Empowering Women to Succeed through their Life’s Journey: Exclusive Q&A with Darren Rushworth at SAP Singapore

December 30, 20168:36 am1242 views

While some women stand nose pressed against the glass ceiling, many working mothers never get near it. Most women take career break to handle family responsibilities, they choose to either “lean in” or “opt out” after having children, while some women manage to do both.

Coming back from maternity leave is an extra stressful time for working moms. This is where SAP’s Back-to-Work initiative and many other women leadership development programs help overcome societal barriers, remove mental blocks and face challenges head on with positivity.

Darren Rushworth, Managing Director at SAP Singapore spills the beans during an exclusive Q&A with HR in Asia on the inner workings at SAP Asia Pacific to bring talented women back into the workforce after their maternity break, and empower them to assume leadership positions in their career through constant training and mentorship.

  • On the lines of the recent launch of the Back-to-Work initiative by SAP Singapore, what are the typical challenges women in Singapore face, when planning return to work after a career break?

While some women stand nose pressed against the glass ceiling, many working mothers never get near it. The recent Women in Leadership in Asia Pacific report by Willis Towers Watson revealed that almost one in four women take a career break for family reasons, compared to only one in 10 men surveyed.

Asian women who took career breaks to devote more energy to “Tiger Mum” tasks often face the “maternal wall” – the career barrier that makes it hard for them to return to work and/or achieve leadership positions. Career breaks are a fantastic tool to allow workers, both men and women, to take time out of the office for family, children, study, travel or a whole host of other reasons, but represent an advance into the unknown for many women.

Darren Rushworth, Managing Director at SAP Singapore

Darren Rushworth, Managing Director at SAP Singapore

Yet, women who have been very successful may suddenly find their proficiency questioned once they become pregnant, take maternity leave, or adopt flexible work schedules. Head hunters and HR executives often assume the worst of these women – that they are out of touch, their skills are no longer relevant and they are too old to learn.

Beyond the typical family responsibilities, another common societal pressure is the lack of confidence, primarily by women themselves. Everyone has probably heard of the following statistics where men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

This is mirrored by a KPMG Women’s Leadership Studythat found that 73% of women lack the confidence to pursue a job opportunity beyond their experience. This reinforces limitations and constricts both individual ambitions and the talent pipeline of women.

SAP hopes that through the introduction of our “Back-to-Work” program for mothers and returning women to the workforce, it will be an easier transition for them to bring them back into the working life, thus building their self-esteem and motivation.

  • How does SAP Singapore support and guide women through the period of transition to help maintain work-life balance, especially when returning to work after maternity leaves?

It’s a modern myth that professional women either “lean in” or “opt out” after having children, but, in fact, many women do both. Coming back from maternity leave is an extra stressful time for working moms, and companies ought to have initiatives geared toward supporting new moms in the workplace.

As an additional supporting measure, SAPintroduced a “4-Week Phased Integration Back-to-Work” initiative to support permanent female SAP employees post-maternity leave to slowly transition back to work over the course of 4 weeks with fully paid salary. This innovative programme allows them to work 1 day during the first week back to work, 2 days on the second week and so on.  Fathers will also get their paternity leave increased to 3 weeks.

While it is essential to create a women-friendly workplace, it is equally important to look beyond “mommy-policies”. Focusing purely on maternity leave and mom-specific perks alone promotes the idea that women are exclusively responsible for childcare. At SAP, what worked best is to think of strong family – not just “maternity” – policies.

The Back-to-Work initiative was therefore followed closely on a recent announcement on enhanced benefits for parents in the SAP workforce. Mothers will now enjoy a minimum of 120 days of maternity leave, expanded from the current average of 86 days, and fathers will get their paternity leave increased to 3 weeks.  Permanent male and female staff can also apply for shorter working hours of between 20 to 40 hours per week to accommodate childcare needs.

We believe these additional enhanced benefits are characteristic of a winning team and organization, where family commitments are recognised and supported, and which will eventually enable greater focus on their work commitments as well.

  • How is SAP encouraging and promoting more women workforce in technology and grooming them through training programs to assume senior leadership roles?

The tech industry has long been notorious for its less than stellar record on gender equality and there remains much work left ahead of us on these important issues. Here at SAP, we exercise our duty of care for women in technology and leadership through four various elements – hiring, training, policies and programs.

