How To Break Stereotypes To Achieve More Gender Diversity

Jutta Lachenauer

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 important, but there is an additional, more hidden factor that can amplify a company’s ability to innovate: a focus on diversity and inclusion.

Academic research shows that 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 both employees and the organization. Higher employee engagement and work satisfaction are linked to a company’s ability to outperform the competition. They lead to operational excellence, strong bonds with customers, and a better ability to launch new products and services. These are steep incentives to take diversity and inclusion seriously.

More and more companies are spearheading a diversity mission. Five years ago, Sheryl 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,” demands Sandberg. The Lean In movement spawned 35,000 support groups in 162 countries. It also inspired countless women’s networking and mentoring groups within organizations including SAP. SAP’s initiative to get more women into senior positions started long before Sandberg published Lean In. One of SAP’s 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 boardroom. The publication reported that women comprise 31% of new board directors in the 3,000 largest publicly traded companies across the United States, 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 the need to remove bias and gender stereotypes, not just in a company but also in society overall.

The importance of role models

New approaches to diversity and inclusion help overcome gender bias in education and remove the “gender lens” in corporations. Many initiatives provide role models, successful businesswomen in senior leadership positions, for other female staff members. While female role models are an important inspiration for the next generation of women entering the workforce, it’s equally important to have male role models.

One of my favorite examples of 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 during their graduate engineering program at Stanford University. As the only young women in their class, they wondered why there weren’t more females pursuing an engineering degree. This led to the idea of Roominate, a series of engineering toys for girls that encourage them 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 toolkit with a saw and hammer instead. It’s not enough to have an open mindset; it is also important to open others’ eyes to all the opportunities.

Focus on leadership qualities

How do 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 used male characteristics and pronouns, rather than neutral or female words, even when their drawings were gender neutral, Dr. Kiefer said in a New York Times article about her research. 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,” Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychological & brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in the same New York Times article.

This means our stereotypes can prevent a new generation of leaders from taking the reins. Part of our accountability should include breaking existing stereotypes around leadership. We can help employees see more women in leadership roles by creating 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 Brooks’ 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 remove gender bias. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning can be used to screen and match candidates in the 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 also at our customers’ organizations. Crowd technology can be used to engage employees across 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 seeing 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.

Learn more about how diversity and inclusion enable SAP to build a business beyond bias.

About Jutta Lachenauer

Jutta Lachenauer is the editor-in-chief and head writer for #devWire, the SAP Board Area newsletter for the developer community. With an extensive background in corporate communications, executive communications, internal communications, and change management, Jutta is a trusted advisor to senior management executives.