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INTERVIEW: Cathy Smith on gender equality in the workplace

September 10, 2019 • Features, People, Southern Africa, Top Stories

Customer success a huge focus for SAP’s Intelligent Enterprise strategy

Cathy Smith, Managing Director of SAP Africa.

On 27 August 2019 SAP Next-Gen, a program created by multi-national software company SAP to connect companies and develop innovative solutions and drive change that is linked to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), held an event titled “The Power of Us.”

The event discussed various possibilities and ideas, through avenues like gender equality and effective leadership, that can facilitate change in many businesses. The event was hosted by Cathy Smith, MD, SAP Africa, and Steve Tzikakis, President, SAP EMEA South. IT News Africa’s Kojo Essah was in attendance and was able to chat with Cathy Smith about her work experiences and the issue of gender inequality in the workplace.

You were appointed as MD of SAP Africa in 2017. What has the experience working there been like so far?

In 2017, I was appointed as SAP’s first female leader in Africa. My priority is to create a culture of leadership, high performance and accountability. By putting our customer at the centre of everything we do, the priority is to generate customer value and be a partner on their digital journey. I have really enjoyed my experience at SAP to date. It has been extremely challenging but also rewarding and I think what sets SAP apart from other multinationals is that it is a very social and connected company. SAP truly values building communities and I have enjoyed that aspect

During my time at SAP, a big moment for me was speaking at Africa Code Week – this takes me back to my roots of coding. It is extremely fulfilling and rewarding to support and drive the enablement of coding among youth to develop our future leaders. What inspires me most of all in my career is the ability to understand customers, identifying their problems and challenges, and solving them with solutions that our teams develop. That gives me a buzz.

In addition to my role and responsibilities, SAP Africa provides an amazing opportunity to work for a global organisation that is committed to empowering women in leadership and is dedicated to furthering Africa’s employment equity and transformation agenda through the realization of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

You were also the MD for Cisco Sub Saharan-Africa and spent 23 years at IBM in various positions. How have those experiences/jobs influenced your current role as MD for SAP Africa?

Correct, it all started 23 years ago when my career commenced at IBM. I moved to Cisco where I was appointed as Managing Director for Sub-Saharan Africa with the task of leading the development and execution of the company’s go-to-market sales and digital transformation strategies for the region.
At the launch ceremony of Africa Code Week in Johannesburg last year, I reminded the audience of how digital skills forged more than my career, it impacted my very character. I started my career as a Software Developer. Thirty years later, I can tell you it wasn’t just about technology: coding taught me how to think logically, how to test my thinking, how to listen, how to be creative, how to be resilient. All of these traits are key to being an effective and inspiring leader.

Comparing your experiences in the workplace now versus 20 years ago, what trends have you noticed regarding gender equality/inequality in the ICT industry?

I think the challenge in the ICT industry is that the prevailing narrative can be very off-putting to women and they often forego a career in tech because of it. ICT is seen as a tough, highly competitive and complex industry. All of those things are true, but that’s not the whole picture. There is a real need for qualities like creativity, empathy, listening in this industry. The narrative is slowly shifting but we must be deliberate to attract much more female talent into [the] space.

On [a] broader level, women everywhere are making auspicious moves in the workplace. They are taking more risks and preparing themselves to take on more challenging roles. One of the greatest obstacles’ women face is staying in the C-suite. By default, if they can get there they need to stay there, and then reach back and inspire other women to follow suit. Surprisingly, one of the key challenges I have seen over the years is in a lack of support between women. My advice is that we need to support and empower each other, laying the foundation for our progress through our work.

SAP Next-Gen hosted the event “The Power of Us” in August. What was the inspiration behind creating this event and how were the speakers selected?

At SAP we are very fortunate to have amazing, engaged employees who participate actively in the business. One of the biggest global employee network groups is the Business Women’s Network (BWN), which has 63 chapters globally, representing over 13,000 employees, and is SAP’s biggest employee network group.
BWN made up of volunteers who work together to help women advance their careers by driving and expanding women’s leadership skills, career development opportunities, and business acumen. They also give an authentic ‘voice’ back to the business on how we’re doing in our drive to increase diversity and inclusion in our ranks, and articulate issues that are important to our female employees – this ranges from issues like parity in pay to inclusive maternity and paternity benefits, and many more.

In Africa, we have a very active chapter, who network across the business to connect with allies and promote women in the workplace. This event was a collaboration between the BWN and the Next-Gen team, showcasing the fact that we as women in the workplace, can connect, grow and lead by networking. When we work together, we can help each other develop skills and career-advancing opportunities, and all of this helps drive SAP’s success. That’s why the event was called “The Power of Us” – because we as women are not alone. We are surrounded by other women and by our male allies, and also by equal advocates in our partner and customer ecosystem, who have the same values and goals as we do. When we work together, we can learn from what’s worked in other work environments, we can share professional insights, best practices, education and experience, and in the end, all of that translates to a more empowered and more diverse workforce. The event was representative of the “Power of Us”, so, for example, we had a male guest speaker (EMEA South COO Manos Raptopoulos) and our panel discussion was manned (excuse the pun) with female role models from SAP, our partners and customers.

In your opinion, what steps can companies take to make their businesses more equal in terms of pay and employees with regards to gender?

What I have witnessed over the years is that a rich mix of gender perspectives helps drive innovation and enables us to better serve customers.
Achieving our goal of 25 per cent of women in leadership in 2017, SAP is now committed to an increase of 1 per cent each year to 30 per cent of women in leadership by the end of 2022. It is not for me to say what companies should be doing, but what I can tell you great examples that work for SAP, including:
Our award-winning Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program (LEAP) for women is one of the most innovative leadership development programs in the industry. The Women’s Professional Growth Webcast Series reaches thousands of colleagues and customers (women and men) each year, and our Activating Men for Parity program enables genders to collaborate more effectively.

Edge Certification: SAP is the first multinational technology company to be awarded the Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certificate for our global commitment to workplace gender equality. We aim to lead the tech industry in opportunities for women and support STEM-related initiatives including the European Centre for Women and Technology, Girls Who Code, Girl Smarts, and TechGirlz.
In addition to the above, last year SAP announced that it will have achieved pay equality worldwide. This is done by using a statistical analysis, where SAP was able to determine that 99 per cent of employees worldwide were paid equitably. The remaining one per cent of the workforce that showed a discrepancy was granted a salary increase, which took effect on October 2018.

What was the feedback like regarding “The Power of Us,” and are there any plans to hold similar events in the future?

This is where it gets exciting and the concept of the Power of Us comes to life. We had guests from across our customer base and partner ecosystem, including Google, OpenText, Accenture, and many more, and their feedback was incredibly positive. We’ve had offers to participate in future panels, as well as enquiries as to how we can work together in future to open-up more discussion, share best practices, and encourage mentorship and opportunity across the ecosystem.

Some of the feedback included:

  • “Great event highlighting the challenges we as women experience on a daily basis.  I loved the Panel discussion, as I could resonate with many of the discussion points”
  • “Thank you, SAP, for inviting me to a great discussion.  Hearing from our peers within the industry motivates me to keep pushing”
  • “I loved the keynote talk. The openness of the shared experience was inspiring”

Based on the success of the event and the generosity of our partners, we’re looking to open the doors and kickstart a series of collaborative events where we can build on this goodwill and connect women with fellow female career professionals and allies. Imagine a forum where we can learn from the diversity advances being made by others, encourage mentorship and reshape the corporate life mould. It’s going to be exciting, so watch this space.

By Kojo Essah

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