Olympics Highlights Business Challenge SAP Aims to Fix

The media's displays of misogyny during the Rio Games highlights a business challenge that SAP says technology can help humans to address.

hiring diversity, SAP SuccessFactors

"People are human," said Patricia Fletcher, Solution Management with SAP SucessFactors, suggesting that in business, as in life, mistakes—sexist remarks, biased decisions—will be made.

Such humanity has repeatedly been on display at the 2016 Rio Games. Viewers took to social media to call out an NBC sportscaster who remarked, after swimmer Katinka Hosszu set a world record in the 400-meter individual relay and the camera panned up to her husband and coach, "And there's the man responsible."

They also called out the Chicago Tribune, which tweeted a photo of three-time Olympian Corey Cogdell holding up her newest bronze metal, but instead of writing her name called her "the wife of a Chicago Bears lineman."

After a commentator covering the U.S. women's gymnastics team—the best gymnastics team in the world, by the largest margin since the open-ended scoring system was implemented—remarked that the women looked like they "might as well be standing in the middle of a mall," the Minnesota Star Tribune asked in a headline: "Have the media earned an Olympic gold medal in misogyny?"

In business, too, remarks get made that are regretted—or at least regrettable. But even more subtle can be gender-biased language in a job description, for example, or a subconsciously biased decision to promote one person over another, or to compensate a person in a way that's actually personal, rather than merit-based.

"What if those folks had a mirror held up to them, so they could see what they're saying?" asked Fletcher, offering an analogy for what SAP now does for business professionals. "This is where we're investing, from a product perspective."

SAP's Success Factors Suite integrates into its HANA platform and uses technologies, such as machine learning and text mining, to help users perform tasks—from hiring to performance evaluations in ways that are more data-based (and bias-free).

The software can also do things like review the text of a job description and highlight words or phrases that its author might consider changing—words that, whether in a conscious way or not, signal that the writer of the ad imagines a man or a woman performing the job.

"Words matter. And names matter," said Fletcher. "And they trigger bias."

She offered the tidbit: There are more men named John who are CEOs of S&P 1500 companies than there are all women CEOs combined. Ditto for the name David.

"You can't say you're harnessing all the good talent, when those biases are in place," said Fletcher. And while lots of companies are talking the talk, and putting equality-supporting rules in place, "You can't have rules without tools," added Fletcher, explaining that good intentions are great, but it's now necessary to let technology help us in areas where our very human-ness holds us back.

"There's no smoking gun, no one big thing," Fletcher offered, "but there is an understanding that there are things we can do today within our analytics solution."

While shy to tell all, Fletcher said that at an upcoming event, SAP will share a research-based ebook on the topic that will help companies reconsider, and use technology for, everything from job descriptions and on-boarding to compensation and promotion. It will also address mentoring, which she describes as critical for women at the middle-management level, which is "where the glass ceiling begins."

Fletcher said SAP is working with a customer advisory group, from a product perspective, and considering where biases occur, segmenting by generation, gender and nationality, but starting with gender since "it's a global challenge."

Plus, there are strong economic arguments behind it. Among them: If women were paid equally to their male counterparts, Fletcher noted, it would add $12 trillion to the global economy, which is more than the GDPs of Britain, Germany and Japan combined.

"It's a global issue," said Fletcher, adding that it's not an easy one. "It's words; it's contents. And it's about how do we change things in a way that doesn't hurt one group in order to help another?"

She added, "It's very exciting to see [gender equality] go beyond being a philanthropic topic to a business strategy."