CXO Tech & Work

Is diversity in tech truly possible? 3 executives share their success stories

How can tech companies actually move the needle on diversity? IBM, SAP, and Atlassian share their methods that made a difference.

Video: Why diversity is key for tech innovation

Diverse teams are more innovative and creative and feature happier employees, research shows. Yet hiring women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups remains a challenge for many companies, despite many funneling money into unconscious bias trainings and other methods.

"The messaging and ownership of diversity initiatives should come out of the business," said Anka Wittenberg, chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP. "The speed of change is so fast that we truly believe that to be able to innovate in a sustainable way, we need to ensure from the beginning onward that we have very diverse people sitting at the table."

So what actually works? Here are three diversity success stories from chief diversity officers at SAP, Atlassian, and IBM.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF)

SAP: Improving the number of women in leadership

SAP, which employs 80,000 people worldwide, hired former economist Wittenberg as chief diversity and inclusion officer about four years ago. When Wittenberg started, she developed a three-to-five year strategy, identifying four focus areas for the company: Gender intelligence, generational intelligence, cultures and identity, and differently-abled or disabled people.

At that time, SAP committed to filling 25% of leadership roles with females by 2017. In 2013, 19.8% of these roles were women. In July 2017, the company reached the 25% goal.

The company also saw improved attitudes about gender: In 2011, 29% of employees said they do not believe men and women have equal opportunities. In 2016, only 16% said that was the case.

"When you reach one goal, you need to ensure you have a next goal--it's challenging, but also motivating," Wittenberg said. "What gets measured gets done."

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SAP will continue its pledge to increase women in leadership, with a goal of a 1% increase every year, which would mean 30% women by 2022.

Different challenges exist in attracting women leaders in different areas of the world, Wittenberg said. In Germany, where it's been particularly difficult to find female talent, they are offering flexible work arrangements, and are piloting a program in which they post every managerial position as either a full time or part time position. In North America, the problem is promoting women, while in Latin America, it is retaining women. Each area requires a specific plan, Wittenberg said, and each requires involvement from the business side.

SAP implemented regional diversity and inclusion consultants in every large region, and ensures that this person comes out of the business side, such as the CFO or sales leader of an area, so it's not driven by HR or diversity employees.

"The messaging and ownership should come out of the business," Wittenberg said. "The speed of change is so fast that we truly believe that to be able to innovate in a sustainable way, we need to ensure from the beginning onward that we have very diverse people sitting at the table."

SEE: How CXOs can develop a diverse workforce (Tech Pro Research)

Atlassian: Increasing women and employees over 40

At Atlassian, representation of women improved across every category in 2017: Overall, technical, non-technical, and leadership positions. Women represented 32% of all hires over the past year, including 36% of all leadership hires.

The company also increased its employees who are over 40 years old: Almost 19% of Atlassian employees are older than 40, up from 15% a year ago. Representation of people of color also improved across many teams, the company reported.

Atlassian found these successes with four main changes:

  • Strengthening standards within the interview process

The company implemented a more structured interview process to minimize potential biases toward candidates. "We moved from interviewing for 'culture fit'--which we know can be very influenced by bias--to something we call 'values fit,'" said Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion.

This meant taking a specific set of qualities and behaviors that the team felt predicted whether or not someone was successful at the company, considering questions such as: Are they high empathy? Do they take initiative to help others? Do they like working in an open and transparent environment?

"We found that when we were evaluating candidates against those criteria in a thoughtful way, it really changed who we were hiring, and helped set up those new hires for success," Blanche said.

  • Implementing a "diverse slate" approach for executive and board-level positions

Atlassian required a diverse set of candidates to be interviewed for executive positions. As a result, three of the last open C-level and board roles were filled by women, and two by people of color.

"It causes us to be more thoughtful about how we're sourcing candidates, and making sure those hiring managers have the broadest set of talents to choose from," Blanche said.

  • Career growth and community beta tests

Atlassian launched a number of beta programs to provide communities and professional development opportunities for underrepresented employees.

  • Trialling new professional development programs

The company launched a senior technical mentorship initiative, a program for emerging women leaders, and an apprenticeship pilot program for black, Latina, and indigenous women, which have shown promising results, Blanche said.

Atlassian also rethought its branding to attract a wider set of candidates. "Some people are really excited about kombucha on tap, and some people are really excited about 401k matching and backup childcare," Blanche said. "It's not about changing everything about the brand, but making sure that you're showcasing everything that you have to offer."

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IBM: Creating a diverse pipeline

IBM has invested heavily in creating a diverse tech talent pipeline, partnering with organizations that reach future workers as young as middle school. Programs such as IBM Excite Camp, P-TECH, and partnerships with Girls Who Code and 15 historically black colleges and universities are helping over time to fill talent gaps and enhance diversity, said Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, vice president of human resources and IBM leadership succession planning and chief diversity officer.

"It's important for diverse technical talent to have a sense of what's possible through practical, hands-on activity," McIntyre said. "We take a proactive focus on the pipeline well before the point of recruiting for employment."

IBM also created "New Collar" jobs, which the company defines as emerging roles in new tech fields including cloud, cognitive computing, and digital design that don't require a computer science or other tech degree. Between 10-15% of all IBM hires have been in the New Collar space in recent years, helping diversify further.

Partnering with other organizations can help with diversity efforts, McIntyre said. "You don't have to go it alone--there are heaps of opportunities to collaborate and learn from the wisdom of others," McIntyre said.

Once an employee joins IBM's global workforce of 380,000, they can access more than 300 business resource groups, which include mentors and leadership workshops, McIntyre said.

"Diversity fuels innovation," McIntyre said. "Given what we're up to as a company, it's more important now than it ever has been."

Image: iStockphoto/Rawpixel

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