SAPPHIRENow 2019 - Gender bias debate tackles some of the thornier problems in battle of the sexes

Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett By Madeline Bennett May 8, 2019
A Day One highlight of SAPPHIRENow was a lively panel on diversity in the workplace. Their focus? how to address gender bias by bringing men and women together.

sap diversity bias panel

Many organizations are focusing on – or at least say they are – equal opportunities in the workplace, but the technology industry still has a huge gender imbalance, with around an 80/20 male/female ratio.

At SAPPHIRENow on Tuesday, a group of business leaders – three women and two men - sat down to talk about diversity in the workplace, and how to tackle gender bias by getting men and women to work together.

Laurie Ruettimann, founder and CEO of HR consulting firm LFR LLC, kicked off proceedings with the warning that as more jobs get commoditized, this will have a disproportionately detrimental impact on women. She explained:

We have to admit something as a society: that we are commodifying and commoditizing work. And what that means is that we are making a conscious decision to look at a job, to strip the humans from it and to see the job as an object and to trade that job in the free market. Once we make that decision, that that job is an object, then we can outsource it, we can automate it and digitize it. We do that with jobs traditionally associated with women.

This shift towards jobs commoditization is down to biases in the workplace, she added.

It's because of the people who are in power. We have to think about the outcome from that commodification decision. What do we do with all those women, the marginalized community, the people of color who are affected by the commoditized decision?

If Ruettimann is right, the technology industry needs to work harder and faster to get more than 20 percent of its workforce as women.

Make trade-offs when hiring

One quick win is to make trade-offs in the recruitment process, to see flexibility as a means to attract the best rather than available talent. Jacqueline Yildirim, CEO of software startup JACQ, advised that rather than worrying about the traditional reservations associated with hiring women – will she have a baby soon, will she need time off for childcare - companies should instead find the right person offering the required skills and then work around their needs.

She gave the example of a recent hire at her company for a computer vision engineer. Yildirim found the perfect candidate and promptly invited her back for a second interview – and then found out that her choice of ideal team leader had a son, and would need to leave work early each day to collect him.

I said, how about you make me a suggestion how we can handle this? You have a son, you have to bring him to the kindergarten and pick him up at four o'clock each afternoon, and you have to lead a team here of engineers. She came up with a really nice plan, and I said let's do it. That's so easy. We are all talking too much around gender equality.

I’d encourage everybody to just look at the skills. This is maybe only one little thing a company like mine is doing, but I want to have this in the DNA of my company. Talking is not enough. You must act. That really makes the difference.

Men: seek advice from women

Paul Khanna, principal at Deloitte Consulting, gave a useful perspective from a male point of view on the need for men to accept and seek out advice from women.

As a guy, one of the things that was hard for me to do was to talk to a young woman and say, so how do you think I'm doing? I need to understand how is it that you're successful or not successful based on my behaviors. And that was super hard for me to do it because I was afraid of the answers, getting the feedback, it was kind of condescending.

And I was worried about all the things that were negative and all I heard was actually positivity. I heard about what I could do more of, not what I need to stop doing. And that really was empowering for me. You'd be surprised what kind of feedback you get when you ask tough questions that people normally wouldn't ask.

Otto Schell, co-chairman of the German SAP User Group, had a different view to that normally aired at a diversity event – that the focus on women is actually doing more harm than good. He said:

I'm not sitting here to make friends, but women need to stop talking about ‘I’m a woman’ because this always gives the impression of an excuse.

This remark didn’t go down well with everyone on the panel. Ruettimann responded:

I'll stop talking about being a woman when I stop being attacked for being a woman. When I start having freedom of the streets, when I stop experiencing bias at work, when people stop assuming certain things based on my look, my genitalia, the way I present myself. That's when I will stop talking about being a woman.

However, Schell’s point was based on his view that we need to stop differentiating between men and women, and instead just focus on talent and skills. When asked by Shelley Zalis, CEO of The Female Quotient, if he had two equally qualified candidates – a man and a pregnant woman – who he would hire, Schell opted for the woman, citing her soft skills.

Fix yourself

What Khanna’s and Yildirim’s experiences both have in common is they show the value of one person making a small change – something Ruettimann believes will eventually make the difference in creating a more equal workplace. She said:

When you're trying to work within a system that's broken, the best thing you can do is to create a culture personally of self-awareness and accountability, and try to propagate that through all of your own microculture. You can't fix City Hall, but you can make better choices for your own life and model better behaviors.

We don't fix work by hiring a pool of consultants to tell us how to fix work. We fix work by fixing ourselves. Then you get promoted and you fix it for 20 more people. Then you get promoted again and they fix work if they get promoted, and you start a movement. That's how any grassroots movement across the world, throughout history, has ever started. It doesn't start at the top. It starts with you. How many of us are brave and bold enough to go to work every day and to be authentic and to be principled and to do the right thing?

My take

One provocative issue that came up during the panel was: the choice between hiring a man or a pregnant woman, who are both equally qualified and have the same career backgrounds. This question was directed to the men on the panel, but while the assumption might be that men would automatically hire the man, my experience has shown that just as many women can be guilty of discriminating against women in this way.

This was one of the livelier discussions I’ve been party to, thanks to the inclusion on the panel of some strong voices and opposing opinions. But this also made it one of the more useful conversations around gender in the workplace, as it meant difficult questions were asked – and answered.