Diversity Is Hard Work And Requires Rethinking

Anka Wittenberg

In the third episode of the SAP Future Factor series, I sat down with Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy and behavioral economist at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, to talk about the positive impact of diversity in the workplace for employee engagement and the business bottom line. We also talked about what it takes for companies to create an inclusive work environment.

Hint: It does not happen overnight.

Anka: As we discussed during our SAP Future Factor episode, an increasing number of companies are paying attention to diversity in the workplace.

Iris: Yes, workplaces today are much more heterogenous. Companies recognize that this heterogeneity is an asset. There is a lot of evidence that diverse teams tend to outperform homogenous teams in terms of creativity, innovation, and group processes.

Anka: There is also a strong business case for diversity and inclusion, which are linked to employee engagement. At SAP, we tracked an increase of 48 million euros on operational profit per year by increasing employee engagement by one percent alone. And, to your point, we see a huge benefit for innovation. Research has consistently shown that the more diverse your teams are, the more innovative you are. To tap into that innovative potential, we use a “design thinking” approach to the way we work at SAP, which means that we work with diverse teams to evaluate an issue from different angles and come up with out-of-the-box ideas.

Furthermore, diversity is important for a company to be able to relate to their customers – the diversity of customers needs to be reflected in the diversity of employees. However, diversity is also increasing complexity – which brings up its own set of challenges.

Iris: Certainly. Diversity is hard work. It is hard work for the exact reason that makes it an asset – bringing together a diversity of perspectives. This helps us consider issues from different angles, but can also be a trigger for debate, argument, disagreement. However, we can’t afford to forget that if we all have the same perspective, we will only move in one direction.

Many companies are implementing diversity training. Diversity training itself may not solve the problem, but it can open doors, and we can integrate technology to help us begin “redesigning” the way we work and even how we learn. From your perspective, what are some of the technologies that will have a positive impact in terms of making companies more diverse and inclusive?

Anka: Technology can be helpful in discovering and eliminating unconscious bias across the HR lifecycle. For example, software can identify biased language in job postings and suggest alternatives, so that companies can source talent more broadly. Machine learning is used to put together diverse teams. I truly believe that technology is a catalyst for change that helps us become aware of unconscious biases and create a more inclusive environment.

However, it’s important to recognize that each company faces its own unique set of challenges. The same company may even experience different challenges in different geographic regions. For example, recruitment might be an issue in one region, but in another, it may be the retention of talent. Given that, it’s critical to identify where the blind spots are, and then put clear action items behind it.

Iris: Precisely. Unfortunately, many companies and governments continue to throw money at the problem without diagnosing what is broken. It’s important to understand what the challenge is and then intervene strategically. For example, I worked with a tech company that found out that it was much less biased based on gender and race than it thought, but on the flipside, had a much bigger disciplinary bias. Blind evaluation, as we discuss in the Future Factor episode, can be helpful in terms of eliminating implicit bias in hiring.

Anka: Adopting an inclusive mindset and embracing diversity go beyond recruitment. As you mentioned earlier, we have a much more heterogeneous workforce today. For example, at SAP, we have a workforce that spans five generations. We have programs in place, such as “Autism at Work,” to recruit differently abled individuals who excel at certain tasks but may have a different way of working. This means that we need to change the norms around work to integrate individuals with different backgrounds, expectations, and working styles.

Iris: I couldn’t agree more. Previously when we talked about flexibility, it was pretty much associated with women. But now, we have a whole new generation of people with different needs, including requiring more flexible work arrangements for various reasons such as child care or elder care or simply because they want to pursue interests outside of work. It is a surprise for many companies that employees are no longer defining themselves with work.

Anka: Thank you, Iris, for being part of the SAP Future Factor series and for your support and guidance in helping SAP achieve its goal of 25% women in leadership. As you know, it was a journey over many years, but we built a strategy around the goal and now have an environment that is inclusive of the thoughts and opinions of men and women in management. This allows us to better serve an increasingly diverse customer base, attract and retain talent, and compete in the global economy.

Before we conclude, I want to congratulate you on the publication of the German edition of your book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design. It is an excellent resource for understanding organizational dynamics and design in relation to diversity and inclusion.

To watch the entire discussion between SAP chief diversity officer Anka Wittenberg and Prof. Iris Bohnet, click here

For more on digitization, work, and HR, visit Episode 1 and Episode 2 of the SAP Future Factor Web Salon, in which HR executives and thought leaders from science/academia discuss the digitization of work.


Anka Wittenberg

About Anka Wittenberg

Anka Wittenberg is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at SAP. She is responsible for the development and implementation of SAP’s Diversity and Inclusion strategy globally, ensuring sustainable business success.