excellence and acceleration programme to empower women and help them with personal branding and negotiating.

Another issue was the lack of visible, female executive leaders to act as role models to others. McCabe said that women would tell her, “we don’t see the women at the top and the ones that you do show us, we can’t even relate to.” They specifically spoke of women who don’t have children or those whose partners stay at home.

A lack of trust between women was another problem that McCabe encountered. She said: “There was a feeling of ‘every woman for herself’, so we needed to not only have everybody trust each other, but to care for one another and pull each other forward.” As a result, she set up the Women’s Professional Growth series, a monthly virtual webinar. All of the webinars are hosted by women within SAP, although occasionally exceptions are made for external thought leaders. The webinar is supported by a centralised site where attendees can engage in conversation about the topics discussed. 

“We’ve just marked the three-year point and we’ve hit over 3,000 participants. At the beginning, the comments were very simple. In the past three sessions, people are posting their problems and everyone else is jumping in trying to help them, giving recommendations and email addresses,” McCabe said. She spoke of one woman’s recent request for a mentor getting four enthusiastic responses.

Bias is an issue that McCabe is keen to address within SAP. She said that she and her team were able to recognise that one of their training sessions was actually teaching women to negotiate like men. They have also set up the Women and Men Leading Together training programme which encourages men to be cognisant of their unconscious bias. For example, in meetings, women would often be asked to take the notes. “The men were just oblivious to it,” said McCabe, adding that they are now becoming more conscious.

She would advise other organisations in male-dominated industries to also look at their data. “Every company is at a different level when it comes to the maturity of their diversity and inclusion programme, so when the research comes out, digest it and take it in,” she said.

The work SAP has been doing led to certification by EDGE (Economic Dividends for Gender Equality), a global certifying organisation for gender parity, in September 2016, a fact of which McCabe is extremely proud. After the six-month auditing process, SAP is able to see how it compares to other companies in the same industry and at a national level.

In addition, SAP keeps track of the opinions of their employees with “pulse surveys” which include a section on inclusion. They are asked questions such as, “Do I have my voice heard?” and, “Do I have equal opportunities to advance my career?”. 

McCabe said: “We look at that from a gender view and benchmarked from the beginning and it carries over every year and we are seeing the numbers move in a positive direction. It’s about creating an inclusive, sustainable strategy, because you can drive numbers. But if you’re not including individuals, you’re not going to reap the rewards.”