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"When are you going to start working normal hours?" One of the leaders at SAPPHIRE NOW's roundtable discussion on gender diversity was asked this question once by her mentor. She had small children, and worked around their waking hours.

"What's normal?" she asked. "If normal means 8 - 8, then I am never going to work those hours," she told him.

This simple challenge of juggling the schedules of small children with the preconceived notions a bonafide professional's working hours is still a big issue for working mothers.

Hosted by Anka Wittenberg, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SAP, the roundtable explored critical issues associated with the future of women in technology, including talent shortages; the competitive advantages of gender diverse leadership; and using gender intelligence to drive innovation. Participants included senior executives such as Neerja Aurora, (Accenture), Veronica Elizondo, (Sigma Alimentos), Robin Keller (GE), Greta Roberts (Talent Analytics), Claudia Barrera (Colgate-Palmolive), and David Swanson (SAP).

But first, some stats:

  • 70% of CEOs say innovation is a top priority.
  • Since the 1980s, women have held 50% of all middle management positions in the United States. Yet, over the past 50 years, women advancing to senior management has remained low.
  • Women in Technology found that technology is the #1 industry where women with degrees are leaving, and they are leaving primarily between the ages of 34 - 40.

David argues that teaching men to be more aware is an essential element to nurturning women in the workplace. As an HR business partner to senior executives, he says he hears remarks such as: "Can she travel? She has kids." Or "Is she ready to step up?"

The participants at the roundtable did however present a number of solutions to helping women continue to move up the ladder. Colgate offers "speed networking" seminars in which participants learn to use a five minute window to interview a leader or to practice a speech. "It helps with confidence," said the Colgate representative. "We do a good job to nurture women but need to trigger that desire to grow," she added.

GE offers a two week camp for young girls in partnership with universities like MIT and Carnegie Mellon to trigger the interest in sciences. They also invite engineering students to their locations as part of their recruitment efforts.

Another very promising model is to assign sponsors to women along their career paths. This approach takes courage and trust because the sponsor is held accountable for the success and promotions of the individual they are sponsoring - not everyone's idea of responsible risk-taking.

In the end, Veronica Elizondo suggested "we have to change the face of what success looks like." They agreed there should be multiple faces, all equally valued by the enterprise.

In this video interview, Anka discusses yet another approach to innovation - the inclusion of autists in the workforce - that she is introducing at SAP.

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