In terms of hiring, we have mandated an equally distributed hiring shortlist (of 50% women and 50% men), which has proven to be a challenge in some geographies. We target our recruiters to ensure minimum 2 female candidates on shortlists.

On the training front, there is a monthly webinar – Women’s Professional Growth Series by SAP senior women leaders that reaches thousands of women annually. We also have a “Men Advocating Real Change” (MARC) program that enables genders to collaborate more effectively.

Policies include the Back-to-Work programme and enhanced parental benefits for both genders mentioned earlier.

SAP has also one of the most unique and innovative leadership development programs in the industry, LEAP – Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program, a year-long targeted development journey, focused on women who have the potential and desire to rise into people management positions.

Apart from these, there is also the Business Women’s Network, an employee-driven network that provides opportunities for women to share insights, support other women, and influence SAP on diversity topics.sap-training-and-development

Expanding our already prolific programme to promote diversity in the workforce, we are also launching the Professional Mentorship Programme in Singapore, targeting female undergraduates. Under the year-long mentoring programme, successful women leaders from SAP will share their industry knowledge and professional insight, advice and support on career direction, for the under graduates transitioning from university to the workforce.

The programme is spearheaded by the Singapore Chapter of SAP’s Business Women Network, an SAP-wide employee-driven network that provides opportunities for women to share their professional insight, support other women, and influence SAP on diversity issues.

See: SAP Opens Up Avenues for Women to Connect Back to Work after Career Break

  • What is the current workforce representation of women in senior leadership roles, boardrooms and technology leadership at SAP Singapore?

While women hold 21% of senior management roles in Singapore corporations, a statistic which is at par with the international average, women only take up 9% of board seats in Singapore. Here at SAP, close to 30% of our leaders are women.

A recent finding by the Singapore Diversity Action Committee showed that SGX-listed firms saw an improvement in women’s representation on boards, but only minor changes were noted across industries. For instance, women directors in consumer-oriented industries made up less than the market average of 9.5 per cent.

This aligns with the Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob’s comment during a recent event that progress in board diversity has shown “promising signs” over the years but the pace of progress needs to be bigger and faster.

Globally, SAP made a commitment to achieve workforce strength with 25% women in management roles by the end of 2017. In Singapore, our efforts have been met with great success: 42% of our employees and close to 30% of our leaders are women.

SAP was also the first multinational technology company to be awarded the worldwide Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certificate by World Economic Forum. The certification is designed to help organisations to not only create an optimal workplace for women and men but also benefit from it, validates SAP’s corporate commitment to gender equality.

  • What are the policies and practices followed at SAP, to bridge the gender pay gap and bring about more parity and inclusivity in culture?

SAP is committed to having 25% women in leadership by 2017 globally, a goal that has been achieved here in Singapore. SAP is also implementing concrete initiatives such as increasing the percentage of female recruits in its pipeline, recognising women with management potential and ensuring that they receive appropriate support such as mentoring programs and increasing employee and manager awareness programs on the importance of diversity for SAP’s long-term success.

Besides those shared above, other gender training includes Women and Men Leadership Training, which takes the “defensiveness” out of the discussion and focuses on the scientific difference between men and women.

In line with our standing as an employer of choice and a Great Place to Work, we have also formed an Asia Pacific Japan Diversity and Inclusion Council to ensure an oversight on our policies and programs, where the Council deliberates and reviews existing policies and enacts new ones that support gender diversity and gender equality. At SAP, staff is measured solely on merit and work achievements, and this is irrespective of gender, race, etc.

  • Are there any steps taken by SAP to change the common perception about women, who take a break (other than maternity leave for personal reasons) help them stay in touch with their subject, sharpen their skills and to allow future opportunities to help them return back to work after say, a two year period?

A key practice here at SAP is to shift away from the conventional mindset of noticing their absence from the market place. Instead, we focus on the skills and strengths these women offer because of their prior experience. We realised that this is effective in boosting their self-confidence, which is important in elevating their career development.

