Influential Women Making the Case for D&I

Highlights from the 2018 Women in HR Technology Summit.
By: | September 12, 2018 • 5 min read

Airbags were invented in the 1950s, were standard in most cars by 1988 and became a mandatory safety feature in 1998. Around this time, however, there were more and more reported car-accident deaths—not from the accident itself, but from the deployed airbags. Imagine that, said Rita Mitjans chief diversity officer at ADP: a safety feature designed to protect people from dying was causing more deaths. Why was this happening? At the time, engineers designed the airbags to protect a 5-foot-9, 165-pound person—can you guess the demographic makeup of the design team? They were all male. Mitjans says it wasn’t their fault, but rather they had no outside perspective and designed airbags based on versions of themselves. What if there were women on that design team? They could have avoided this mounting issue, she said, by explaining the size differential among men, women and children. Instead, manufacturers paid a steep price for not having diverse perspectives.

Mitjans opened Tuesday’s Women in HR Technology Summit, which brought together some of the most influential female leaders in the industry to offer their insights and lessons learned throughout their careers—especially as women and minorities in a rather homogenously dominated world.

In Mitjans’ opening keynote, “The Business Case for Diversity,” she weaved in personal details about her career journey along with some disappointing statistics on the state of women and minorities in leadership and technology.

She noted that more than half of all college graduates are female, but only 19 percent graduate with an engineering degree and 8 percent with a computer-science degree. These numbers are even lower for women of color (11 percent and less than 10 percent, respectively).

“What we honestly need to do is address this in the elementary- and high-school level. That is where it begins,” said Mitjans. “If young girls aren’t interested in or encouraged to pursue STEM, then there’s no way this pipeline coming out of college will ever change.”

Mitjans added that not only is there a problem with attracting women into STEM, but there’s the challenge of advancing women throughout their careers. According to a McKinsey study, women of color are the least represented among C-suite leaders when compared to white men, white women and men of color. The data show that 36 percent of white men begin their careers in entry-level positions and go on to hold 67 percent of all C-suite jobs. Those numbers stand at 31 percent and 18 percent for white women, 16 percent and 12 percent for men of color, and 17 percent and 3 percent for women of color.

Mitjans pointed out that, in 1990, women held 32 percent of computer jobs; in 2016, that number dropped to 25 percent. She said this is where inclusion comes into play, as it allows diversity to thrive. Research from the Anita Borg Institute revealed that 80 percent of the reasons women left STEM were because of working conditions—from lack of advancement opportunities to feeling isolated and not having career flexibility.

“What does this actually tell us? It tells us that 80 percent of the reasons women leave tech jobs is under our [HR’s] control,” Mitjans said. “It’s about creating a better environment and culture, which everyone in this room has control over.”

Mitjans cautioned, however, that diversity and inclusion cannot be just an HR initiative … because it will fail.

“The only way to drive it [D&I] in your organization is to get the business on board,” she said. “Leaders must be sensitized and understand why it’s important and what’s in it for them. D&I must become part of your standard operating practice.”

To effectively implement real change, HR must look for ways to get women in front of senior leaders to showcase their expertise and give them a time to shine. Mitjans suggested putting women in charge of presentations, projects or even speaking at conferences to increase their visibility—because the only way promotions happen is when women are visible to decision-makers.

Following Mitjans’ presentation, there were six breakout sessions that focused on issues such as how HR can help women climb the leadership ladder and how to use analytics to drive gender equality, as well as pay equity, blockchain and more. Each session was designed as a panel where key female business leaders shared their expertise, lessons learned and advice for building up other women in a Q&A format.

The summit wrapped up with a closing keynote from Jenny Dearborn, executive vice president of human resources and global head of talent, leadership and learning at SAP. In her closing presentation, “Evidence-Based HR: How Data Will Shape the Future of the Workplace,” Dearborn explained how HR needs to embrace big data and analytics to drive real change in an organization.

Jenny Dearborn presenting at the Women in HR Tech Summit.

Dearborn noted that anything that can be automated will be automated, which puts 83 percent of jobs that pay less than $20 an hour at risk for automation by 2030. She says that it’s HR’s responsibility as the moral compass of an organization to look out for internal and prospective employees. This requires HR to tackle the enormous task of bridging the skills gap, which will continue to widen without any intervention.

What HR and other business leaders should focus on is how to nurture skills that are innately human—ones that can’t be automated. The World Economic Forum created a list of 16 of these skills, which include critical thinking/problem solving, creativity, collaboration, curiosity, adaptability, social and cultural awareness, persistence, and more.

“We must make sure we hire the candidates that are aligned to these skills,” said Dearborn. “We need to shape job descriptions and training to ensure they’re aligned to these skills.”

And the only way to accomplish this is with data and analytics, she said. HR has to start thinking about the “entire chain value” of its function, which is to solve business problems. Dearborn says the seat at the strategic table will only open up when HR owns the business problem—HR is perfectly positioned to do just that because it delivers the people who help an organization function.

“HR has a huge fulcrum that we can leverage and can make more of an impact on social and other issues than any other function within a company,” said Dearborn. “When it is done right, HR is a coach and advisor for all other parts of an organization.”

To drive this change requires HR to focus on collecting the right data, disseminating the information and learning from it to put the right people in the right positions.

“In HR, we are the conscience and we are the moral guide for our corporations, but we need to be more impactful,” said Dearborn. “Focus on the business outcomes, become data-savvy, align with the strategic business objectives and speak the language of the business. All of that will give you access to drive real change and enjoy the rewards of a meaningful career in HR.”

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]

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