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Advancing diversity, inclusion and equality:

Evolving a moment into a movement

Driving diversity and inclusion must become a priority if intelligent enterprises are to thrive. It starts with asking the right questions.

By Judith Williams, SVP, Global Head of People Sustainability & Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, SAP | Tuesday, August 4th, 2020

This year, we have seen during the COVID-19 crisis that, although we are all in the same storm, we are all in different boats. We can see what happens when we don’t have diversity, equality and inclusion at the foundation of our society. We see different outcomes in healthcare, in terms of which communities are hit the hardest, who is even able to work from home, who is determined an essential worker and so on. The inequities that are present in our society around race and ethnicity are exacerbated in the current moment.

When I think back to the early 2000s, when I was a young person thinking about my career, I remember learning that Kenneth Chenault had become the CEO of American Express. In that moment, I saw an example of an American leader who looked like me and had ascended to the highest heights of one of the world’s best-known brands. It occurred to me then that perhaps this was a pathway that could lead me to a career in business – maybe even a career at SAP.

Throughout the 2000s, we saw some progress for African Americans in the C-Suite, with about six leaders in the Fortune 500. But today we are down to just three. This means that people in roles like mine need to think carefully about how much progress we have really made.

As part of this, we need to look at our talent pipeline and ask ourselves whether it’s stopping us from creating diverse and inclusive workforces. But this seems unlikely, since we have more diversity in college graduates than ever before. Women now outnumber men on campus and, according to the Current Population Survey, educational attainment among people of colour has continued to grow in recent years. Our pipeline is constantly improving.

Although we are all in the same storm, we are all in different boats

If our pipeline is not the problem, then perhaps our processes are. We must look closely at these to determine what is preventing diverse talent from getting into our organisations and identifying pathways to leadership. I bring this up because technology can help us overcome one of the major hurdles to change: unconscious bias.

I had the opportunity to lead the unconscious bias programme at a large tech company in 2013. When we launched it, we thought that increasing awareness of unconscious bias would change behaviour and radically impact our outcomes for diversity and inclusion. But we were wrong. Although we raised awareness, this did not change behaviour. That’s when I got really bullish on technology because, for every potential decision we make, bias can play a role. If we can build the right type of artificial intelligence and algorithms, trained using data sets that correct for bias, we can change those outcomes. AI can help us make better decisions.

The first key lever we have for driving diversity and inclusion is attracting talent. We all think we are good at selecting talent, when in fact most humans are not. For example, bias can creep into our job descriptions and deter applicants from certain backgrounds. But AI can help us source talent we may otherwise have missed, by coaching us to use language in job descriptions that will make them more attractive to a wide range of candidates. It can also improve our interviews by giving people problems they can solve and evaluating them in a blind manner to help us identify the right candidates for the job.

We must ask ourselves: where are the gaps are in the entire employee lifecycle? Where are we not being as inclusive as we can be? And where are we not seeing the diversity we want to see? With data, we can answer these questions and make strategic interventions. AI can help us analyse the data about talent and diagnose exactly where the problem is in our process. We might think we have a bias problem when we really have a sourcing problem. We might think the bias in our process happens at the interview stage, when it actually happens at the resume review stage. With this knowledge, we can deploy our resources in the right way.

We also know that when we develop our talent, we can build the kind of culture where different people will flourish. A lot of managers have “go-to” people on their team. This is only natural since we need to rely on people we trust to get the work done. But this means we overdevelop some talent and under-develop other talent. Intelligent algorithms can alert us to those we haven’t given opportunities to and help us nurture all the talent on our team. In addition, we can use technology to provide just-in-time nudges that can help make inclusive behavior the default behavior. Of course, technology isn’t the only answer. Most change happens when people work together. It’s just that technology can help us work together better.

The business case for diversity and inclusion is clear. According to Deloitte, organisations with inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. To thrive as an intelligent enterprise, we need an inclusive culture that empowers people to run at their best.

Turning our attention back to COVID-19 and other events of the year, we’ve seen and experienced significant racial injustices and unrest around the world. Many of us have employees and customers in communities that have been directly impacted by social unrest. This means that when we ask our employees to bring their best selves to work, we must acknowledge that many of them are dealing with the fear, grief and anger that this environment brings. We must provide them with the resources that they need to address these emotions.

Now is the time for us to act within our organisations and devise a plan and strategy for increasing diversity within our ranks and ensuring that women, people of colour and other underrepresented groups have access to development opportunities. It’s also time to come together to address systematic racism and understand the role each of us plays, as well as what we can do to drive lasting change.

We must not lose this sense of clarity and opportunity to move forward. It’s time for us to evolve a moment – with the world focused on racial injustice – into a global movement for equality and inclusion. This will not only be good for business, but it will allow us to build a more diverse, more equitable, more inclusive and better future for all.


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