Why this tech veteran doesn't want to be just "on par" with industry diversity numbers

Judith Williams, SAP head of people sustainability and chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Courtesy of SAP

In the months since the police killing of George Floyd sparked global protests in support of Black lives, companies large and small have pledged millions in donations to social justice causes and made statements about creating more equitable workplaces.

But even leaders at companies known for prior diversity and inclusion achievements must contend with the fact that, in light of urgent calls to action, even recent gains in representation aren't coming fast enough.

One such leader is Judith Williams, head of people sustainability and chief D&I officer at global software giant SAP. In the two years since Williams joined, SAP has been acknowledged for its efforts to recruit and promote a diverse workforce and was named by Forbes as the best employer for diversity in 2020.

Women currently hold roughly 26% of management positions at SAP, and the company aims to reach 30% by 2022. SAP's Autism at Work program offers six weeks of pre-employment training to individuals on the autism spectrum; in 2019 the program made the most number of hires from the training group in a single year, bringing SAP's global workforce of employees with autism to more than 175 workers.

Progress elsewhere has been slower, however.

According to the most recent data provided by the company in 2016, among 19,700 U.S. workers, 68% of SAP employees are White, 23% are Asian, 4% are Hispanic or Latino, and just 3% are Black. Less than 1% of employees are American Indian, Pacific Islander, or two or more races, respectively.

With renewed attention on the dismal representation of Black employees in many industries, especially in technology, SAP announced in June a goal to double its representation of Black workers, from 3% to 6%, in the next three years.

"We're on par with tech industry," Williams says. "We're certainly not a leader yet, but our hope is to drive a pathway" for more equal representation.

Doubling Black representation at SAP in the next three years is part of a larger company goal: to make sure the workforce race and ethnicity makeup is representative of the United States, based on 2010 Census data, by the year 2030.

According to 2010 Census data, 60% of Americans are White, 19% are Hispanic or Latino, 13% are Black and 6% are Asian.

Little has changed in an industry notorious for its lack of diversity

The tech industry is notorious for its lack of representation among women, Black and Latino workers despite public calls for change for many years now. According to CNBC reporting, six years after many major tech companies began publishing annual diversity reports, few have moved the needle in improving representation of Black workers.

In 2018, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter reported shares of Black employees in the low single digits. Apple's workforce is 9% Black — but that drops to 3% when looking at leadership roles. 

Noting SAP's target to have a nationally representative workforce in the next 10 years, "it's a big goal for us," Williams says. "We've not grown at that rate historically, so we're going to have to really shift our focus in our talent attraction strategy to make sure we're sourcing differently."

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Some of the biggest changes will come from hiring and building a more inclusive culture, she says: "You have to identify talent and have an employment value proposition such that talent from diverse backgrounds want to work with your organization. You have to have inclusive policies and a reputation that embraces difference."

Competing for diverse tech talent in a tight candidate pool can be difficult, Williams says, because unlike buzzy tech companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft or Facebook, SAP isn't a large consumer-facing brand.

But one initiative Williams will turn her focus to is SAP's Project Propel partnership, in which the company teaches its software to undergraduate and MBA students at historically black colleges and universities. The hope is that participating students can use these learned skills to start a career with the company or one of its enterprise partners after graduation.

Williams says discussions are ongoing about how to focus diverse hiring efforts in certain departments or levels of seniority within the organization. She adds that SAP's CEO Christian Klein, whom she currently reports to directly, has tasked managers with determining specific hiring and promotion numbers in order to improve representation across the board.

Using data to lead the way in diversity

As a data-driven leader, Williams doesn't shy away from putting numbers on headcount goals.

"We measure everything," she says. "We measure employee engagement scores, leadership trust scores, the lines of code our software engineers produce. Everything we do in our business has a number attached to it — that's just how business works. If someone said to you, 'this quarter we're going to sell more,' you'd probably fire them, because that's not acceptable. 

"If we want to make change," she continues, "we have to have a target and accountability. If [a goal] is important, we attach a number and a timeline to see if we're making progress on that."

Williams's commitment to stating numbers-driven goals follows years working in the tech industry when, as recently as the early 2010s, she recalls her employers were resistant to share diversity numbers. But even after companies released employment reports and the public called for greater accountability, many organizations responded to calls for more diversity through what Williams calls a programmatic approach.

"If we want to make change, we have to have a target and accountability. If [a goal] is important, we attach a number and a timeline to see if we're making progress on that."
Judith Williams
head of people sustainability and chief D&I officer, SAP

"We often get fixated on: Are you launching an unconscious bias training? Are you launching a mentorship program? Are there employee network groups having events celebrating Black History Month?" Williams says. "And all that stuff brings the attention of workers. But once you have that attention, it's the hard work of having to change culture."

Part of changing the culture will include recognizing that hiring, development and promotion efforts need to remove the barriers that keep underrepresented talent from succeeding with the company. Reports indicate that corporate America's widespread diversity efforts continue to fail Black workers, who face systemic barriers to success whether through microaggressions in the workplace, lack of access to development opportunities or managers who perpetuate affinity bias and maintain predominantly White and male leadership circles.

Williams sees her role in diversity and inclusion as leveling access for underrepresented talent to contribute to the increasingly influential tech industry, reap its lucrative rewards and build products that will drive social equity at large.

"We're building the engine that drives our innovation and the future," she says. "I honestly believe brilliance is equally distributed among populations, but opportunity is not. And my job is to distribute that opportunity. I categorically reject the idea that if we hire more women or people of color, we're in any way compromising our search for brilliance."

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