To share an example, we have Pauline Loftus-Hills, Project Director of One Billion Lives SAP Asia Pacific and Japan, who is the first professional employed under the Back-to-Work programme. She believes that the opportunities to be employed under SAP’s Back-to-Work programme have bridged her career gap as well as turned her into a role model to pave the way for other women who are embarking on a similar journey.

Beyond eliminating a common obstacle faced by many women, through ensuring that our recruiters modify their perceptions and minimise potential biases, we also offer online learning platforms and vocational programs that enhance their competency and keep their professional knowledge up to date.

  • Corporate or societal perception, reluctant unsupportive bosses, glass ceiling or the maternal wall or reluctance within to get back to work – which among these is a major barrier in Singapore nationwide when it comes to women progress and development in Asia Pacific?

The recent Women in Leadership in Asia-Pacific study conducted by Willis Towers Watson found that over 63% of the Singaporean respondents hold a strong perception of the glass ceiling that hinders women from climbing the corporate ladder. This is significantly higher than other markets in the Asia Pacific Region, where less than half of China-based respondents (46%), for instance, believe in glass ceiling, followed by Kuala Lumpur (45%) and Hong Kong (36%).

The study revealed that women’s advancement in the workplace is most significantly determined by the attitude of senior leaders and the ensuing leadership culture. Across the region, 55% of respondents (and 74% in Singapore) said they believe the availability of sponsors or mentors is a key driver of successful advancement.

The report further cites that the lack of work-life balance and lack of flexibility were the highest reasons for female mid-level drain, at 83% and 75% respectively.  On the other hand, the top factors inhibiting women from achieving leadership positions are lack of confidence (56%) and exclusion from power circles (44%).

Some might argue it ultimately lies in the different appetite for competition, but the factors involved are not mutually exclusive. The workplace environment must provide extrinsic incentives, while women must be intrinsically stimulated for gender parity to be achieved.

  • How do you think women’s approaches towards looking at problems and solutions, can help companies make more balanced decisions in business?

Any company — or, more boldly, country — that dramatically improves its diversity will have enormous competitive advantage. At SAP, we believe that overall diversity – including gender diversity – in the workplace promotes innovation, more “out-of-the-box” thinking and improved collaboration.

We believe that diversity leverages the unique experiences and perspectives of all employees, allowing us to look at problems from multiple angles. Studies have found that when more women sit at the decision making tables, better decisions are made and everyone is left better off.

According to a report by McKinsey, companies with top-quartile representation of women in executive committees perform significantly better (+47% average return on equity) than companies with no women at the top.

Increasing the female representation in the workplace goes beyond organisational impact. The lack of gender diversity is impacting economies. In fact, a UN Women report states that limits on women’s participation in the workforce across the Asia-Pacific region costs the economy an estimated US $89 billion every year.

  • What are the must-have qualities that make for great women leaders?

The pace of change in the digital age is such that entire industries and value chains are being disrupted overnight. Being a leader during the fourth industrial revolution, means being curious and open to new ideas. These, I believe, will be the qualities that will define great leaders in the digital age. There is no escape, you either disrupt or be disrupted. In such an environment, the greater diversity of people, cultures and experiences you expose yourself to, the more innovative your plans and execution will be.

International Women's Day 2016 at SAP Singapore

International Women’s Day 2016 at SAP Singapore

At the same time, great leaders should also be open to lifelong learning – even from his/her juniors. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that mentorship is a one-way street, where seniors share their experiences and learning with the juniors. More importantly, we should constantly be asking ourselves ‘What don’t I know?’

At SAP we embrace a concept called “reverse mentoring” — pairing older workers with younger ones to educate one another on how business works and new ways of thinking can improve them. It is such humility that will take one far ahead in his/her career. These are all qualities of a great leader, which apply to both men and women alike.

  • What are the company’s expansion plans and any recruitment targets, if set to hire more women into the workforce at SAP Singapore?

We are constantly on the look-out for talent and are starting with three open positions in Singapore for now in our ‘Back-to-Work’ programme and will definitely be exploring more opportunities in the future. In addition to that, we are also hiring for our other open positions at SAP Singapore.

Also read: SAP Invests €800,000 to Improve One Billion Lives in Asia Pacific Japan by 2020

Content rights: This exclusive interview coverage and content is produced by HR in Asia. Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in this interview is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or commercially exploit the content. 

Feature Image credit: sap.com

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